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OU students form petition from class assignment demanding acceptance of clemency recommendation for Julius Jones

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March for Julius Jones

Students during the March for Julius Jones on Nov. 8.

One OU international studies professor and three students created a petition calling for action from Gov. Kevin Stitt in the case of death row inmate Julius Jones as his Nov. 18 execution date approaches. 

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 to recommend commuting Jones’ sentence to life with the possibility of parole Nov. 1. Though Stitt said in a Sept. 28 press release he believes a clemency hearing is appropriate for Jones’ case, he hasn’t made a decision on the recommendation. 

Jones’ execution will continue as scheduled in the event Stitt does not respond to the clemency recommendation.

The petition stemmed from an assignment in assistant professor Michelle Morais’ International Human Rights class, where students were instructed to write a real-case petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 

Morais said students could choose whatever case they wanted and, while grading a few weeks ago, she realized Hellen Ombachi, Ryleigh Horst and Jada Mcgowan wrote their petitions on Jones. She said all three petitions were extremely high-quality, so she reached out to the students to encourage them to contact Jones’ family to see if they’d be interested in working together on the final petition. 

Ombachi, a political science junior, said when brainstorming project topics, the only case that came to mind was Jones’. She said the subject fit the theme perfectly because it called for precautionary measures, meaning it needed to be addressed on an international stage as not much was being done locally. 

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver granted Jones and John Grant stays of execution Oct. 27 that were reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court the following day. Reporters who witnessed the Oct. 28 execution of Grant said he convulsed over two dozen times and vomited on himself, and Associated Press reporter Sean Murphy said Grant’s reaction reminded him of the controversial execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014. Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow said the following day that reporters’ accounts of Grant’s execution were “embellished,” and the agency will continue to carry out executions as planned. 

Jones, Wade Lay, Donald Grant and Gilbert Postelle sued for an injunction, arguing Oklahoma officials hadn’t resolved their concerns about the state’s execution method. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the inmates’ request to intervene. 

In her petition, Ombachi said she wrote the government violated Jones’ right to a fair trial by barring him and his family from testifying. She also cited the fact Jones was allegedly called racial slurs by one of the arresting officers and one of the jurors

Ombachi said she was surprised when Morais approached her about turning her assignment into a petition because she didn’t think her work could go any further than class. 

Horst, an international studies, and public and nonprofit administration senior, said she’d also settled on Jones’ case since it seemed like a perfect fit for the assignment. The main arguments in her petition were that Jones didn’t receive due process because of racism within the jury, and because key pieces of evidence were neglected in the trial

She said, like Ombachi, her mind “was blown a little bit” when Morais contacted her about potentially working with Jones’ legal team. 

“I got an email from her and the subject was ‘Your petition,’ and I was like, ‘Oh no, I totally screwed up. What did I do?’” Horst said. “And she was like, ‘Hey, your petition was compelling, and I think that this could actually be potentially submitted — obviously, with some revisions — but submitted to the IACHR.'”

Horst said the three students and Morais met with Jones’ attorneys Nov. 5. The conversation was mainly between Morais and the attorneys, and Horst said the majority of the time was spent discussing whether it was the right time to send a petition to the IACHR. The legal counsel said they’ve heard many concerns that too many people outside Oklahoma are weighing in on Jones’ case, and involving international authorities might strengthen their claims. 

Morais said because Stitt hasn’t yet made a decision on the case, they decided the best path forward would be to circulate a petition around the community first. The petition has amassed 361 signatures since its creation and was sent to Stitt’s office twice, with no response so far. 

“An important message that we have to send to the governor, is that the community in Oklahoma is wanting him to grant clemency. This is not something that is coming from outside of Oklahoma, this is something that the people in Oklahoma want,” Morais said. “And, because Julius was a student at the University of Oklahoma, it’s really important for us as a community to manifest that support.” 

Horst said she’s worried the petition won’t successfully push Stitt to act, citing the fact only four clemencies have been granted in the state’s history. 

“It's honestly very scary that he won't act or that he will wait till the very last second to make a decision,” Horst said. “And then (there) won't be time to submit a petition or appeal in any other way.” 

Ombachi said sending the petition to Stitt’s office is a “really good first step” in communicating how OU students, faculty and staff feel, but she’s not expecting a strong reaction from the governor. She said she’s grateful for the community engagement on Jones’ case, including in a protest organized by the Black Emergency Response Team in his support last week. 

“It really showed that this is something people do care about and will fight for, and it was awesome to see everyone fighting so hard and protesting and coming out with signs,” Ombachi said. 

senior news reporter

Ari Fife is a senior news reporter and a senior journalism major minoring in international studies and political science. Previously, she served as a summer editor-in-chief, news managing editor, assistant news managing editor and a senior news reporter.

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