OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board on Monday recommended the governor commute the death sentence of Julius Jones, who has maintained his innocence in a 1999 killing that has garnered national attention.
The five-member board voted 3-1 to recommend Jones’ sentence be commuted to life in prison after board member Scott Williams recused himself because of a professional relationship he had with one of the attorneys who spoke on Jones’ behalf. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt ultimately will decide the fate of Jones, who claims he was framed for the 1999 shooting death of Edmond businessman Paul Howell.
“Personally, I believe in death penalty cases there should be no doubts. And put simply, I have doubts about this case,” said Chairman Adam Luck, one of Stitt’s appointees on the board who voted to commute Jones’ sentence.
Monday’s vote came after several hours of testimony from members of Howell’s family, prosecutors who tried the case, and attorneys and supporters of Jones.
Kelly Doyle, another Stitt appointee who voted in favor of commuting Jones’ sentence, said she agreed with Luck and noted there were mitigating factors she considered, including the fact that Jones, now 41, was 19 when Howell was killed during a carjacking.
Former District Attorney Richard Smothermon, who was appointed to the board by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, cast the lone no vote.
Stitt spokeswoman Carly Atchison said the governor plans to review the board’s recommendation carefully.
“The governor takes his role in this process seriously and will carefully consider the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation as he does in all cases,” Atchison said in a statement. “We will not have any further comment until the governor has made a decision.”
The board’s vote does not ensure Jones’ sentence will be commuted. Stitt’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, rejected three separate recommendations for clemency for death row inmates from the board. The last time a governor granted clemency to a death row inmate was Democrat Brad Henry in 2010.
Jones’ case drew widespread attention after it was profiled in “The Last Defense,” a three-episode documentary produced by actress Viola Davis that aired on ABC in 2018. Since then, reality television star Kim Kardashian West and athletes with Oklahoma ties, including NBA stars Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Trae Young, have urged Stitt to commute Jones’ death sentence and spare his life.
Jones alleges he was framed by the actual killer, a high school friend and former co-defendant who was a key witness against him. But Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and the state’s former attorney general, Mike Hunter, have said the evidence against Jones is overwhelming.
Information from trial transcripts shows that witnesses identified Jones as the shooter and placed him with Howell’s stolen vehicle. Investigators also found the murder weapon and a bandana with Jones’ DNA in an attic space above his bedroom. Jones claimed in his commutation filing that the gun and bandana were planted there by the actual killer.
Howell’s sister and two young daughters — one of whom testified Monday — were in Howell’s SUV when the carjacking happened in his parents’ driveway in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond.
“I was there when my brother Paul Howell was murdered,” Howell’s sister, Megan Tobey, told the board. “I know beyond a doubt that Julius Jones murdered my brother.”
Tobey said the killer also ran over Howell, crushing his legs, as he sped away.
“My parents never got over the death of their youngest son,” Tobey said. “They never got closure and they were never truly happy again.”
The new federal vaccine requirement announced by President Joe Biden has created mixed reactions among some area business stakeholders, many of whom are not happy about it.
Biden on Thursday introduced an aggressive plan to address the ongoing pandemic amid the rapid spread of COVID-19’s delta variant that includes requiring companies with 100 or more employees to mandate that workers get vaccinated or be tested weekly for COVID.
The move comes as the U.S. is averaging more than 147,000 daily infections and 1,579 deaths per day over the past seven days. In that same span, an average of 100,000 people in the U.S. are in a hospital being treated for the disease. In Oklahoma, 27,332 documented COVID-19 cases are currently active.
Though the order attempts to protect workers and the public from risk of infection and hospitalization, business owners such as electrical contractor Matt Miller suggested the sudden change would constrain operations.
“Most of my guys don’t believe in the vaccine,” said Miller, who owns Tulsa-based Miller’s Superior Electric. “And they’re telling me if I force them to get the vaccine, they’re going to quit.
“We’re having a hard time finding employees right now all over the state and all over the country. That is going to make it extremely difficult on us.”
Miller, who was hospitalized with a severe COVID-19 infection last fall that “just about killed me,” said the near-death experience did not alter his strong convictions that vaccinations should be a personal choice.
“I live in a free society, and it’s my decision on what I should do,” he said. “I don’t understand why they are pushing the vaccine.”
