Update (12:30 p.m. Monday): The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has voted to recommend to Gov. Kevin Stitt that Julius Jones' death sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole.
OKLAHOMA CITY — Rachel Howell was 9 years old when her father was shot and killed in front of her.
Contacted by the Tulsa World, Howell, now 31, agreed to talk about her father, the crime and the convicted killer who is waging a public relations campaign to avoid the death penalty.
The state has requested an execution date for Julius Jones. On Monday, he is expected to go before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board seeking to have his sentence commuted from death. If his request is approved there, Gov. Kevin Stitt would have the final say.
Kim Kardashian was among the first of a line of celebrities, athletes, social media influencers and others who have lined up to support Jones, who says he is innocent.
Howell, her sister, their aunt and their father had been out shopping for school supplies on July 28, 1999. They swung into Braum’s for ice cream before pulling into the driveway at her grandparents’ house in Edmond.
She said a Black man walked up to the vehicle.
“I was sitting in the back seat behind the driver’s seat, and my dad was in the driver’s seat, while my little sister was next to me and my aunt was in the passenger seat up front,” she said. “I remember waving to him at first when he was walking up, not really sure what was about to happen.”
She said her father had cracked his door open when the man shot him in the head, without saying a single word. Her sister and aunt rushed out of the car with her, she said. She remembers a second gunshot.
“He was clearly shooting at us but missed,” she said.
The killer left in the family’s car, a brown Suburban.
“I remember going to the hospital and seeing my dad and saying goodbye,” she said. “It was hard seeing him like that.”
After the murder, she dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder and extreme panic attacks.
She grew up with close family who lived nearby and graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality business management. Now she works in finance out of state.
Although it has been more than two decades since her father’s murder, Howell’s memories of him are vivid.
She remembers her father taking her and her sister to the park to play “Lion King” because the rocks looked like Pride Rock, she said.
“He would pretend to be the monkey, Rafiki, and chase us around the park,” she said.
He would take her to swim in her uncle’s pool next door.
“He would throw me high in the air,” she said. “It always felt like I was flying. My mom always called him the ‘human pool toy.’”
She remembers vacations to South Padre Island and the beach.
“I also had a huge obsession with Beanie Babies,” she said. “He would drive around rural Oklahoma so he could find the one I wanted at the time.”
A website for the family, justiceforpaulhowell.com, includes information about the prosecution and conviction of Julius Jones and states: “The overwhelming evidence in this case supports the courts’ decision/conviction that Julius Jones murdered Paul Howell on July 28, 1999. … Jones’ defense team’s only hope now is to create such an uproar through a misinformation campaign as to put pressure on those that grant commutation or clemency. So for that, they turn to celebrities.”
‘It is a movement’
Howell said she is all-too-aware of the claims Jones and his supporters are making. Some claim evidence was planted when the red bandana worn by the killer was found wrapped around the murder weapon in Jones’ home. Others claim Jones was at home with his family at the time of the slaying. Prosecutors say the claims are false.
The nonprofit Represent Justice has contracted with Amber Integrated, an Oklahoma City public affairs firm, to support Jones and his advocates.
“At its core, Represent Justice is about using the power of the media to engage audiences in reimagining the justice system and creating real demand for change,” according to the group’s website, which features Jones.
Alex Weintz, a partner with Amber Integrated, declined to say how much the firm has been paid by Represent Justice or any of his other clients. Weintz is a past spokesman for former Gov. Mary Fallin.
“I wouldn’t describe the effort to free Julius Jones as a public relations campaign,” Weintz said. “It is a movement led by people who have seen the evidence of Julius’ innocence and do not want the state to kill an innocent man. They are demanding justice for the Jones family, but they are also demanding justice for Paul Howell, because the evidence suggests that his real killer is walking free.”
Jones’ supporters have held rallies, marches, runs and press conferences and have written letters about their belief in his innocence. They have signed online petitions and taken his case to social media and television.
Jones was sympathetically featured on ABC in a piece called “The Last Defense” and CBS’ “The Late Late Show.”
Howell said she is not questioning the hearts or motives of Jones’ supporters.
“I am very confident that the jury and appellate courts got the right man,” she said. “The facts and evidence are there.”
She said his supporters should do their research before putting information out.
She wants them to think about the impact it has on the victims.
“Not one of these celebrities or athletes have tried to reach out to me or my family,” Howell said.
“It’s easy to just click a button and sign a petition and think you are doing the right thing.
“I am not trying to sway anyone’s opinion, but I would like for these ‘high profile’ people to dig deep into the case, or any case, for that matter, and read all the facts and see both sides before stating their opinion.
“Little do they realize, they are advocating for someone who shot a father in front of his sister and children, all to steal a car.”
Full vote on Julius Jones' request for commutation