Antoinette Jones exited the backseat of a black SUV about half a mile up the street from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, where her brother, Julius Jones, has spent nearly his entire adult life, somber and resolute.
She told supporters she was happy that Gov. Kevin Stitt had agreed not to execute her brother on Thursday, but vowed the family would not give up — that even though Stitt said Jones would never leave the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, they would continue fighting.
A crowd of about 200 people who had assembled Thursday morning outside the prison to rally for her brother’s life was drawn to her like a magnet, and she and others were soon swarmed by supporters.
“It’s not over,” she said. “As long as he’s alive, it’s not over. Regroup, replan, it’s just another route to his freedom. We’re gonna still keep pressing on.”
Jones, who has maintained his innocence for more than two decades in the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell, was just four hours away from execution when Stitt sent an email release to reporters saying he would not let Jones be executed.
“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.
A Stitt staffer said there would be no further comment from the governor about Jones’ case.
Stitt’s executive order Thursday removing Jones from death row came with a caveat: he said Jones “shall never again be eligible to apply for, be considered for, or receive any additional commutation, pardon, or parole.”
Antoinette Jones said she woke up Thursday “at peace,” and that God had calmed her. She was prepared for whatever happened Thursday, she said.
She said Jones’ mother, Madeline Davis-Jones, got a call from his attorneys shortly before Stitt’s announcement was made public, informing them Jones would not be executed.
“She said ‘Hallelujah. Thank you, Jesus,” Antoinette Jones said. “You could hear her on the phone jumping up and down.”
Antoinette said she spoke with Julius Jones shortly after the announcement and her brother was “thankful for everyone who has loved on his family and loved on him.”
“He’s grateful,” she said.
Outside the prison, Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, the sister of Terence Crutcher, who was killed in a police shooting in Tulsa in 2016, gave the crowd the update — a statement from Stitt would be coming soon.
Voice cracking, she broke the news of Jones’ commutation to the crowd. Some hugged and cried. Others dropped to their knees. The cheering began.
In Oklahoma City, a crowd had gathered at the Capitol to rally in support of Jones. They prayed, chanted, and listened to worship music while they waited for an announcement from Stitt.
The second floor rotunda was filled with calls of “no justice, no peace” and applause as speakers detailed their faith that Stitt would make the call to grant clemency. Many carried signs and wore ‘Justice for Julius’ shirts.
When the announcement came, the crowd erupted in cheers. Demonstrators threw their hands in the air and jumped up and down, yelling “Stitt, Stitt!”
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said in a statement that he respected Stitt’s decision, but was disappointed Jones would not be executed.
“I appreciate the Governor’s condition that Mr. Jones never be released from prison,” O’Connor wrote. “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.”
Howell’s family said in a statement to News 9 that they were pleased that Stitt’s decision “affirms the guilt of Julius Jones” and said they were thankful Jones would not be eligible for a later commutation.
Amanda Bass, an attorney for Jones, issued a statement saying she was thankful Stitt “prevented an irreparable mistake,” though she had hoped the governor would allow Jones an opportunity to one day leave prison.
“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,” Bass wrote.
Antoinette Jones said she appreciated Stitt’s decision and was thankful her brother “wouldn’t be lynched.” But she vowed to keep pressing forward to see him one day be released from prison.
“I’m going to continue to be led by God and continue to seek his counsel on where I should go from here,” she said. “But we’re going to definitely keep fighting for my brother’s freedom.”
Frontier managing editor Brianna Bailey, and reporters Kassie McClung, Clifton Adcock and Kayla Branch contributed to this story.