Some economists believe a vaccination mandate could go a long way in boosting the economy by encouraging consumer confidence after a notable drop in retail sales and heightened stock market volatility amid a record uptick in virus spread.
Mark Snead, president and economist at Oklahoma City-based RegionTrack, told the Tulsa World that nothing can be determined until companies actually incorporate the policies to detect what impact they have.
“We’re waiting to see what happens and what is actually implemented,” said Snead, who explained that the policies might be held up at first if businesses and states decide to pursue legal challenges. “Normally we have a lot to say about everything, but in this case, we’re waiting.”
Under Biden’s order, the millions who work as employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government won’t have the option to get tested instead of taking the vaccine. The order also requires large companies to provide paid time off for vaccination.
The owner of a Tulsa renewable energy company who would identify himself only as Jacob explained that the federal mandate would “permanently disrupt my business and take food out of the mouth of my child” due to concerns over the potential loss of man hours and costs to provide testing.
“I do not appreciate this,” he said about the guidance. “I do not trust the vaccine. It has not been out long enough, and it only recently got (FDA) approval. I am not about to force my employees to be subjected to that. Everyone can make their own decisions as they see fit.”
Bobby Stem, executive director of Oklahoma Association of General Contractors, said the organization “has grave concerns” over Biden’s executive order.
In a lengthy and strong statement, Stem argued that highway construction in Oklahoma would be affected as the order would disrupt completion of infrastructure projects and distress the already-compromised supply chain.
“Yes, we do, and need to, take the new COVID variant very seriously,” said Stem. “However, a blanket mandate on companies with more than 100 workers who do highway construction is grossly unreasonable and not a fit for every workplace.
“This only adds to the distress of road and bridge builders having enough employees on hand to complete essential construction projects vital to our safety and the nation’s supply chain.”
But many companies were already moving toward mandates or at least had strongly encouraged employees to get vaccinated and test when necessary.
The Cherokee Nation, which employs several thousand people, is one of them. The tribe offered a $300 COVID-19 vaccination incentive to workers through an executive order signed by Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. in May.
“I think at the end of the day this is about protecting our community and our employees,” said Brandon Scott, director of communications at Cherokee Nation Businesses.
QuikTrip, which has about 2,000 employees in Oklahoma, said through a spokesperson that it was awaiting direction from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration before determining its next steps.
Featured video: “Go get your shots.” Unvaccinated COVID patient talks about his illness
COVID-19 is backing up more than hospital beds.
Therapists have backlogs, too, as people try to cope with the disease’s mental health manifestations or trauma inflicted by the pandemic from loss or quarantine.
Dr. Scott Moseman, a psychiatrist at Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital, said it’s not unusual for top therapists in Tulsa to have waiting lists. Now those waits are two to three times longer, he said.
“For people in crisis (this) creates more difficulty when they’re unable to get the help that they need,” Moseman said.
Moseman was a guest speaker Monday during Saint Francis Health Care System’s weekly COVID-19 media briefing. Moseman and Dr. Ondria Gleason, an OU-Tulsa psychiatrist, discussed how COVID can have mental health ramifications for patients in its acute and long-term phases, as well for people who are simply trying to handle living through a global pandemic.
And that pandemic has been particularly awful in Oklahoma during each surge, compared to the nation as a whole.
The state is in the red zone in the four primary metrics tracked by the federal government, with the state ranked third worst for new deaths and fifth worst for COVID hospital admissions, according to the latest data, released Friday.
Oklahoma’s weekly death rate is 6.0 per 100,000 individuals, which is 160% more than the national rate of 2.3. Its weekly COVID hospitalizations per 100 inpatient beds is 19.6, which is 69% higher than the U.S. rate of 11.6.
The state ranks No. 12 and No. 7 in new cases and test positivity, respectively.
Its weekly case rate was 416 per 100,000, which is 44% above the country’s rate of 288. The percentage of tests that were positive is 16.3%, 79% higher than the U.S. rate of 9.1%.
With specific regard to recovery from the disease, Gleason noted that OU-Tulsa most commonly sees individuals with anxiety, delirium or depression.
“Air hunger,” or COVID pneumonia, is one of the most difficult situations to observe in a person with anxiety, she said. They aren’t able to take deep breaths to lower their heart rate and blood pressure.
“These patients suffer kind of from almost a nonstop feeling of suffocation as their lungs are filled and the body’s trying to recover and medications are trying to take effect,” Gleason said. “They’re unable to take a deep breath like we all do periodically throughout the day.”
