Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) granted a last-minute commutation on Thursday to Julius Jones, who has spent 20 years on death row for a murder he has maintained he did not commit. Jones, now 41, had been scheduled to be executed Thursday afternoon. "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.
The Oklahoma Parole and Pardons Board had voted 3-1 earlier this month to recommend commuting Jones' sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
In 2002, a jury convicted Jones of the first-degree murder of businessman Paul Howell in 1999. Howell was shot during a carjacking, and Jones' co-defendant, Christopher Jordan, testified against him in the trial. Jordan was given 30 years in prison.
Lawyers for Jones presented evidence to the parole board that the jury had not heard evidence from several people who stated they heard Jordan admitting to the murder and framing Jones, then a 19-year-old University of Oklahoma student. The jury was also not presented with evidence about Jones' alibi or that he didn't fit the shooter's description, the lawyers said.
Howell's family said in a statement they were thankful Stitt denied Jones the possibility of being eligible for parole, pardon, or commutation. Jones' lawyers said they still hope to prove him innocent. "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," attorney Amanda Bass said in a statement.
"It is rare for an Oklahoma governor to grant clemency," The Oklahoman reports, and Stitt's commutation is only the fifth grant of clemency for a death row inmate in the state's history. Brad Henry, a Democrat in office from 2003 to 2011, granted clemency to three death row inmates, and Frank Keating, a Republican who served from 1995 to 2003, granted clemency to one inmate. From Keating's term until Stitt took office 2019, The Oklahoman adds, Oklahoma executed more than 100 people.