OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt used his authority to spare the life of Julius Jones on Thursday, just hours before his scheduled execution that had drawn widespread outcry and protests over doubts about his guilt in the slaying of a businessman more than 20 years ago.
Stitt commuted the 41-year-old Jones’ death sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. He had been scheduled for execution late Thursday afternoon.
“After prayerful consideration and reviewing materials presented by all sides of this case, I have determined to commute Julius Jones’ sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” Stitt said in a news release.
A crowd that had gathered inside the Oklahoma Capitol in support of Jones broke out into loud applause and cheers after the decision was announced shortly after noon Thursday.
Earlier Thursday, Jones' attorneys had filed a last-minute emergency request seeking a temporary stop to his execution, saying Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedures pose a “serious and substantial risk of severe suffering and pain to prisoners.” The lawyers cited last month’s execution in which John Marion Grant convulsed and vomited as he was being put to death.
The state’s Pardon and Parole Board recommended in a 3-1 vote on Nov. 1 that Stitt commute Jones’ sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole, with several members of the panel agreeing they had doubts about the evidence that led to Jones’ conviction.
Amanda Bass, a lawyer representing Jones, said the team had hoped Stitt would have fully supported the parole board's recommendation of granting Jones a chance at parole, but that they were grateful Jones wouldn't be executed.
“Governor Stitt took an important step today towards restoring public faith in the criminal justice system by ensuring that Oklahoma does not execute an innocent man,” Bass said in a statement.
Jones' looming execution — and Stitt's silence on his decision — prompted high school students across Oklahoma City to walk out of their classes Wednesday, and protests were planned Thursday in Los Angeles; Washington; Newark, New Jersey; and Saint Paul, Minnesota. Prayer vigils were held at the Oklahoma state Capitol, and barricades were erected outside the governor’s mansion. Even Baker Mayfield, quarterback for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and a Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Oklahoma, weighed in, his eyes filling with tears.
“That’s not something that’s easy to talk about. Been trying to get the facts stated and the truth to be told for a while,” Mayfield said Wednesday. “It’s a shame that it’s gotten this far, 24 hours away.”
Jones was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to die for the 1999 shooting death of Paul Howell, a businessman from the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond, during a carjacking.
The profile of Jones’ case grew significantly after it was featured in “The Last Defense,” a three-episode documentary produced by actress Viola Davis that aired on ABC in 2018. Since then, reality television star Kim Kardashian West and other professional athletes with Oklahoma ties, including NBA stars Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Trae Young, have urged Stitt to commute Jones’ death sentence and spare his life.
Jones alleges he was framed by the actual killer, a high school friend and former co-defendant who was a key witness against him. But Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and the state’s former attorney general, Mike Hunter, have said the evidence against Jones is overwhelming.
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said Thursday that he respected Stitt’s decision but that he remained convinced of Jones’ guilt.
“I appreciate the Governor’s condition that Mr. Jones never be released from prison. However, we are greatly disappointed that after 22 years, four appeals, including the review of 13 appellate Judges, the work of the investigators, prosecutors, jurors, and the trial Judge have been set aside.”
Information from trial transcripts shows that witnesses identified Jones as the shooter and placed him with Howell’s stolen vehicle. Investigators also found the murder weapon wrapped in a bandanna with Jones’ DNA in an attic space above his bedroom. Jones claimed in his commutation filing that the gun and bandanna were planted there by the actual killer, who had been inside Jones’ house after the killing.
Howell’s sister, Megan Tobey, and two young daughters were in Howell’s SUV when the carjacking happened in his parents’ driveway in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond. Tobey testified before the board that she distinctly remembers seeing Jones shoot her brother.
“He is the same person today as he was 22 years ago. He’s still getting into trouble. He’s still in a gang. He’s still lying. And he still feels no shame, guilt or remorse for his action,” Tobey said. “We need Julius Jones to be held responsible.”
Oklahoma ended a six-year moratorium on executions — brought on by concerns over its lethal injection methods — last month. Grant, 60, convulsed and vomited as he was being put to death Oct. 28.
Grant was the first person in Oklahoma to be executed since a series of flawed lethal injections in 2014 and 2015. Richard Glossip was just hours away from being executed in September 2015 when prison officials realized they had the wrong lethal drug. It was later revealed that the same wrong drug had been used to execute an inmate in January 2015.
The drug mix-ups followed a botched execution in April 2014 in which inmate Clayton Lockett struggled on a gurney before dying 43 minutes into his lethal injection — and after the state’s prisons chief ordered executioners to stop.