Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted the death sentence of Julius Jones on Thursday about four hours before Jones was scheduled to be executed.

Stitt, in a statement released Thursday at noon, said that “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.”

Hundreds of people outside The Oklahoma State Penitentiary cheered when the news was released Thursday. Supporters in Oklahoma City at the State Capitol chanted “We made a difference.” One activist threw his hat over the railing of the rotunda. 

Jones, 41, was convicted in 2002 of killing Paul Howell, but has claimed innocence, saying that Christopher Jordan, who was also convicted in the Howell slaying, set him up. Jordan told police he and Jones planned to steal Howell’s vehicle and that Jones was the gunman, shooting Howell by accident. Jones was sentenced to death and Jordan, who was also convicted of first-degree murder, recieved a 30-year prison sentence. He served about 15 years of that sentence before being released, but remains on probation, prison records show.

Jones’ attorneys have long argued that his trial was tainted with racial bias and misconduct by prosecutors and that he did not have adequate legal representation. 

His defense team has claimed that a juror allegedly used a racial slur to refer to Jones during the trial, and that Jordan’s deal with prosecutors in exchange for his testimony against Jones was not properly disclosed. 

Appellate courts never took up Jones’ innocence claims over the years, but the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has twice recommended leniency for Jones. In 2020, the board began allowing death row inmates to request a commutation hearing to ask the board to recommend a lighter sentence. The board had previously only held commutation hearings in non-death penalty cases. 

Julius Jones

Jones was the first death row inmate to receive a commutation hearing, and earlier this year the board recommended to Stitt that Jones’ sentence be lessened to either time served or life with the possibility of parole. But Stitt rejected the recommendation, saying he felt that clemency hearings, which are guaranteed to inmates scheduled for execution, are the appropriate venue for death row prisoners to seek leniency. 

In November, the Pardon and Parole Board heard from Jones himself during a lengthy clemency hearing and again recommended that Stitt offer Jones leniency. This time, Stitt agreed.

Jones was about four hours shy of execution when Stitt announced he had granted clemency. Jones was scheduled to be the second person executed in the last three weeks, following the problematic execution of John Grant last month.

Grant convulsed and vomited on himself during his execution, according to media witnesses. 

He was the first person Oklahoma executed since a series of botched and executions, and execution attempts that kicked off a six-year death penalty hiatus in 2015. 

Associated Press reporter Sean Murphy, who has witnessed more than a dozen executions in Oklahoma, said Grant went into “about two dozen” full-body convulsions and vomited on himself twice after authorities administered midazolam, a sedative, which is the first drug in Oklahoma’s three-drug lethal injection cocktail. Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow, in a short virtual press conference the day after Grant’s execution, told reporters he disagreed with Murphy’s assessment. Crow said he believed that Grant was “dry heaving,” not convulsing, and that he had possibly regurgitated as a side effect of being sedated.   

Democratic lawmakers in the state, like House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, and Tulsans Monroe Nichols and Regina Goodwin, have come out in support of Jones. But so have several Republican lawmakers.

Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks on Thursday, Aug. 26. 2021, at the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce State of the State event. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Earlier this month, a group of Republican legislators released statements in support of Jones, urging Stitt to follow the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation.

Rep. Garry Mize and Rep. Preston Stinson, two Republicans who represent Edmond, where Howell was killed, told Stitt they supported clemency for Jones.

“The last thing the state should be doing is taking the life of someone who may be innocent,” Mize said in the release.

Republican representatives John Talley, Stillwater, Logan Phillips, Mounds, and Kevin McDugle, Broken Arrow, also added statements in support of Jones.

This story will be updated.