A Black man who spent nearly 20 years on death row for a crime he’s maintained he never committed has been granted clemency by Oklahoma’s governor after high-profile supporters across the country rallied in his defense.
Just hours before Julius Jones was set to be executed, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order Thursday, reducing his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole after calls from anti-death penalty activists and celebrities to spare his life.
In a statement, Stitt said, “After prayerful consideration and reviewing materials presented by all sides of this case, I have determined to commute Julius Jones’ sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.”
The Oklahoman reported that Jones had already had what would have been his last meal when Stitt announced the commutation.
Jones’ sister, Antoinette Jones, told The Daily Beast in a phone call that she was thankful for “every life that tweeted, that stepped out and rallied, that leaned in to... Julius’ case.”
“Without all of us, I don’t know if the world would’ve [known] the injustice that was about to take place today,” she said.
Supporters in the state capital, who had been rallying for days, erupted into cheers and tears. Hundreds of students had also stormed out of Oklahoma City schools on Wednesday in hopes of convincing Stitt to intervene.
That “means the world,” Antoinette said. “Because they knew of Julius’ innocence. And they knew that this was an injustice. Even though we did not get the recommendation the parole board put forward, I’m grateful for Stitt for stepping in and granting [Julius] life.”
Jones’ attorney, Amanda Bass, celebrated the news but said they’d hoped Jones could have received the possibility of parole, as had been recommended by the state’s Pardon and Parole Board.
“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,” she said. “...[W]e are grateful that the governor has prevented an irreparable mistake.”
Jones was convicted of the murder of 45-year-old Paul Howell, a wealthy white man, during an attempted carjacking in 1999. He was 19 at the time of his trial for capital murder. Jones has insisted that he was framed and betrayed by his former friend and co-defendant in the case, Christopher Jordan, who testified against Jones and fingered him as the shooter.
A witness to the shooting said the suspect was wearing a red bandana and, in the days after the killing, the murder weapon was found inside Jones’ parents’ home wrapped in a red bandana that had Jones’ DNA on it.
Jones’ defense team maintained that it was planted and would have had Jones’ DNA on it as his DNA was present in his parents’ home.
According to CBS News, his family said that he did not match the description of the suspect described by the witness, and he was not allowed to testify in his trial.
A website set up for Jones, Justice for Julius Jones, added that the case was filled with racial bias and errors, including a juror who used the N-word. As of Thursday, the site’s online petition had garnered more than 6 million signatures.
In a statement Thursday, Howell's family said, “We know Governor Stitt had a difficult decision to make. 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... Julius Jones forever changed our lives and the lives of his family and friends.”
Now 41, Jones has spent half his life in prison. In an early November hearing, Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 to recommend clemency for Jones. The board was in favor of his sentence being commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Jones gave emotional testimony during the hearing, admitting that he made mistakes when he was younger, “but I did not kill Mr. Paul Howell.”
Antoinette Jones also urged Stitt to “take all evidence [into] consideration.”
Several celebrities had rallied behind Jones. In 2018, actress Viola Davis produced the documentary The Last Defense on Jones’ case, which brought it to a wider audience. Athletes with ties to Oklahoma, including Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, and Baker Mayfield, spoke out for Jones.
As the case gained traction, Steph Curry, Kerry Washington, and Kim Kardashian pleaded with Stitt to grant Jones clemency.
Protests were underway the week leading up to Jones’ execution. The Oklahoma State Conference chapter of the NAACP advised supporters to wear all black to show solidarity with Jones.
In an email to NBC Oklahoma City, NAACP chapter president Anthony Douglas wrote, “We are wearing black not only for the injustice of the Julius Darius Jones [death sentence], but also to send a clear message that if Governor Stitt chooses to execute Julius Jones, he is executing all of us.”