Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) stepped in Thursday just hours before the scheduled execution of Julius Jones, a 41-year-old who had maintained his innocence for two decades in the murder of a suburban businessman. Stitt commuted the death sentence to life in prison in a case that had drawn widespread interest from celebrities, politicians and advocates.
“After prayerful consideration and reviewing materials presented by all sides of this case, I have determined to commute Julius Jones’s sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” Stitt said in a statement.
Jones’s supporters erupted in cheers inside the Oklahoma Capitol and outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester when Stitt’s clemency decision emerged just after midday. Jones’s sister, Antoinette, was outside the prison where she cried and exchanged hugs with people as they absorbed the news.
Jones’s parents remained at home where they watched the news and waited for word. When they saw Jones’s sentence had been commuted, his mother, Madeline, broke into a “praise dance,” according to Jimmy Lawson, Jones’s best friend from childhood.
“If you could see a boulder lift off someone’s shoulders, that’s what it looked like for Mama Jones,” Lawson told The Washington Post. “For today, it was life or death. This is amazing.”
Jones’s claims that a former friend committed the murder and implicated him were featured in the 2018 ABC documentary “The Last Defense.” The series broadened awareness of the case and drew high-profile supporters from around the country, including Kim Kardashian West and NFL quarterback Baker Mayfield, a former Oklahoma Sooner.
Interest in Jones’s case has surged in tandem with the growing scrutiny of Oklahoma’s death-penalty protocol. The state resumed executions in October after a six-year hiatus following a string of botched lethal injections in 2014 and 2015.
While Jones no longer faces execution, Thursday’s news was bittersweet for Jones’s allies who had hoped Stitt would follow the Pardon and Parole Board’s original recommendation to commute Jones’s sentence to life with the possibility of parole. Stitt’s modification to life without parole means Jones will likely never get out of prison.
“I was expecting this, and it’s still hard to digest,” Oklahoma State Sen. George Young (D), who has been among Jones’s longtime supporters, said minutes after the governor’s decision. “He waits to the last minute to not kill him, but assign him a fate that is in some ways worse than death and [the governor] claims the high ground.”
Amanda Bass, one of Jones’s federal public defenders, echoed Young’s relief mixed with the disappointment that Stitt’s decision closes off the possibility of Jones being freed.
“While we had hoped the Governor would adopt the Board’s recommendation in full by commuting Julius’s sentence to life with the possibility of parole in light of the overwhelming evidence of Julius’s innocence, we are grateful that the Governor has prevented an irreparable mistake,” Bass said in a statement.
Jones has served nearly 20 years on death row after he was convicted of the 1999 murder of Paul Scott Howell in nearby Edmond, Okla., during a carjacking. As Jones’s execution date neared, Howell’s family said they felt re-victimized by the “Justice for Julius” movement and called Jones’s supporters misinformed.
“Julius Jones murdered Paul Howell, a totally innocent victim in an execution-style murder, never giving him the chance to turn over the keys,” Howell’s sister, Megan Tobey, said after the Pardon and Parole Board recommended clemency.
In Oklahoma, the governor can accept, reject or modify recommendations by the state’s Pardon and Parole Board to grant a prisoner a reprieve from death row. The board in September recommended that Jones’s sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole, bolstering his supporters’s hopes Jones could be released with time served. Stitt deferred action, saying he would wait until Jones’s clemency hearing, which fell closer to his execution date. The board on Nov. 1 again voted in Jones’s favor to recommend clemency, which takes the death penalty off the table permanently.
Attorneys for Jones filed an emergency injunction on Thursday in a last-ditch effort to stay the execution in the event the governor did not grant clemency. In the filing, his attorneys state that the recent execution of John Grant shows the state’s lethal injection protocol continues to “pose a serious substantial risk of severe suffering and pain to prisoners.” A media witness said Grant convulsed about two dozen times after the first drug was administered. Grant’s execution in late October was the first to take place in Oklahoma since several botched lethal injections derailed the state’s death penalty system six years ago.
Jones had exhausted his legal appeals, making Stitt’s decision the last hope for sparing his life.
Pressure on Stitt to grant the clemency request intensified in recent days as the execution date neared. Jones’s family unsuccessfully petitioned to meet with Stitt on Tuesday, while dozens of students at the University of Oklahoma marched in protest a week earlier and called for the governor to grant clemency.
Several Republican lawmakers from Oklahoma, including two representing the town where Howell was murdered, have urged Stitt to spare Jones.
State Rep. Garry Mize (R) said in a statement that Oklahoma should not execute a person whose guilt is in doubt, and he echoed Jones’s attorneys, who said his co-defendant, Christopher Jordan, confessed to the murder. Jordan was convicted of lesser charges and has since been released.
State Rep. John Talley (R) agreed, saying in a statement that the Pardon and Parole Board had spent hours looking at the case and determined that the justice system may have erred in convicting Jones.
“If we believe, as conservatives, in law and order and the criminal justice system, then we have to make sure the system is getting it right,” Talley said.
Calls for Stitt to grant clemency came from outside the United States, as well, with the European Union and German ambassadors to Washington urging the governor to accept the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation.
In a letter delivered yesterday, @EUAmbUS urgently requested that @GovStitt of Oklahoma grants clemency to #JuliusJones, who is scheduled to be executed on November 18. The EU firmly opposes capital punishment at all times & in all circumstances. More: https://t.co/JAqtFeuHE4 pic.twitter.com/avtLldpXDd— EU in the U.S. (@EUintheUS) November 16, 2021
“The concerns expressed by Board members, including Mr. Jones’ lack of understanding of the consequences of his actions at age nineteen, fundamental questions about evidence, and the disparity between his and Mr. Christopher Jordan’s sentences, underscore the importance of commuting Mr. Jones’ sentence,” Stavros Lambrinidis, the E.U.’s ambassador to the United States, wrote in an open letter to Stitt.
Lambrinidis and others who called for clemency acknowledged the pain of the Howell family. Howell’s survivors, including Tobey, have spoken out at hearings about the pain caused by Howell’s murder and their belief in Jones’s guilt.
Howell, 45, had just returned home from a shopping trip with his two daughters and Tobey when he was shot during a carjacking in his parents’ driveway the night of July 28, 1999.
Connie Ellison, Howell’s girlfriend at the time, spoke to The Washington Post about how her doubts over Jones’s guilt have grown over the years, prompting her to speak in support of him at his recent hearings before the Pardon and Parole Board.
Since taking office in January 2019, Stitt has not broken with the board’s recommendations.
Jones is now the sixth person since 1973 on Oklahoma’s death row to be granted clemency.