OKLAHOMA CITY - Gov. Kevin Stitt on Thursday commuted the death sentence of Julius Jones to life without the possibility of parole. Stitt announced his decision less than four hours before Jones was scheduled to die by lethal injection.
“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.
He also ordered that Jones never be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon or parole for the remainder of his life.
Cheers filled the halls of the Capitol as news spread among Jones supporters who had gathered for a fourth day outside the governor’s office, urging Stitt to commute Jones’ sentence. More than 100 supporters, who had begun gathering outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester Thursday morning, also let out a loud cheer when they received the news.
"I'm happy that Mama Jones doesn't have to mourn tonight, I'm happy Antoinette Jones (a sister) doesn't have to mourn tonight," said Jabee Williams, an Oklahoma City activist who was at the penitentiary Thursday morning. "There was a dark cloud for so long and I really feel like those clouds started to part now."
Stitt did not say what led him to commute Jones’ sentence, whether he had concerns about Oklahoma's recent history of problematic executions, or whether he believed claims from Jones’ supporters that the inmate was innocent in the murder of 45-year-old insurance executive Paul Howell.
In 2002, Jones, a former University of Oklahoma engineering freshman, was convicted of the 1999 murder of Howell, an Edmund businessman, and sentenced to death. Jones has maintained his innocence since his conviction.
Family of Howell could not immediately be reached for comment.
Jones has drawn support from anti-death penalty advocates and celebrities including Kim Kardashian West and athletes such as Baker Mayfield and Stephen Curry, and more recently gained support from some Republican lawmakers who wrote a statement recently calling on Stitt to grant clemency to Jones.
However, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and former state Attorney General Mike Hunter have said the evidence is overwhelming against Jones.
In Norman, several hundred students walked out of classes Thursday morning at both city high schools to protest the impending execution. Students had walked out of schools in Oklahoma City Wednesday, with some of those students making a nearly two-mile trek down 23rd Street to stand with other Jones supporters at the Capitol.
Two separate Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Boards have recommended clemency for Jones in 2014 and again this year — with three of four recent board members citing doubts about the case’s evidence.
CNHI reporters Janelle Stecklein, Reese Gorman, Emma Keith and Adrian O'Hanlon III contributed to this story.