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Julius Jones' sentence commuted to life without parole

UPDATED: November 18, 2021 at 3:55 p.m. CST

Around noon on Thursday, less than four hours until the scheduled execution of Julius Jones, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt granted him clemency, commuting Jones' death sentence to life in prison 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 statement.

Stitt's executive order is conditional on Jones never being "eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life."

His decision comes more than two weeks after the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted to recommend clemency for Jones. That board, however, recommended Jones' sentence be commuted to life with possibility of parole.

"Today is a good day"

KOSU's Seth Bodine was in the Capitol when the news broke about Stitt's decision. High school students who had walked out of class and those who had been holding vigils at the Capitol could be heard cheering and screaming.

Similar scenes took place outside the state penitentiary in McAlester, where hundreds of people rejoiced, hugged and sang songs.

Jones' lawyer Amanda Bass released a statement after hearing the news that Stitt had commuted the sentence.

"Governor Stitt took an important step today towards restoring public faith in the criminal justice system by ensuring that Oklahoma does not execute and innocent man," said Bass. “While we had hoped the Governor would adopt the Board’s recommendation in full by commuting Julius’s 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' spiritual advisor Rev. Keith Jossell, who was at McAlester State Penitentiary today with other supporters, also expressed his gratitude for the commutation.

"Today is a good day," said Jossell. "This morning, we told Julius about all the students all over the state of Oklahoma that were walking out because of the injustice that continues to be perpetuated against him. And Julius said, 'See, we can inspire those kids and help them so that they don't go through what I've been through.’"

Jossell said while saving Jones from execution is a victory, they will now set their sights on freeing him from prison. But, it doesn't appear that this is legally possible.

"And I do believe one day, my brother Julius is going to be able to walk out of this prison, leave McAlester, Oklahoma," said Jossell.

Oklahoma Coalition to Stop the Death Penalty spokesperson Don Heath also released a statement: “It is definitely a mixed blessing. We are thankful that Julius’ life was spared. We grieve that he will have to spend the rest [of] his life in prison without the possibility of parole. That is also cruel and unusual. He’s only 41 years old and has spent 22 years in prison. I hope that Julius’ family will find comfort in this decision. We are also disturbed that Gov. Stitt [sic] waited until four hours before the execution to make this announcement. He put Julius through the ordeal of a last meal and last sleepless night in prison. We hope that sometime in the near future that the death penalty will be abolished and Julius will be free.”

"The death penalty was warranted"

Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor released a statement through Twitter about the Governor's decision saying he was disappointed that, "After 22 years, four appeals, including the review of 13 appellate judges, the work of investigators, prosecutors, the jurors and the trial judge have been set aside."

O'Connor said he respected the authority of the governor to make the decision and said that he is making what he believes is the right decision.

"A thorough review of the evidence confirms Julius Jones' guilt in this case and that the death penalty was warranted," O’Connor said.

O'Connor said he was glad that the commutation included a life sentence without the possibility of parole and that his office will work to ensure safety for Oklahoma families, like Paul Howell's.

"We recognize that the pain of losing a loved one never ends, and that our hearts and prayers are with the Howell family," O’Connor said.

Howell’s family told KFOR in a statement, “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. We would like to thank the countless people in the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office, the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office and law enforcement agencies across the state for their tireless efforts and unwavering support for the last 22 years. Julius Jones forever changed our lives and the lives of his family and friends.”

Call for execution moratorium

The ACLU of Oklahoma sent a letter to Stitt requesting that he reinstate the moratorium on executions until after the federal trial on the constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection protocol in February.

In a series of tweets, Tamya Cox-Touré, ACLU of Oklahoma Executive Director, called for ending the death penalty in the state.

“The death penalty is an intolerable denial of civil liberties and is inconsistent with the fundamental values of our democratic system,” said Cox-Touré. “We join our partners, local organizers, and especially the Jones’ family in a collective sigh that Julius will have an opportunity to live, after decades of wanting to die. We also recognize Oklahoma is set to kill five more people over the next four months and call on Governor Stitt to reimpose a moratorium on executions immediately and indefinitely. Oklahoma must end the death penalty now.”

Back in Oklahoma City, leaders of the Oklahoma NAACP held a press conference outside the Capitol building calling for the removal of Oklahoma District Attorney David Prater.

"He's got to go," said Oklahoma NAACP President Anthony Douglas.

Anthony said the case should never have gone this far and that other elected DAs fail to live up to their promises to Black people when they run for office.

"When you're campaigning, you promise the world to Black folks," Anthony said. "But when you get in office, you turn your back on us."

High school students raise their voices

Student walkouts in support of Jones continued around Oklahoma Thursday. KGOU’s Beth Wallis reports students from Norman, Tulsa and even McAlester — where Jones was set to be executed — marched out of class. The students called for Stitt to grant clemency, saying, “Say his name! Julius!”

