(RNS) — In a decision hailed by religious leaders who have taken up his cause, an Oklahoma parole board voted to recommend commutation of the death sentence of Julius Jones, who has been on death row for two decades.
The Rev. Cece Jones-Davis, the Justice for Julius campaign director, said she viewed the recommendation Monday (Sept. 13) of “life with the possibility of parole” as paving the way for Jones to leave prison relatively soon because of the time he has already served.
“Today, God won,” Jones-Davis said in a statement to Religion News Service on Monday. “Julius Jones is one step closer to realizing Justice because The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 for Julius’ sentence to be commuted off of death row! They saw the merits of the case as they are, were moved by compassion, and did the right thing. I am beyond grateful to them.”
Jones, a Black man, was convicted of killing a white businessman during a carjacking. Two people have signed sworn affidavits stating that someone else is responsible for the crime. An inmate in Arkansas, speaking via a video released in March, has made a similar statement.
In his petition for commutation, Jones said he was innocent.
“(A)s God is my witness, I was not involved in any way in the crimes that led to Paul Howell being shot and killed on July 28, 1999,” he wrote. “I have spent the past twenty years on death row for a crime I did not commit, did not witness, and was not at.”
Clergy from across the U.S. have advocated for Jones, 41, holding in-person rallies, online events and letter-writing campaigns in hopes of getting him clemency and, some hope, release from prison.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt will consider the board’s recommendation and could deny it, approve it or change the commutation to life without parole or time served, the Justice for Julius campaign said.
“In death penalty cases, there should be no doubt and, put simply, I have doubts about this case,” said Adam Luck, chair of the parole board, in a recording of the announcement of his board’s votes on the website of KOCO, the ABC affiliate in Oklahoma City. “I cannot ignore those doubts, especially when the stakes are life and death. For this reason, my vote is yes and I recommend commuting the sentence to life with the possibility of parole.”
Bishop T.D. Jakes, a Dallas megachurch pastor, had written to Stitt and to the parole board expressing concern about Jones’ case. On Monday, Jakes described the board’s decision as an answer to prayers.
“We are not asking for mercy; we are asking for justice,” he said in a statement to RNS. “Based on what we know, killing Mr. Jones would be an injustice. We implore Governor Stitts to bear this critically important fact in mind as he ponders his decision.”
The Rev. Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners and now director of the Center on Faith and Justice at Georgetown University, also wrote to the governor and the board citing reasons for why Jones should receive a commutation.
“The vote recommending commutation of Julius Jones death sentence represents three things: That the evidence of racism, the need for fairness in the rule of law, and the involvement of faith and justice communities can make a difference,” Wallis said in a statement to RNS. “As we say, Thanks be to God.”
Some of Jones’ supporters gathered at an Oklahoma City church and celebrated with prayers and speeches after the board hearing. But they also remembered the family of Howell, who they believe was killed by someone other than Jones.
“I don’t want anybody here to mistake our celebration today that we do not care about what happens to that family,” said Minister Keith Jossell, one of several speakers at the Justice for Julius event. “We serve a big enough God who can celebrate with us and comfort them in their pain.”
Jones-Davis, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, started the coalition after watching Viola Davis’ ABC documentary series “The Last Defense,” which featured Jones’ case. Jones-Davis is not related to either the actress and producer or Julius Jones.
Responding to the tweeted announcement from the Justice for Julius campaign, Davis tweeted “OMG!!!! My heart! It just expanded!!!”
Shane Claiborne, author of “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us,” also tweeted about his appreciation of the board’s decision and his fellow advocates.
“YES!!!!!!!!! Grateful for all the folks who have been working for so many years,” said Claiborne, who had said he believed Jones was innocent.
Oklahoma County District Attorney Daniel Prater had urged the parole board to deny Jones’ application, saying, The Associated Press reported in March, that the prisoner is “fueling a media circus with outright lies.”
Oklahoma’s attorney general has requested that the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals set an execution date of Oct. 28 for Jones.