Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) granted clemency on Thursday to Julius Jones, a man who was previously facing execution later that day as punishment for a murder he says he did not commit.
Stitt’s decision came after the state’s Pardon and Parole Board twice recommended clemency for Jones, citing evidence of his innocence and his young age at the time of the crime. “Personally, I believe in death penalty cases there should be no doubts. And put simply, I have doubts about the case,” board Chairman Adam Luck said at Jones’ first clemency hearing in September.
The Pardon and Parole board recommended Stitt commute Jones’ sentence to life with the possibility of parole — but on Thursday Stitt specifically blocked Jones from pursuing freedom through 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 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.”
Although the Pardon and Parole Board made its recommendations on Sept. 13 and Nov. 1, Stitt waited until hours before Jones’ scheduled execution to announce his decision. The delay meant that Jones spent weeks on highly restrictive death watch, while he and his family waited to see if he would be allowed to live.
“It is definitely a mixed blessing,” Don Heath, the Chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said in a statement. “We are thankful that Julius’ life was spared. We grieve that he will have to spend the rest 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. Still 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.”
Jones’ lawyer, Amanda Bass, said that while they had hoped Stitt would fully follow the board’s recommendation and commute Jones’ sentence to life with the possibility of parole in light of the evidence of his innocence, “we are grateful that the Governor has prevented an irreparable mistake.”
Jones’ case, a subject of a 2018 documentary series produced by Viola Davis, has attracted high-profile attention. Since then, Jones has received public support from Kim Kardashian, NFL Cleveland Browns quarterback Even Baker Mayfield, and NBA players Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Trae Young. On Wednesday, high school students across Oklahoma City walked out of their classrooms in protest of Jones’ scheduled execution.
Jones was sentenced to death for the July 28, 1999, murder of Paul Howell, who was shot as he got out of his GMC Suburban in the driveway of his parents’ home. His adult sister and two young children were with him at the time. His sister later described the shooter as a Black man, wearing a black stocking cap and a red bandana over his face.
After police recovered Howell’s stolen Suburban, two confidential informants directed police to Jones and his friend Christopher Jordan. Police arrested Jordan first, who claimed Jones was the one who had shot Howell. Bob Macy, the district attorney at the time, vowed to seek the death penalty against Jones before charges were formally filed.
Several members of Jones’ family remember him being at home at the time of the crime. They can recall specific details about that night: playing Monopoly, eating spaghetti, and how Jones’ brother kept sneaking bites of a big chocolate chip cookie Jones had gotten as a gift for his 19th birthday days earlier.
But the jury at Jones’ trial never heard from any of his family about his alibi. After the lawyer initially assigned to Jones passed away, the court appointed three overworked public defenders, none of whom had previously had a death penalty case. Lead counsel David McKenzie later said he was “terrified” by the case because of his lack of experience in death penalty litigation. The second lawyer on the case had been a lawyer for a little more than a year, and the third had passed the bar exam the month before being assigned to the case.
Before the trial, Manuel Littlejohn, a man in the same jail as Jordan, told McKenzie that Jordan had admitted that he, not Jones, was the one who shot Howell. Littlejohn had nothing to gain by saying this — defense lawyers, unlike prosecutors, can’t provide leniency in exchange for cooperation. But McKenzie worried that because Littlejohn was facing murder charges, jurors would not find him credible and decided against calling him as a witness.
At trial, when it was McKenzie’s turn to present Jones’ defense, McKenzie said only, “Judge, the defense announces rest.”
“I was devastated when I heard the words, ‘We rest,’” Jones’ sister, Antoinette Jones, said in an episode of the podcast “Wrongful Conviction.” “There was no defense there.”
The Pardon and Parole Board that twice recommended clemency for Jones has been the target of a series of politically motivated attacks that appear to be aimed at deterring members from voting for Jones’ life to be spared. Multiple prosecutors have unsuccessfully tried to block two board members who have expressed support for criminal justice reform — Luck and Kelly Doyle — from participating in Jones’ clemency proceedings.
In one of many attacks on Luck and Doyle, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater claimed that their work at separate organizations providing services to formerly incarcerated people creates a conflict of interest in considering requests for parole and commutation. Both Prater and Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor unsuccessfully tried to get the state Supreme Court to block Luck and Doyle from participating in Jones’ case.
When the state Supreme Court declined to intervene, Prater requested a grand jury investigation into the Pardon and Parole board, a move Stitt described as “the latest political stunt to intimidate the Pardon and Parole Board and obstruct the Constitutional process as high-profile cases that his office prosecuted are being considered.”
The judge who approved the grand jury request, Ray Elliott, is married to Sandra Elliott, who prosecuted Jones’ case at trial and who represented Prater in his bid to the state Supreme Court.
Still, on Sept. 13, nearly two years after Jones submitted his commutation application, the Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 to recommend that his death sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole. The state scheduled Jones’ execution date shortly after, which triggered a clemency process similar to the commutation process Jones had already begun.
The board held Jones’ clemency hearing on Nov. 1. He was given 20 minutes to address the board, “the first chance that I’ve had in over 20 years to talk about what happened and where I was on the night Mr. Paul Howell was senselessly murdered,” Jones said.
“I want to be clear about two things. First, I feel for the Howell family and for the tragic loss of Mr. Paul Howell, who I’ve heard was a caring and all-around good person and father. Second, I am not the person responsible for taking Mr. Howell’s life.”
Howell’s sister Megan Tobey, who witnessed the shooting, also spoke at the hearing. She accused Jones of being a “sociopath” responsible for “an execution-style murder” and said “we need this to end for our family.”
For a second time, the board voted 3-1 to spare Jones from execution and commute his sentence to life with the possibility of parole.
That Jones came as close as he did to being killed was the result of a grim legal technicality. Jones, along with dozens of others on Oklahoma death row, is part of an ongoing lawsuit over whether the state’s lethal injection protocol violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The trial is expected to begin in early 2022.
Oklahoma’s three-drug execution protocol — midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride — is the same drug combination that was used in the infamously botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014. Both men who have been executed in Oklahoma since Lockett — Charles Warner in 2015 and John Marion Grant last month — showed visible signs of suffering as they died. Warner’s autopsy revealed that he had been killed with the wrong combination of drugs, a mistake nearly repeated on Richard Glossip in 2015 before his execution was called off at the last minute.
In May 2020, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot, who is presiding over the lethal injection litigation, said he had received assurances from then-Attorney General Mike Hunter that the state would not seek execution dates until the completion of the lawsuit. But three months later, when Friot ruled that the case could go to trial, he dismissed six plaintiffs from the case, claiming they had not sufficiently offered an alternative method of execution.
Friot suggested in a footnote that if the dismissed plaintiffs were executed, they could serve as human test subjects to help determine whether Oklahoma’s execution protocol is unconstitutionally cruel. The state quickly scheduled execution dates for those six, plus a seventh who was not part of the lawsuit. The dismissed plaintiffs have since been reinstated to the case, but the state has refused to call off the executions.