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Oklahoma Gov. Stitt commutes prisoner's sentence hours before planned execution

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Oklahoma Gov. Stitt commutes prisoner's sentence hours before planned execution
Julius Jones was sentenced to death for the 1999 slaying of Paul Howell. File Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections

Nov. 18 (UPI) -- Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt on Thursday commuted the death sentence of Julius Jones hours before the death row prisoner's planned execution.

Jones will now serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

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"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.

Amanda Bass, an attorney for Jones, welcomed the announcement.

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"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," she said in a statement emailed to UPI.

"While we had hoped the governor would adopt the [parole] 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."

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Oklahoma planned to execute Jones on Thursday evening amid calls by foreign officials, lawmakers and activists for clemency.

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Jones was sentenced to death for the 1999 slaying of Paul Howell, who was shot to death outside his parents' home. A witness said they saw a Black man wearing a red bandana and with 1 inch to 2 inches of hair shoot Howell and steal his vehicle.

Jones, who was 19 at the time of the shooting, has said he wasn't the killer.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board twice recommended that Stitt grant a commutation for Jones, and his lawyers say there were "grievous errors" in the case that led to a conviction and a death sentence.

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Defense attorneys have said that Jones was at home with family when Howell was killed, a fact that was never presented at trial.

The clemency petition said Jones also didn't match the witness description of the shooter, and attorneys have noted that the description matched co-defendant Christopher Jordan, who received 15 years in prison after becoming a witness for prosecutors in Jones' trial.

The clemency petition added that Jordan admitted to others that he was the one who killed Howell.

Stitt faced growing pressure from anti-death penalty activists to spare Jones, including from the Legal Defense Fund and the Innocence Project.

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The Legal Defense Fund said in a letter to Stitt that it's reviewed Jones' case and was "deeply concerned that an innocent man faces execution."

"The sole eyewitness description of the perpetrator does not match Mr. Jones, but does match the prosecution's star witness against him, and that other man has admitted to at least four different people that he was the person who shot and killed the victim," the letter states.

"Taken together, these facts provide powerful evidence that Mr. Jones is innocent. At a minimum, there is far too much doubt for Mr. Jones to be put to death."

Foreign governments also opposed Oklahoma's planned execution, including Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Belgium, as well as the European Union.

Belgian Ambassador to the United States Jean-Arthur Régibeau sent a letter to Stitt on Wednesday, encouraging him to follow the recommendation of the parole board.

"The concerns expressed by board members, including Mr. Jones' lack of understanding of the consequences of his actions at age 19, fundamental questions about evidence, and the disparity between his and Mr. Christopher Jordan's sentences, underscore the importance of commuting Mr. Jones' sentence," he wrote.

Jones was one of dozens of death row prisoners suing over Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol.

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The state announced in February 2020 that it planned to resume executions nearly six years after the use of an incorrect drug led to the botched execution of a convicted murderer. Stitt had said that after mulling the option of using nitrogen gas to carry out executions, the state has now found a "reliable supply of drugs" to resume lethal injections.

Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol came under scrutiny in 2014 when Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack amid complications during his execution.

Autopsy reports released a year later indicated that Oklahoma corrections officials used the wrong drug -- potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride -- during the process. Lockett complained of a burning sensation and attempted to raise his head and speak after doctors declared he was unconscious.

The same incorrect drug was delivered to corrections officials for use in the planned 2015 execution of Richard Glossip. Former Gov. Mary Ballin called off Glossip's execution with a last-minute, indefinite stay after she learned of the discrepancy.

After the execution of Charles Warner in January 2015, the state had an unofficial moratorium on executions as it attempted to secure a supply of lethal injection drugs. Oklahoma uses a three-drug cocktail of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

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Oklahoma carried out its first execution in nearly seven years last month to put inmate John Grant to death. Media witnesses said Grant convulsed and vomited multiple times after he was administered the initial drug in the lethal injection protocol.

Demetrius Minor, the national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, offered his thanks to Stitt for Jones' clemency.

"However, this does not negate the fact that the death penalty is a failed policy marked by grievous errors. Along with the botched executions, we cannot forget that more than 185 people have been freed from death rows due to wrongful convictions. As conservatives, we will continue to fight this costly, unchecked government power that is shrouded in secrecy," he said.

Executions in the United States have undergone changes in recent years after states started running out of the essential lethal injection drug pentobarbital. The European Union in 2011 voted to prohibit the sale of the drug and seven other barbiturates to the United States for use in torture or executions. Some pharmaceutical companies have refused outright to sell drugs for lethal injection purposes, and some will only sell if their name is kept confidential.

Now states are being forced to use new drug cocktails, scramble to restock their stores of drugs and review their lethal injection policies.

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