Students walked out of class at Norman High School on November 18, 2021 to show their support for the clemency of Julius Jones.
Beth Wallis / KGOU
Students walked out of class at Norman High School on November 18, 2021 to show their support for the clemency of Julius Jones.

About 100 students demonstrated in front of Norman High School, calling out Jones’ name. When the word got out that Stitt had granted clemency for Jones, the protest turned into a celebration.

Stitt did include as a provision for clemency that Jones couldn’t get parole and would likely spend the rest of his life in prison. The decision from the Governor had students continuing to call for racial justice.

Fox23 News in Tulsa reports a crowd of students at Booker T. Washington High School protested against Stitt’s decision to commute Jones’ death sentence to life in prison without parole. Students there could be heard saying, “Life without parole is still a death sentence.”

Students in Anadarko, Mid-Del, Westmoore and John Marshall also reportedly walked out in support of Jones.

"Not on our land"

UPDATED: November 18, 2021 at 11:35 a.m. CST

Members of the group Matriarch, an Indigenous women's collective devoted to racial justice and healing, held a vigil at the Oklahoma History Center and the Oklahoma Capitol last night.

Matriarch member and Choctaw Nation citizen Sarah Adams-Cornell said to the group, "We will not stand for the state sanctioned murder of an innocent man on our stolen land."

Throughout the week, Matriarch has been circulating an image created by the Justice for Julius team that reads, "Not on our land." The words are laid over an image of Julius Jones and a backdrop of Choctaw land. McAlester, where the state's executions take place, is situated in Choctaw country.

Adams-Cornell said she reached out to Chief Gary Batton of the Choctaw Nation for a statement but hasn't heard back. KOSU has also reached out but was told that there would be no statement at this time.

Oklahoma tribal leaders speak out

UPDATED: November 18, 2021 at 10:56 a.m. CST

Two tribal leaders in Oklahoma have made statements this week about Julius Jones' imminent execution, and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt's silence this week.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. tweeted a story from CNN with the quote, "Time for Governor Kevin Stitt to save a human life. #JusticeforJulius."

He followed it up with another tweet directed at Stitt saying, "@GovStitt can err on the side of life.”

Osage Nation Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear released a statement to KOSU saying, "The Osage Nation has not taken an official position on this, however if you are asking me as an individual, my personal opinion is that the Governor should listen to his pardon and parole board. After all, isn't that what they are there for? If not, why did they vote 3 to 1 on this issue."

KOSU has reached out to several other tribal leaders, but so far none have given a statement.

Julius Jones supporters await clemency decision

ORIGINAL POST: November 18, 2021 at 2:08 a.m. CST

Death row inmate Julius Jones is scheduled to be executed at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, despite widespread and bipartisan concerns about his case.

Jones was convicted in the shooting death of Paul Howell in a 1999 carjacking. He's been behind bars for more than 20 years and has maintained his innocence.

His case has raised concerns over questionable evidence and systemic racism, while Oklahoma's method of execution — lethal injection — has been criticized as painful and terrifying, with claims it induces a sense of drowning comparable to the torture tactic of waterboarding.

Jones' legal team has said the state's case against him has always been flimsy. They say Jones was given an inadequate defense at trial, and they've uncovered new evidence pointing to his innocence. That includes statements from three prisoners who claim Jones' codefendant confessed while behind bars to murdering Howell and framing Jones.

Court documents also show there were questions whether a juror referred to Jones with a racist slur, which the defense team highlighted on appeal. They cited researchers who found, in 2017, nonwhite defendants in Oklahoma convicted of murdering white victims were much more likely to receive the death penalty. Jones is Black and Howell was white.

Prosecutors point to the murder weapon and a red bandanna the gunman is believed to have worn being found inside the home of Jones' parents. Jones alleges his co-defendant planted that evidence when he spent the night at the house.

As recently as Wednesday, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended clemency for another death row inmate, Bigler Stouffer. But that recommendation had less to do with Stouffer's innocence or guilt, and more to do with the board's concerns of the state of Oklahoma's recent execution history, which has been gruesome and filled with protocol violations.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt alone holds the final decision on Jones on Thursday. He can either grant clemency (which has been recommended by a state board), file a stay of execution to take more time on the decision, or allow the execution to take place.

Ryan LaCroix is the Director of Content and Audience Development for KOSU.
Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
Hannah France is a reporter and producer for KGOU.
Seth Bodine was KOSU's agriculture and rural issues reporter from June 2020 to February 2022.
Kateleigh Mills was the Special Projects reporter for KOSU from 2019 to 2024.
Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
Robby Korth joined KOSU as its news director in November 2022.
Catherine Sweeney was StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter from 2020 to 2023.
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