OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted Julius Jones’ death sentence to life in prison without parole as Jones’ execution for the 1999 murder of Paul Howell came within hours.
Stitt’s commutations of Jones’ death sentence comes after several years of turmoil over Jones’ 2002 murder conviction. Jones pleaded not guilty to murdering Howell and has since maintained his innocence.
“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,” said Gov. Stitt.
Pursuant to that provision, the Governor has ordered that Jones shall not be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life.
“The Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General respects the statutory authority of the Governor to make this decision. I know Governor Stitt is making what he believes is the right decision. I appreciate the Governor’s condition that Mr. Jones never be released from prison. 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. A thorough review of the evidence confirms Julius Jones’ guilt in this case and that the death penalty was warranted. Our office will continue to work for justice and for the safety of all Oklahomans, including families like Paul Howell’s. We recognize that the pain of losing a loved one never ends, and our hearts and prayers are with the Howell family.”Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor
The family of Paul Howell released the following statement regarding today’s commutation announcement:
“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.”
Amanda Bass, attorney for Julius Jones also released a statement following Gov. Stitt’s decision.
“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. 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’s innocence, we are grateful that the Governor has prevented an irreparable mistake.”Amanda Bass
Senate Democratic Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, released the following statement:
“I thank Governor Stitt for issuing an executive order to commute the sentence of Julius Jones. This was a very difficult process. I am grateful the governor gave consideration to the facts of the case and made this decision.”Sen. Kay Floyd
The archbishop of Oklahoma City also released a statement Thursday following the announcement:
“It took tremendous courage in the face of intense pressure for Gov. Stitt to grant clemency in this case. I applaud his commitment to seeking justice while providing the condemned an opportunity for redemption. To oppose the death penalty is not to be soft on crime. Rather, it is to be strong on the dignity of life.”Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City
Jones was set to be executed on Thursday, Nov. 18.
Earlier Thursday, Attorneys for Julius Jones have filed an emergency motion for a preliminary injunction based on the drugs Oklahoma uses to execute inmates.
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 on Sept. 13 in favor of recommending commutation for Jones. However, Stitt announced two weeks later that he would not accept the Board’s recommendation for commutation, saying “a clemency hearing, not a commutation hearing, is the appropriate venue for our state to consider death row cases.”
The clemency hearing was held on Nov. 2, and the Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 to recommend clemency for Jones.
Five Republican Oklahoma lawmakers issued a joint statement on Thursday, Nov. 11, calling upon Stitt to grant Jones clemency.
Representatives John Talley, Logan Phillips, Kevin McDugle, Preston Stinson and Garry Mize said in the statement that there are too many loose ends in the case to sentence Jones to death.
“I still have many constituents who still have questions,” Stinson said. “I am asking Gov. Stitt to take him off death row and accept the recommendation of his pardon and parole board.”
Jones’ family, including his mother Madeline Davis-Jones, hand-delivered a letter to Stitt’s office Monday. They made two formal requests to meet with the governor, and waited to make their case for why they believe Jones’ death sentence should be commuted.
Stitt’s Chief of Communications, Charlie Hannema, later came out of Stitt’s office and told the family the governor was considering their letter, but could not meet with them. Hannema then went back inside the office, not responding to a Jones family member who asked if Stitt was refusing to meet with them.
Derrick Scobey, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, said on Tuesday that he spoke with Hannema and Stitt’s General Counsel Trevor Pemberton about how the governor was doing while deciding Jones’ fate. Scobey said they told him Stitt was praying for guidance on the decision.
Jones’ plea for clemency grew into a national movement characterized by frequent public demonstrations calling for “Justice for Julius.”
He was convicted of murdering Howell, an Edmond businessman who was shot to death in the driveway of his parents’ Edmond home in July 1999.
Howell, along with his sister, Megan Howell, and his two daughters, nine-year-old Rachel and seven-year-old Abby, returned home in Howell’s Suburban after shopping for back-to-school supplies and a trip to Braum’s for ice cream.
