A typo in the original article has been corrected.
OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – A House bill could change Oklahoma’s criminal justice procedures by preventing the possibility of convicted individuals from seeking commutation.
“This bill just makes sure that courts decide, like they have and like they always have, guilt or innocence and the pardon and parole board focuses on pardon, parole, commutations, things of that nature,” said the bill’s author, Representative John Pfeiffer, R-District 38.
House Bill 3903 states that the Pardon and Parole Board would not be able to recommend to the Governor anyone who was sentenced to life without parole or death. It further states that the person sentenced to death could only be considered for clemency when their execution is close and the date is pending, and in that case the Pardon and Parole Board can only consider for, “mercy or lenience,” but not to hear a claim of innocence. Plus, the Pardon and Parole Board would only be able to recommend to the Governor to grant clemency with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Rep. Pfeiffer said he worked with Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor on the bill, after the Pardon and Parole Board’s recent death penalty case hearings.
“We’ve seen the pardon and parole board try to insert themselves in determining the guilt and innocence of cases, that’s really way outside their purview,” Rep. Pfeiffer said. “When people testify in front of the Pardon and Parole Board, number one, sometimes they haven’t been doing a great job of bringing in all interested parties, including the victim’s families. They also aren’t sworn under oath. So, any testimony they’re given, they’re free to say whatever without penalty of perjury. Unlike the court systems where you have to be sworn in.”
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor provided a statement on Tuesday in support for the bill.
“House Bill 3903 makes commonsense changes which protect victims, promote public safety, and preserve the role of the courts while not infringing on the rights of inmates or the constitutional role of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board,” said AG O’Connor. “After years of hearings and appeals, victims and Oklahomans deserve finality. I greatly appreciate Representative John Pfeiffer for authoring this legislation, and the rest of the Legislature for standing up for the rights of victims by hearing House Bill 3903.”
O’Connor also added a statement from the Brian Howell, the brother of Paul Howell, who Julius Jones was convicted of killing in 1999.
“Unless you are a family member of a murder victim or have worked closely with victims’ families, I don’t think you can fully understand what a difficult, emotional and gut-wrenching experience it is to revisit those memories years or even decades after the crime.”BRIAN HOWELL
“Since September of 2020, we’ve been meticulous to make sure all parties are heard from and offenders are under oath when presenting to the board,” said Tom Bates, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.
However, activist groups across the state, like Justice For Julius, are urging lawmakers to vote ‘no’ on the bill, saying it could prevent innocent Oklahomans from even having the option to further fight for their innocence.
“First, it violates the state constitution. Secondly, it’s a violation of due process,” said Rep. Jason Lowe, R-District 97.
Lowe has been a criminal defense attorney for the past 15 years. He said inmates need the option to go before the pardon and parole board, because sometimes the jury, judges and attorneys get it wrong.
“Make it clear that there are innocent people in prison,” Lowe said. “And for us to remove that relief or that avenue for them that’s wrong. Plain and simple wrong.”
Rep. Lowe said he’s also concerned because new evidence can emerge to prove an inmate’s innocence.
“So, for 20 years from now, 30 years from now, new DNA evidence, new witnesses or a witness recants. They cannot present that evidence to the parole board,” Lowe said.
“I agree,” said Rep. Pfeiffer. “That’s why we have the court system. That’s why we have the appellate system. Any time there’s new evidence found, they can go ahead and petition the court. They can petition for a new trial.”
HB3903 is set to be heard in the House Judiciary – Criminal committee on Wednesday.