Utah Jazz’s Irv Roland both thrilled and frustrated by ruling that spares Julius Jones’ life, but gives him no chance at parole

Assistant coach who has spent considerable time working to exonerate his friend believes the ruling is a nonsensical mixed message, but remains hopeful that the convicted murderer will ultimately go free.

(Eric Walden | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz assistant coach Irv Roland shows off his "Justice for Julius" wristband, just days ahead of the death row convict's scheduled execution in Oklahoma.

Irv Roland is relieved, first and foremost.

After spending much of the past two years working to proclaim the innocence of his friend, Julius Jones, and to help overturn the death sentence imposed on him for a murder committed in Edmond, Okla., in 1999, the Utah Jazz assistant coach saw Jones’ life spared on Thursday by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, just hours before Jones was due for a lethal injection.

Roland is also frustrated, though, because while Stitt decided to commute Jones’ sentence to life in prison, he simultaneously took the possibility of parole off the table.

“I’m happy that my friend isn’t getting executed at 4 p.m. [CT] today, but I’m also frustrated,” Roland told The Salt Lake Tribune. “If you believe he committed the crime, and y’all believe in the death penalty, then you should have moved forward with it. But if you believe that he didn’t [do it], then he should be free. There shouldn’t be any middle ground.”

Roland was still on the practice court at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus on Thursday, working with guards Miye Oni and Trent Forrest when his smartwatch started buzzing with news alerts and text messages from family and friends about Stitt’s decision.

He said he had contemplated not wearing the watch at all Thursday — worried about being distracted from his job, with a game against the Toronto Raptors coming later that night — but ultimately decided the fear of missing out on the news would be more distracting to him.

And when it finally came down, he acknowledged the mixed feelings.

Stitt’s decision deviates from the recommendation of the Oklahoma Parole and Parole Board, which saw enough doubt in Jones’ case to suggest that his death sentence should be changed to life with the possibility of parole.

Roland argued that Stitt’s middle-ground ruling effectively made no sense.

“You’re saying you’re going to commute his sentence without the possibility of parole — I don’t understand that,” Roland said. “He’s already wasted 22 years of his life in prison. I believe that he should be able to go home and see his mother.”

The Jazz assistant, who is a fierce social justice advocate in his time away from basketball, said the relationship he developed with Jones’ new lawyers over the past several years had helped prepare him for the possibility that Stitt might make a decision such as this.

That still didn’t fully prepare him, though, he said.

After regularly speaking with Jones, pretty much every other day for the past couple of years, Roland said his contact with him over the past week and a half suddenly stopped, as the proximity of Jones’ scheduled execution led to a reduction in his privileges, such as telephone access. So he hasn’t had a chance to speak with him yet about the ruling, though he’s hoping this decision will make it possible.

“Even if he calls tonight during the game, I’m walking out of the game and talking to him on the phone,” Roland said with a smile.

In spite of the only-partial victory won today by Jones and his supporters, Roland was trying to focus on the positive.

They’ve already gotten this far, he believes, so what’s to keep them from taking it further?

“There’s still hope. We’ve just got to continue to fight,” Roland said. “… I still have a lot of faith. I believe that Julius will be free. I’m just hoping that this process, from here on out, doesn’t get prolonged, and that we’re not talking about multiple years or anything like that before we can get him out.

“Julius doesn’t want to [spend] the rest of his life in prison — he was totally against that. So if he’s optimistic, I have to be optimistic. That’s where I am.”