OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt on Thursday spared the life of high-profile death-row inmate Julius Jones just hours before his execution was scheduled to take place.
Jones’ death sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole.
“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 single-sentence statement included with the announcement of his decision.
The governor ordered that Jones not be eligible to apply for or be considered for a further commutation, pardon or parole for the remainder of his life.
Jones, 41, was set to die by lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester for the 1999 shooting death of Paul Howell of Edmond in front of his two daughters and sister. Howell’s vehicle was stolen, and he was run over in his parents’ driveway after having been shot.
In a statement, the Howell family said Stitt faced a difficult decision.
“We take comfort that his decision affirmed the guilt of Julius Jones and that he shall not be eligible to apply for, or be considered for, a commutation, pardon or parole for the remainder of his life,” the family statement says.
The family thanked the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, Oklahoma County District Attorney's Office and law enforcement agencies for their efforts and support for the last 22 years.
“Julius Jones forever changed our lives and the lives of his family and friends,” the statement said.
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board had voted 3-1 to recommend clemency with a life with parole option.
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor issued a statement saying he appreciated the condition Stitt placed on Jones' clemency.
“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,” O’Connor said. “A thorough review of the evidence confirms Julius Jones’ guilt in this case and that the death penalty was warranted.”
The Pardon and Parole Board's recommendation for clemency came after the board previously voted 3-1 for commutation, which Stitt declined to act on, saying a clemency hearing was the better route.
In an executive order, Stitt said the Pardon and Parole Board did not have the authority to recommend that a death sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole.
The executive order says the governor has the power to grant commutations “upon such conditions and with such restrictions and limitations as the Governor may deem proper.”
The executive order says that after an inmate gets a favorable commutation of a sentence from the governor, he or she is no longer eligible to apply for an additional commutation on the same sentence.
“For over twenty years, I have been haunted by the idea of watching my baby boy die in an execution chamber for a murder that occurred when he was home with his family. I am grateful that after today’s decision by the governor, that can no longer happen," Madeline Davis-Jones said in a statement.
“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. But today is a good day, and I am thankful to Governor Stitt for that.”
Jones has maintained his innocence and mounted a public relations campaign to get off death row. His supporters have held marches, vigils and rallies and signed petitions to draw national attention to his case.
His case has drawn support from ranging from celebrity actors and athletes to high school students, some of whom walked out of classes to support Jones.
Prosecutors and relatives of Howell's objected to clemency.
The gun used in the killing was found wrapped in a bandana in a crawl space above Jones’ bedroom in his parents’ home, and the ammunition was found in the home’s doorbell chime.
Howell’s sister said the killer was wearing a red bandana, and the bandana was found to have Jones’ DNA on it.
Jones' attorneys have said the real killer planted the weapon and bandana.
“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,” said Amanda Bass, Jones' attorney.
“While we had hoped 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’ innocence, we are grateful that the Governor has prevented an irreparable mistake.”
Jones' supporters have been at the Capitol all week, holding a vigil outside the Governor's Office on the second floor.
When news of the reprieve reached them on Thursday, they began to cheer and chant.
Antoinette Jones, Julius Jones' sister, told supporters gathered outside the state penitentiary in McAlester that her brother was grateful for the love the public has shown him and his family.
The next step, she said, is to regroup and replan.
“This is just another route to his freedom,” she said. “So we are going to keep pressing on.”