Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has granted clemency to death row inmate Julius Jones just hours before his execution for a murder he says he did not commit. The governor on Thursday reduced Jones’ sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“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.
Stitt ordered that Jones shall never be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the rest of his life, USA Today reported.
Jones was 19 years old when he was convicted of killing Paul Howell in 1999. Jones has always insisted that he is innocent, and his family maintains he was home at the time of the murder. In September this year, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended Stitt commute Jones’ sentence to life in prison. But the governor at the time said he would only decide after a clemency hearing.
This month, the same parole board recommended granting clemency to Jones, who pleaded his case to the board less than three weeks before he was set to be executed. The board voted 3-1 to recommend commuting Jones’ sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole, a release from Jones’ attorneys said.
With the governor’s decision, Jones’ execution, set for Thursday, is canceled.
On July 28, 1999, Paul Howell was murdered outside his parents’ home in a carjacking in front of his sister and his daughters. His SUV was stolen. Howell’s sister, according to court documents, said she saw a Black man she said was wearing jeans, a white T-shirt and a black cap with a red bandana over his face. She said as she ran into the house with Howell’s children, the shooter fired again. By 1.45 the following morning, Howell was dead.
Three days later, 19-year-old Jones was arrested at his home. This was after authorities had found the murder weapon wrapped in a red bandana inside his family’s home. Jones was tried alongside a co-defendant, Christopher Jordan, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit a robbery and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Jordan also testified against Jones, according to court records. Jones was convicted and sentenced to death. To date, his family has maintained that he is innocent. His clemency petition states that he has been on death row for two decades for a crime he didn’t commit because of “fundamental breakdowns in the system tasked with deciding” if he was guilty of the crime.
His lawyers claim in his clemency petition that his conviction was due to several failures, including his “inexperienced, overworked, and under-resourced public defenders.” His family say his public defender lacked experience and did not cross-examine witnesses. They also argue that Jones was not allowed to testify about certain details. Jones’ family further state that race played a role in his conviction, claiming that a White juror and the officer who arrested Jones called Jones the N-word.
The petition also states that scores of people say Jordan admitted he was the one who actually killed Howell. He then hid the weapon and the bandana inside Jones’ house. The petition says Jordan spent the night at the home the day after the murder.
Jordan was released from prison in 2014. Four years later, an ABC documentary about Jones, “The Last Defense,” centered on evidence attorneys did not present at court about Jordan. Speaking with documentary makers from jail, Jones said he regretted not saying it was Jordan who committed the murder.
“I mean, this is probably my greatest downfall, that I never said anything to the police,” Jones said. “But where I grew up, you’re not supposed to be telling other people’s business because bad things can happen to you. These people set me up to take the fall. Because they knew someone was going to fry for this.”
After the documentary aired, Jones’ case got a lot of attention from celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Stephen Curry.
What Paul Howell’s relatives are saying
Rachel Howell, who was nine years old when her father was killed and was with him that day, said there is a lot of misinformation around this case. She said the public has been given a false narrative about this case.
“Julius Jones and his family and their supporters claim that he did not get the opportunity to testify in court,” Rachel Howell said, according to CBS News. “That is completely false. You can find it in the transcripts, if you do the research. They asked him multiple times if he is waiving his right to testify, and he’s agreed, he did not want to testify.”
Rachel Howell continued: “He [Paul Howell] was an innocent man, taking his kids to get ice cream with my aunt. He was murdered in front of me and my sister and my aunt. Understand that we are the victims here. We have done nothing wrong, and it almost feels like we are doing something wrong by speaking out.”
Paul Howell’s family have made it known that Jones’ sentence has been repeatedly upheld on appeal, adding that all they want is justice.
“They want justice; we want justice,” Antoinette Jones, the sister of Jones, said. “That’s why every time I say, ‘Justice for Julius,’ and every time I’m fighting for my brother, I’m fighting for Mr. Paul Howell.”