But four hours before Jones was set to be executed Thursday over the 1999 murder of Oklahoma City businessman Paul Howell, Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The governor made the decision “after prayerful consideration and reviewing materials presented by all sides of this case,” he said in a statement.
The decision brought elation for many — especially as the questionable circumstances of his case garnered national attention and drew in a slew of high-profile supporters. While Jones’s advocates range from Hollywood stars and NBA athletes to university students and community preachers, the frenzy behind his case demonstrates more than the power of social media to influence change — rather, it has put a focus on the widespread problems within death penalty cases, experts said, at a time when a majority of Americans oppose the policy.
Jones, who was recommended for a commutation and later clemency by Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board, has maintained his innocence since his arrest at age 19. His attorneys have argued that Jones was framed by a former friend — claims that were featured in “The Last Defense,” a 2018 ABC documentary produced by actress Viola Davis and her producer husband, Julius Tennon. The two, who are filming in South Africa, celebrated Stitt’s decision Thursday.
“We are soooo happy for Julius and his family,” Tennon said in a written message to The Washington Post. “Praise God!!!”
The sentiment was shared in the Jones household, where Jimmy Lawson — his best friend since childhood who has spearheaded the fight for Jones — accompanied the 41-year-old’s parents in their Oklahoma City home Thursday as they watched the news waiting for updates. When the decision came, Jones’s mother broke into a dance, he said.
“If you could see a boulder lift off someone’s shoulder, that’s what it looked like for Mama Jones,” Lawson told The Post. “We saved a man’s life today.”
The eleventh-hour move was bittersweet for others, who scorned the “cruelty” of having Jones’s life seemingly cling by a thread.
Stitt “had Julius Jones undergo all the rituals and rites of execution. This is part of the cruelty and perversion of an immoral state with unmerited power to decide who lives and dies,” Marc Lamont Hill, a professor at Temple University who has advocated against the death penalty, wrote on Twitter.
The Rev. Don Heath of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty also took aim at the governor’s handling of the case. For weeks, Stitt had been pressured to grant a clemency request after Jones exhausted his legal appeals.
“It is definitely a mixed blessing,” he said in a statement. “We are thankful that Julius’ life was spaced. We grieve that he will have to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. That is also cruel and unusual.”
While Stitt’s actions have come under scrutiny, governors often take time to commute sentences or grant clemency, said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Their timeline is often skewed by the emotions behind the situation — especially, as in Jones’s case, when the defendant’s family members are convinced of the trial’s verdict.
“The more difficult the decision is or the more painful the decision is for the person to make, the more likely it is to be made at the last minute,” he said. “None of this is emotionally good for anyone, and it is especially emotionally difficult for the families of the victims and the families of the defendant.”
Howell’s survivors, including his sister Megan Tobey — who witnessed his murder after a botched carjacking — have spoken out at hearings about the pain caused by Howell’s murder and their belief in Jones’s guilt. Stitt met with the family prior to announcing his decision.
Still, Jones’s case is notable, Dunham said, because of the circumstances of his case — including an inexperienced public defender, questionable police informants and a prosecuting office with “a culture of misconduct.” Bouts of racism also emerged among jurors who referred to Jones “by the n-word,” Dunham said.
These factors — compounded by a renewed advocacy for social justice — helped shape Jones’s experience into an “exceptionally high-profile case," he said.
"I don’t think that the attention made the case exceptional,“ said Dunham, whose nonpartisan organization provides information and analysis on death penalty issues. “None of that would have happened, but for the fact it was an exceptional case, filled with evidence of discrimination and the fact that this looked like another possibly innocent Black person being executed.”
Jones’s commuted sentence comes at a time when Oklahoma’s death penalty protocol has faced wide scrutiny. The state ended a six-year moratorium on executions in October following a string of botched lethal injections in 2014 and 2015. That same month, John Marion Grant convulsed repeatedly and vomited after the lethal injection was administered.
At the same time, attitudes toward the death penalty have changed dramatically over the decades. According to a Gallup survey published Thursday, Americans’ support for the policy continues to be lower than at any point in nearly 50 years, at 54 percent. The trend coincides with crime rates in the nation — when public concern over crime was at an all-time high in 1994, support for capital punishment peaked at 80 percent, the study shows.
Though Jones has been the latest case to shed light on issues presented in the country’s criminal justice system — becoming only the sixth person on Oklahoma’s death row to be granted clemency since 1973 — many others could still be facing a miscarriage of justice, death penalty opponents say.
“So while it’s notable that Julius Jones’s case got attention and that he became the 295th person to be granted clemency [in the United States], people should not forget that there are many other cases that have not and will not receive this kind of attention,” Dunham said. “There are still so many like Julius Jones.”
Kim Bellware contributed to this report.