Oklahoma Governor Commutes Julius Jones's Death Sentence Hours Before Execution

A coalition of celebrities, conservatives and Christian leaders had urged Gov. Kevin Stitt to commute the death penalty sentence of Julius Jones, who was convicted of murder in 2002.

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Crowds of supporters cheered Gov. Kevin Stitt’s decision to commute Julius Jones’s death sentence to life imprisonment, following protests and an emergency motion filed to stay the execution. Mr. Jones was scheduled to die by lethal injection on Thursday.Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman, via Associated Press

Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma called off the execution of a death-row inmate just hours before the man was scheduled to die by lethal injection on Thursday, culminating an extraordinary campaign for clemency that drew in celebrities, his fellow conservatives and Christian leaders.

Mr. Stitt, a Republican and death-penalty supporter, announced that, after “prayerful consideration,” he had reduced the death sentence for the inmate, Julius Jones, 41, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2002, to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Mr. Jones and his supporters insisted he was not guilty, and a state board voted twice to recommend that he be made eligible for parole.

The case had become a flashpoint in the broader debate over the death penalty. Mr. Jones was scheduled to be executed less than a month after another death-row inmate in Oklahoma, John Marion Grant, vomited and shook for several minutes as he died by lethal injection on Oct. 28.

That execution, the state’s first since a halt was called in 2015, fueled criticism that its methods amounted to unconstitutional cruelty. Mr. Grant was put to death a few hours after the U.S. Supreme Court, with its three more liberal members dissenting, lifted a stay of execution for both men.

Mr. Jones had been scheduled to be executed on Thursday.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections, via Associated Press

The governor was under mounting pressure to commute Mr. Jones’s sentence from prominent figures who went beyond liberal critics of the death penalty. Those figures included Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union; Timothy Head, the executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition; and several Republican state lawmakers.

Kelly Masters, a prominent Oklahoma lawyer and agent for N.F.L. players, who got involved in Mr. Jones’s case last year, said she realized that the best way to influence Mr. Stitt was to reach out to conservative figures in Oklahoma and beyond.

“I became convinced we were about to execute an innocent man,” said Ms. Masters, who has served as an unpaid adviser for Mr. Jones’s defense team. “I knew we had to bring conservative voices into the discussion and I knew that the faith community needed to weigh in.”

She got in touch with the Faith & Freedom Coalition, the conservative advocacy group founded by Ralph Reed. Ms. Masters also met with conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma who voiced their concerns. And she took part in a private meeting with Mr. Stitt this month in which she went through details of the case.

Still, Ms. Masters, like other supporters of Mr. Jones, expressed surprise at the 11th-hour decision.

“After prayerful consideration and reviewing materials presented by all sides of this case, I have determined to commute Julius Jones’s sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” Mr. Stitt said in a statement that offered no further details of his thinking on the matter.

In September and again this month, the state’s Pardon and Parole Board recommended that Mr. Jones’s sentence be commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole, giving Mr. Stitt final say over Mr. Jones’s fate.

This week, hundreds of students across the state walked out of schools to protest Mr. Jones’s execution. Hundreds of people also demonstrated in support of Mr. Jones in the State Capitol and outside the governor’s mansion and the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Many chanted, prayed and sang, and then erupted in cheers and applause when the news spread.

Ian Maule/Tulsa World, via Associated Press

Mr. Jones’s case had been featured in a 2018 documentary series produced by Viola Davis, a podcast episode last year featuring Kim Kardashian West and a recent episode of “The Late Late Show With James Corden.” Baker Mayfield, a quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, who won the 2017 Heisman Trophy as a player for the University of Oklahoma, had also urged Mr. Stitt to reduce Mr. Jones’s sentence.

In a statement, Amanda Bass, a lawyer for Mr. Jones, said that Mr. Stitt’s decision would restore “public faith in the criminal justice system.”

While the legal team had hoped the governor would leave open the possibility of parole, she said, “we are grateful that the governor has prevented an irreparable mistake.”

Not everyone was happy with the decision, though Oklahoma’s attorney general, John O’Connor, said he appreciated the condition that Mr. Jones never be released from prison.

“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,” Mr. O’Connor, a Republican, said in a statement. “A thorough review of the evidence confirms Julius Jones’s guilt in this case and that the death penalty was warranted.”

Mr. Jones had been found guilty of killing Paul Howell, who was in a car in the driveway of his parents’ home when he was carjacked and fatally shot in 1999. A former high school basketball player from Oklahoma City, Mr. Jones was 19 at the time. Mr. Howell, a businessman from the suburb of Edmond, was 45.

Relatives of Mr. Howell, a white man whose sister and two daughters witnessed his killing, have said that the campaign to grant clemency to Mr. Jones had caused them pain. They could not be immediately reached for comment on Thursday.

“Our family continues to be victimized by Julius Jones and his lies,” Mr. Howell’s brother, Brian Howell, said at a news conference in September.

Advocates for Mr. Jones have argued that his defense lawyers failed him during his trial — for instance, by neglecting to question family members who said that he was having dinner with them at the time of Mr. Howell’s killing — and that prosecutors relied too heavily on the testimony of a co-defendant who said that he had seen Mr. Jones commit the crime.

“I did not kill Mr. Howell,” Mr. Jones wrote to the parole board in April, after he had exhausted his appeals. “I did not participate in any way in his murder; and the first time I saw him was on television when his death was reported.”

Supporters of Mr. Jones, who is Black, also argued that racism played a role in his trial and sentencing. African Americans make up a disproportionate number of death-row prisoners in Oklahoma and in the United States, and research has shown that people convicted of murder are much more likely to be executed if the person who was killed was white.

The federal government and 27 states have some form of capital punishment. Executions peaked at 98 in 1999, and 10 people have been put to death this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Of the 2,504 people on death row in April, 42 percent were white, 41 percent were Black and 13 percent were Hispanic, the center said.

Mr. Stitt’s announcement came after federal public defenders filed an emergency motion on Thursday asking a federal judge to stay the execution based on “compelling evidence” that the drugs used in lethal injections “pose a serious and substantial risk of severe suffering and pain to prisoners.”

The lawyers urged the court to ensure that Mr. Jones and three other death-row inmates not be executed before February, when a federal trial is set to begin in a long-running lawsuit over whether the drugs used in executions subject inmates to unconstitutional pain and suffering.

Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman, via Associated Press

One of the most full-throated pleas for mercy came from the Rev. Keith Jossell, his spiritual adviser, on Wednesday night. His voice booming, Mr. Jossell recalled the killing of hundreds of Black people during the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Okla., and suggested that people boycott the state if the execution were carried out.

“If you’re a business and you think that you might want to relocate to Oklahoma, look at what we do to our citizens,” he said. “If you are a family and you think this might be a good Bible Belt place to raise your family, look at what we do to people in Oklahoma.”

The Rev. Derrick Scobey, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, said he believed the governor’s decision was influenced by concerns that the execution could set off civil unrest and hurt the state’s business climate.

“I believe he looked beyond Julius and the Howell family, and he looked to what was best for the state of Oklahoma,” said Mr. Scobey, who said he discussed the case with Mr. Stitt in May 2020 and with the governor’s aides this week. He was also arrested on Wednesday night during a protest outside the governor’s mansion.

Madeline Davis-Jones, Mr. Jones’s mother, said she was grateful that her son was not executed for a murder she said he did not commit.

“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 in a statement. “But today is a good day, and I am thankful to Governor Stitt for that.”

Azi Paybarah and Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.