Prosecutors said Jones, who was 19 at the time, and his close friend, Christopher Jordan, set out to steal a Suburban. They parked in the Braum’s parking lot, waited and followed the Howell family home.
Rachel Howell and Megan Howell spoke with KFOR in September ahead of the Pardon and Parole Board’s commutation hearing for Jones. Rachel said she was in the backseat of the Suburban with her sister, sitting behind her father, who was in the driver seat. She said Julius Jones came up to the vehicle and shot her father in the head without saying a word.
Megan Howell said she picked up Abby, pulled Rachel across the car and huddled over them. She said another gunshot rang out as they ran up the driveway.
Prosecutors said Jones took off in the Suburban after the murder, running over Howell’s body as he fled the scene.
Jones, who was enrolled at the University of Oklahoma at the time, was arrested and indicted for the murder. He did not take the stand during the trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to death in 2002.
Jones’ supporters say he was failed by his defense team, which they say never brought up his alibi on the night of the murder.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said Jones’ supporters have “disseminated misinformation and lies regarding the trial and evidence” in the case.
Jones and his family have remained adamant that he did not murder Paul Howell.
“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.”
The U.S. Supreme Court announced in January 2019 that they would not review Jones’ case after Jones’ attorney argued that people of color in Oklahoma are more likely to be sentenced to death when the victim in the case is white.
Jones’ attorneys filed a new appeal asking the court to consider evidence against a specific juror accused of using a racial slur when referring to Jones during the trial. The juror is also reported to have said to another member of the jury that someone should shoot Jones “behind the jail.”
Defense attorneys say the judge in the case knew about the conversation, but did not dismiss the juror.
The U.S. Supreme Court again denied Jones’ petition for a judicial review.
Former Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter in May, when he was still attorney general, said Jones is guilty, and referenced a red bandana that was found wrapped around the murder weapon found in Jones’ home.
The bandana was tested in 2018 for DNA evidence after Jones’ defense attorneys claimed the evidence would prove that Jones was being framed.
However, the results of the DNA profile showed the probability of the DNA belonging to someone other than Jones was one in 110 million African Americans.
Jones’ defense team shared new evidence this past year, including a sworn affidavit from a man who said that Jordan, Jones’ codefendant, confessed to the murder.
“Christopher Jordan spent years behind bars casually confessing to murder and to framing Julius,” said Dale Baich, Jones’ attorney. “It is unimaginable that the state would execute a man given that another suspect in the case confessed to the crime multiple times…We are thrilled that the Board has agreed to consider the growing body of evidence that Julius is innocent, and convinced that any fair and impartial review of the facts of the case will result in the commutation of his sentence and his release from prison.”
Jones would have been the second person executed in Oklahoma following the end of a moratorium on executions that lasted six years.
John Grant was executed on Oct. 28 for the 1998 murder of Gay Carter, who was the kitchen supervisor at the Dick Conner Correctional Center, where Grant was incarcerated for robbery convictions. He stabbed her with a shank 16 times.
The moratorium was implemented in 2015 after lethal injections using a controversial three-drug cocktail caused two death row inmates to suffer excruciating pain during the execution.
The drug cocktail consists of midazolam, a sedative, vecuronium bromide, a paralytic, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.
Witnesses to Grant’s execution say he convulsed about two-dozen times and vomited following the injection of midazolam. He continued breathing until after the second drug was administered.
A federal judge denied a request for a stay of execution for five death row inmates, including Jones and Grant.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals placed a stay on Grant’s and Jones’ executions on Oct. 27. The death row inmates’ legal teams argued to the Court of Appeals that they had an agreement with former Attorney General Hunter that no executions would take place for the time being because of an upcoming trial set for February, which challenges whether Oklahoma’s execution protocol, the three-drug cocktail, is legal.
However, the State of Oklahoma appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the High Court to vacate the stays of execution. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the State. Grant was executed two hours later.