He was four hours from death by lethal injection when Gov. Kevin Stitt granted him last-minute mercy. Months later, Julius Jones said he’s still angry, but hopes to walk out of prison one day. 

“I was hours away from being killed, how do you really think I feel?” Jones said during a phone call in April with his sister Antoinette. “I’m pissed. I’m still pissed.”

Antionette Jones provided a recording of the call to The Frontier. 

Most importantly, Jones is still alive. Convicted of the 1999 slaying of Edmond businessman Paul Howell, Jones spent nearly 20 years on death row claiming innocence. Stitt’s executive order commuted his death sentence but demanded Jones still die in prison, barring him from ever seeking a pardon or parole. 

Jones and his supporters still hope he’ll be released one day. Some members of Jones’ legal team have questioned what might happen if a more sympathetic governor chooses to undo the order after Stitt leaves office. 

On the phone with his sister, Jones compared his situation to a playoff basketball game when  he was a star athlete at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City. Jones’ team was losing late in the game. He could see his teammates struggling mentally, fearing their state tournament run was about to end, he said. 

“I never believed we were going to lose,” Jones said on the phone call. Jones’ team came back to win that game and ultimately won the state title. 

“One of my basketball coaches … told me if you don’t shoot the shot, you can’t hit it,” Jones said.

But Jones has few legal options moving forward. Outside of new evidence surrounding the crime or that Jones’ attorney was ineffective at his 2001 trial, he’s barred from seeking relief in state courts.

Jones’ federal attorneys declined to comment to The Frontier, saying they had turned their focus to cases in other states. One of Jones’ former lawyers, Dale Baich, announced this month he was leaving the Federal Public Defender’s office.

‘It’s an ongoing story’

After more than 15 years in prison, Jones’ became a national figure when the ABC series “The Last Defense” aired a three-part documentary in 2018 about his case. 

By the time Jones’ execution date rolled around, his celebrity supporters included Kim Kardashian and NBA stars like Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook. But Cece Jones-Davis was one of his most important advocates. 

Jones-Davis, who is no relation to Julius, moved to Oklahoma with her family after her husband got a job with the Oklahoma City Thunder. In 2018 she watched a documentary about his case and felt conflicted. She believed an innocent man was about to be put to death. Jones-Davis, who has a background in politics and social justice issues, eventually became the director of the Justice For Julius coalition.

Soon after Stitt spared Jones from execution, Jones-Davis was at Oklahoma State Penitentiary to hug Jones’ family and the supporters who had protested outside the prison gates. 

Months later, Jones-Davis said she’s still processing what happened that day.

“I can say I was relieved, but nobody is bouncing off the walls,” she said. “There was a moment of celebration, but it’s fleeting because there’s still more work to be done.” 

Jones-Davis is still committed to seeing Jones leave prison, even if it’s a longshot. 

“It’s an ongoing story,” she told The Frontier. “We were very relieved that his life was spared, but we were also very grieved because we knew that just sparing his life was not justice.”

Jones’ sister Antoinette Jones, who is five years his junior, has remained a constant presence. She offers Jones a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear during phone calls from prison. The morning Jones’ sentence was commuted, she had taken their father to his first dialysis treatment at 5 a.m. before spending the rest of the morning waiting on Stitt’s ruling. 

“I had to be like, I can’t break, I can’t be down,” she said. “I know that our father’s health weighs on Julius too, knowing that he hasn’t been there to see his parents get older and get more gray hair.”

She describes Stitt’s executive order as a devastating “gut-punch” for her family after a years-long rollercoaster of seeing her brother’s case work its way through the court system.  

“But I can’t imagine how (Julius) feels about it sometimes … he was ready to go to heaven or get out. He was going home one way or another and now they say he’s stuck in prison forever,” she said,

Antoinette Jones said she will continue to advocate for her brother’s release. 

“As long as I have energy and breath, I’ll speak on interviews, podcasts, whatever it takes to let people know our story,” she said. 

‘The fight ain’t finished’

Julius and Antoinette Jones always had faith his life would be spared. 

“I prayed for it too long,” Antoinette Jones told The Frontier. “What I pray about comes true. I never believed he’d be killed.”

Even though Jones’ family is angry about the executive order and what they believe is the state’s attempt to sweep Jones’ case under the rug, there’s relief that there’s more time to plot the next step.

Antoinette Jones, the sister of Julius Jones, speaks on March 8, 2021, after the state Pardon and Parole Board advanced her brother’s commutation request to a second phase. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

“He came within four hours of being strapped in and executed,” Antoinette Jones said. “Looking back, it’s hard to think about.”

Speaking to his sister from prison, Jones admitted that while he believed he’d be spared, he was ready to die if Stitt failed to act. 

“Was I prepared to die? I was,” he said on the phone call. 

“My first thought was, I won’t be here to uplift my family no more,” he said. “That was my concern.”

He told his sister he could feel the energy from supporters from around the country, even if he couldn’t see them. 

“I felt that momentum, of course I did,” he said. “And it was honestly the most beautiful thing to watch people come together from different walks of life, from different parties and different ethnic groups and cultures and faith,” he said. “And for them to stand up for me and to stand up for what’s right.”

On the day Jones’ scheduled execution, hundreds of high school students — none of whom were born when he was convicted of Howell’s murder — walked out in support of his commutation. 

“Across this state, across this country, across the world, to have people stand behind my mother and my father and brother and sister, especially my mother and sister, that meant so much to me,” Jones said. “That’s God’s gift. But the fight ain’t finished.”

A new life, still behind bars

Jones’ life has been uprooted in the months since Stitt converted his sentence to life without parole. Prison officials have moved him from Oklahoma State Penitentiary’s H Unit in McAlester, where he’s lived for most of the past 20 years with other death row prisoners. Jones’ new home is Joseph Harp Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Lexington.

On death row, Jones was only able to spend an hour a day out of his cell. At his new facility, Jones is in a “step-down” unit, that’s more akin to a general population environment. After six weeks there, he’ll have an evaluation that could see him placed in an even more open environment with access to church services and schooling.

For now, Jones vacillates between happiness and frustration. Off death row, he’s able to have contact visits with his family members after not being allowed to touch them for two decades. Jones was able to briefly see his family after his commutation, but was “shackled, handcuffed and belly-chained,” he said, leaving him unable to return the hugs of the family members who were embracing him. 

“I was glad ya’ll got to hug me,” he told Antoinette Jones. “Hopefully my penitentiary smell ain’t too bad.”

He’ll celebrate his 42nd birthday this summer, still in prison. A nicer, more relaxed prison, “but still prison,” he said.

“I’m still locked up,” Jones said. “I’ve been in prison 22 years. Longer than I was free.”

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