Delirium is a sudden change in attention or cognition, including disorientation or confusion, she said.
Patients also can develop visual or auditory hallucinations, she said, which can lead to delusion. If a patient is disoriented in the hospital and begins to believe they are at home, then the patient begins to wonder why people are in their room.
“That can cause agitation, and that’s something that we try to address because we don’t want patients to hurt themselves, to get up and fall or hurt somebody else while trying to protect themselves,” Gleason said.
Gleason said depression is especially a concern for COVID patients who have had a long, debilitating bout with the disease, such as weeks on a ventilator.
Patients often lose some physical strength and sometimes might not be able to walk afterward.
“It’s not always in just elderly patients. Sometimes we see this in middle-aged or younger,” Gleason said. “And then when they start coming about and they’re off the ventilator, now they’re having to deal with the fact that, ‘Wow, I’ve got a big disability I need to overcome.’”
Moseman said his practice at Laureate is seeing adolescents and families with incredible stress.
He said grade-school students should be able to do kid things: go to school, sleep, have friends and participate in activities they enjoy. If adults start to notice irritability, lack of enjoyment or declining grades, then they should seek help for their children.
“But even when families are getting help, I’m running into the fact that therapists and doctors are backed up just like ICUs and other kinds of things are,” Moseman said.
He said Laureate receives young patients from across the country for psychological and nutritional rehabilitation in its 15 beds.
It isn’t uncommon for the wait list to be 12 to 15 patients, he said. The list was 28 individuals long in April.
Moseman said the U.S. is in need of 20,000 child psychiatrists but has only 7,000 who are board certified.
“My hope is (that the pandemic) shines a light on things so that we recognize the physical and mental tolls so that we put more time, money and resources into mental health,” Moseman said.
Gleason recommended that individuals not glue themselves to the news 24/7 because it can become distressing to continually absorb issues that one can’t control.
She encouraged people to get outside because movement and exposure to green space do a lot for mental and physical health. People should talk about their feelings with people in their social circles who are supportive, she said, adding that they shouldn’t forget spirituality.
“Addressing physical health, mental health and spiritual issues — they all work together,” Gleason said.
Featured video: People diagnosed with COVID-19 ‘more likely to develop depression and dementia’
Tulsa County has committed $4 million from its $126.5 million American Rescue Plan allocation to the Veterans Affairs hospital under development in downtown Tulsa, the county announced Monday.
Tulsa County said the funds will be spent on project infrastructure.
“Tulsa County is proud to join many public and private partners, including The Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation, to support this expansion and improve health outcomes for our nation’s veterans, as well as those in our community experiencing a mental health crisis,” Tulsa County Commission Chairman Stan Sallee said in a written statement.
“My fellow commissioners and I are working diligently to place ARP funding where it is needed most in our community. This proposed project lifts the standard of care for all Tulsans but specifically improves outcomes for our most at-risk Tulsa County residents,” Sallee said.
The $175 million complex on Houston Avenue between Third and Sixth streets is expected to include a psychiatric facility, a 58-bed medical/surgical hospital in the former Kerr-Edmondson state office buildings, and a new parking garage to be built by the city of Tulsa.
Funding for the project includes $120 million from the federal government with cash and in-kind contributions from private donors, the state, the city and now the county.
The complex will be jointly operated by the VA and the adjacent Oklahoma State University Medical Center as well as the OSU Center for Health Sciences.
The project is one of the first VA facilities in the country to combine federal, state, local and private financing and is part of a larger VA reorganization for eastern Oklahoma that will include a $28 million renovation of the Jack C. Montgomery Hospital in Muskogee as an in-patient mental health and substance abuse facility.
“This is Tulsa’s opportunity to grow a true university medical campus engine here,” said Judy Zarrow Kishner, president of The Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation, which is contributing at least $10 million to the project. “There is no question that Tulsa County needs additional mental health beds and expanded services, and the state has been committed to helping us get there over the next few years.”
The complex is expected to open in 2023.
Including Monday’s pledge, Tulsa County has spent $14.5 million of its share of the American Rescue Plan’s two-year, $1.9-trillion appropriation intended to bolster the U.S. economy as it tries to recover from COVID-19.
Featured video: Get a behind-the-scenes look at the new Ernest Childers Veterans Center as it’s under construction on South Mingo Road