Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt accepted a recommendation from the state’s parole board on Thursday to grant Julius Jones clemency, sparing the life of the man who was set to be executed later that day. Jones was convicted of killing Paul Howell during a 1999 carjacking, but Jones maintained his innocence during the nearly two decades he spent on death row.
The decision from Stitt follows months of advocacy from Jones’ family, anti-death penalty activists, faith leaders, Kim Kardashian West, and NBA athletes. A petition on change.org protesting Jones’ execution collected more than 6 million signatures. According to Oklahoma City Public Schools, an estimated 1,800 students from 13 schools joined walkouts to protest Jones’ execution.
A number of evangelical leaders and a handful of Republican state lawmakers, including state Representative John Talley, also questioned Jones’ guilt and urged the governor, a fellow Republican, to commute his sentence.
“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,” said Stitt in a statement issued on Thursday around noon in Oklahoma.
Though the governor’s executive order bars Jones from applying for, being considered for, or receiving “any additional commutation, pardon, or parole,” anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean said in a tweet that “this does not preclude Julius from pursuing legal exoneration in state or federal courts.”
Jones’ attorney Amanda Bass responded to the governor’s decision in a statement: “While we had hoped that the Governor would adopt the Board’s recommendation in full by commuting Julius’ sentence to life with the possibility of parole in light of the overwhelming evidence of Julius’ sentence, we are grateful that the Governor has prevented an irreparable mistake.”
Later that afternoon, Rev. Keith Jossell, Jones’ faith adviser, told reporter Sawyer Buccy, “Julius wants you to know there are thousands of people that are just like him, that are incarcerated in the justice system that have been falsely accused,” Jossell said. “The only difference between Julius [and these other people] is you know his name.”
Advocates had argued there was compelling evidence that Jones was wrongfully convicted, including discrepancies between Jones’ appearance and an eyewitness description of the shooter as well as an alibi jurors never heard due to Jones’ inexperienced legal counsel. In a video released last week by Justice for Julius — a nonprofit organization dedicated to Jones’ defense — one of the original defense attorneys assigned to Jones’ case admitted her team had not been prepared to adequately represent a client in a death penalty case and asked Stitt to grant clemency.
Advocates also argued that Jones’ co-defendant, Christopher Jordan, a key witness in Jones’ conviction, has confessed to both the crime and framing Jones; Jordan’s attorney denies this.
In The Last Defense, a 2018 ABC documentary series, one juror in Jones’ case told producers she’d heard a fellow juror exhibit racial bias and use racist slurs in reference to Jones — behavior that she’d reported to the judge; an appeals court rejected this claim.
Many faith leaders welcomed the governor’s decision while critiquing its last-minute arrival and calling for further justice.
Joshua DuBois, a faith advisor during President Barack Obama’s first term, said in a tweet that Julius “deserves to be free. We will work towards that with every fiber of our being. But today and tomorrow - Julius Jones is alive. Praise God.”
“There will not be an execution today. Our brother Julius is alive to live another day!!! Let us celebrate like crazy,” tweeted Christian author and anti-death penalty advocate Shane Claiborne. “And tomorrow, let’s get back to organizing until we fully abolish the death penalty.”
Christian author D.L. Mayfield said in a tweet that Stitt’s decision to wait “until the last moment, getting everyone to beg the governor like he is a god ... all of it makes me so sick to my stomach. This is a human being made in the divine image with friends and family members living in constant grief, terror, and panic.”
The state of Oklahoma resumed executions this year after a six-year moratorium due to concerns about the state’s execution methods, including a mix-up in the drugs administered and other botched executions. On Oct. 28, the state of Oklahoma executed John Marion Grant, who convulsed and vomited after the drugs were administered, something observers noted was “unusual.”
Reuters reporting contributed to this story.
This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 18, 2021 to add comments from faith leaders, Julius Jones’ attorney, and his spiritual advisor.