• U.S.
  • justice

Oklahoma Gov. Commutes Julius Jones’ Death Sentence. Here’s What to Know

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Julius Jones’ death sentence has been commuted by Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, just hours before he was scheduled to be executed on Nov. 18.

On Nov. 11, the Oklahoma State Pardon and Parole Board recommended that Gov. Kevin Stitt grant clemency to Jones, a Black man who’s been on death row for nearly 20 years.

“I continue to believe there is still doubt in this case,” board member Kelly Doyle said, according to the Associated Press.

Though the governor ignored the clemency recommendations, Jones was spared death for a crime he says he did not commit.

“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,” Gov. Stitt said in a statement.

Stitt had previously announced that he would not be accepting a recommendation from the state’s parole board to commute the death sentence of Jones, which came after a commutation hearing in September. Stitt said that a clemency hearing was “more intensive and thorough than a commutation hearing.”

Jones was charged with murder in 1999. His legal team had been awaiting a decision from Gov. Stitt after the parole board made their commutation recommendation on Sept. 13. (In a 3-1 vote, the board ruled that Jones’ death sentence should be commuted to life in prison).

“Personally, I believe in death penalty cases there should be no doubts. And put simply, I have doubts about this case,” Board Chairman Adam Luck previously said at the commutation hearing.

(The victim’s family has often spoken out against Jones, believing that he is guilty and supporting the death sentence.)

The clemency hearing was scheduled after Gov. Stitt said he would not commute the death sentence.

The crime that led to Jones’ sentence

Jones, 41, was convicted of the murder of Paul Howell, an Edmond, Okla. businessman.

Howell was shot and killed in his car—which was stolen shortly afterward—on the night of July 28, 1999 after pulling into the driveway of his parents’ home. His sister and two daughters were present at the scene. The police later received information pointing to Jones, who was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Oklahoma at the time, and another man, Christopher Jordan, as the perpetrators.

At trial, Jordan testified against Jones—and as the state’s key witness. In his testimony, Jordan alleged that Jones was the shooter and that he was just the getaway driver. (Jones’ legal team alleges that Jordan was the actual culprit.) Jordan served 15 years and has since been released.

Attorneys for Jones say that he was at home having dinner with his family at the time of the murder, an alibi which his family has consistently supported. “Family members were prepared to testify that he was at home during the crime’s commission,” Dale Baich, an attorney currently representing Jones said in a 2019 op-ed for The Oklahoman. “However, neither they nor any other witness were called in Jones’ defense at trial.”

Howell’s sister told authorities at the time that the shooter was a Black man wearing a red bandana; prosecutors said that the police found a gun wrapped in a red bandana at Jones’ house. The day after the shooting, however, Jordan had spent the night at Jones’ house—and Jones believes that Jordan planted the weapon there, according to a Dec. 2017 commutation filing.

Jones maintaining his innocence

In the twenty-two years since his trial, Jones has maintained his innocence. His story was featured on the ABC documentary series The Last Defense in 2018, where the details of the case were explored. And as the case has garnered national attention as part of a larger movement raising awareness of prosecutorial misconduct and racial bias in the criminal justice system, further questions have been raised.

“As God is my witness, I was not involved in any way in the crimes that led to Howell being shot and killed,” Jones said in his clemency report. “I have spent the past 20 years on death row for a crime I did not commit, did not witness and was not at. I feel terrible for Mr. Howell and his family but I was not responsible.”

Howell’s family, meanwhile, said they were “devastated” by the board’s decision. “The truth is that 12 jurors found Julius Jones guilty of murdering Paul Howell,” a Sept. 13 statement released by the family reads, “and that courts have reviewed that conviction for the last 18 years.”

Advocates call the case a prime example of racism in the court system

Since the release of the ABC documentary, the case has garnered support across social media and from celebrities, which has helped raise awareness for the case. Many have noted it as emblematic of systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

Powell’s murder was characterized by District Attorney Robert Macy in starkly racialized terms: that a Black man had killed a white man in a white neighborhood. Macy, whose nickname was “Cowboy,” was responsible for more death penalty convictions than any other prosecutor in the United States at the time of Jones’ trial, according to a study done by Harvard Law School.

Jones was found guilty by a jury comprised of 11 white people and one Black person. Reports and studies undertaken across the U.S. have found that race—and racial discrimination—plays a significant role in jury selection, particularly so in cases impacting people of color. And according to a 2019 petition filed by attorneys representing Jones to the Supreme Court, one of the 12 jurors in the case came forward in 2017 and said that another juror called the trial a “waste of time,” and said that “they should just take the n****r out and shoot him behind the jail.”

(Advocates for the Justice for Julius campaign also allege that an arresting officer called Jones a racial slur.)

Doug Hoke—The Oklahoman/APDr. Tiffany Crutcher speaks at the Tabernacle Baptist Church at a march and rally in support of Julius Jones during the commutation hearing on Sept. 13.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater has been very vocal about his beliefs that Jones is guilty, and has said that those seeking to have Jones’ sentence commuted have, “disseminated misinformation and lies regarding the trial and evidence,” according to Oklahoma news station KFOR. Earlier this month, he attempted to remove two parole board members from the commutation hearing, after accusing them of being biased because of their connections to advocacy groups that seek to reduce incarceration numbers. His motion was denied.

Jones was one of seven executions scheduled in Oklahoma over the next six months. In October, an Oklahoma death row inmate was executed for the first time since 2015 after several controversial executions by lethal injection were administered.

The inmate, John Marion Grant, reportedly died while vomiting and convulsing after being given the lethal injection.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Josiah Bates at josiah.bates@time.com