Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has commuted the death sentence of Julius Jones, after mounting public pressure and just hours before he was set to be executed.
Stitt reduced Jones' sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, intervening before his scheduled lethal injection but falling short of the state parole board's recommendation.
"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 announced.
Jones, 41, was sentenced to death for the 1999 shooting death of Paul Howell in Edmond, Okla. Jones has always maintained his innocence. Attorneys fighting for his freedom say the case leading to his conviction was seriously flawed.
Questions over Jones' role in Howell's murder led the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to recommend this month that his death sentence be commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Stitt's Thursday order states that Oklahoma law does not permit the parole board to recommend that a death sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole, citing a specific article in the state constitution.
Stitt acted on the board's recommendation just hours before Jones was set to be executed at 4 p.m. CST. Stitt's order bears a time stamp of 11:47 a.m.
Jones' mother Madeline Davis-Jones released a statement Thursday expressing her relief after dreading the execution of her son for over 20 years.
"I still believe that every day Julius spends behind bars is an injustice, and I will never stop speaking out for him or fighting to free him," she said. "But today is a good day, and I am thankful to Governor Stitt for that."
A video posted by a reporter from The Oklahoman shows crowds of Jones' supporters at the Oklahoma State Capitol cheering when they heard the news.
Stitt's silence over the intervening weeks prompted last-minute appeals from family members, activists and celebrities.
"This is the cold machinery of the Death Penalty in America. In just over two weeks, an innocent man could be put to death," Kardashian West tweeted. "My heart breaks for Julius and so many others who have suffered from such tragic miscarriage of justice."
Students from several area schools took part in a walkout on Wednesday to protest Jones' impending execution. The Oklahoma City Public Schools told The New York Times that more than 1,800 students across 13 schools participated in the demonstration.
Oklahoma uses lethal injection to conduct executions. If Jones' execution had gone ahead, it would have been just the second in Oklahoma since 2015, when the state paused the practice after it was found to be using an incorrect mix of drugs in the process. Oklahoma executed John Marion Grant in October and has several more executions planned for the coming months.
Questions around Jones' co-defendant's story
On the night of July 28, 1999, Jones says he was with his family at his parents' Oklahoma City house having dinner and playing board games. That's according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit focused on exonerating the wrongly convicted. Prosecutors have said Jones told a different story after his arrest.
But around the same time that evening, less than 20 miles away, Paul Howell was pulling up to his own parents' house. Moments later, he was shot and killed — the victim of a carjacking. Howell's sister was an eyewitness to the crime.
Howell's family members testified before the parole board and said they are convinced of Jones' guilt. They say they feel revictimized by the publicity the case has received, according to KOSU.
Attorneys for Jones say there are serious problems with the case.
Chris Jordan, the co-defendant in this case, and at the time of the shooting a friend of Jones', allegedly admitted to at least three cellmates that he was the one who killed Howell — not Jones.
Prosecutors say those cellmates are not credible, according to The Associated Press.
Jordan spent the night at Jones' home after Howell's murder, according to reports. When he was questioned by police, Jordan told police the gun was in Jones' parents' house. Jordan testified against Jones and received a plea agreement. He got out of prison after serving 15 years behind bars.
Innocence Project points to racial bias in the Jones case
The officer who arrested Jones reportedly called him the N-word, dared him to run and then implied he would be shot if he did. Jones repeated that story in his retelling of the case to OU Daily.
At trial, 11 out of the 12 jurors were white.
Research by Francis Flanagan, an associate professor in the department of economics at Wake Forest University, has shown that the racial makeup of a jury can have an impact on the case's outcome.
Flanagan told NPR recently that data shows juries composed of more Black jurors are much more likely to acquit criminal defendants across the board (both white defendants and Black defendants). White men on a jury are more likely to convict Black defendants and less likely to convict white defendants, he said.
One juror reportedly referred to Jones by the N-word and suggested that he be taken out behind the courthouse and shot, the Innocence Project says.
There are also questions about the record of District Attorney Bob Macy, who handled Jones' case, reports indicate.
One-third of Macy's death penalty convictions have been overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct, the Innocence Project says. Many of those whose convictions were vacated are Black.
Last month, the American Conservative Union published a letter to Stitt on the case, pointing to questions surrounding Macy's reputation.
"Taken together, we believe that doubt about Jones' responsibility for the capital crime is not insignificant. Indeed, that is why the Oklahoma Board of Pardons and Parole recommended commutation of Jones' death sentence despite troubling pressure tactics being waged by District Attorney David Prater to cow them into rubber stamping the execution," the letter said. "In such circumstances, commuting Jones' sentence to life in prison would be appropriate. Public safety would be sustained, while the chances of a wrongful execution would be eliminated."
Big names called on the governor to act
More than 6.5 million people have signed a petition supporting Jones.
Locally, Justice for Julius, an organization founded by local supporter Cece Jones-Davis (no relation to Julius Jones), has been working for years to gather attention to Jones' case. Activists had been protesting in the Oklahoma State Capitol to call on Stitt to grant clemency in Jones' case.
As Jones' execution neared, the volume of people calling for Jones' sentence to be commuted grew louder.
The NFL's Mayfield, a former University of Oklahoma quarterback, talked to reporters about the case on Wednesday.
"I've been trying to get the facts stated and the truth to be told for a while, but it is tough to think about. Tried and tried," Mayfield said. "It is a shame that it has gotten this far. We are 24 hours away. So, it's tough. You know, hopefully, God can intervene and handle it correctly and do the things he needs to do."
Advocacy for Jones even went global. Stavros Lambrinidis, a representative from the European Union, wrote in a letter to Stitt: "[W]e respectfully urge you to exercise all powers vested in your office to grant clemency to Mr. Julius Jones."