After years of protests and increased public pressure on an international scale, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt intervened to save death-row inmate Julius Jones just hours before he was to be executed by lethal injection.
“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,” Gov. Stitt announced Thursday on Twitter, linking to his full statement.
NPR reports that Jones was charged in the 1999 shooting death of Paul Howell and sentenced to die. Jones, 41, has maintained that he is innocent. Attorneys and advocates alike have asserted over the years that the process with which Jones was tried was riddled with bias and not thorough enough.
“Mr. Jones’ co-defendant admitted to being involved in the crime and is now free after testifying against Julius,” reads the petition advocating for Jones’ innocence, now signed by over 6 million people. “Newly discovered evidence shows that at least one juror harbored racial prejudice that influenced his vote to convict and sentence Mr. Jones to death.”
According to The Oklahoman, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended in September in a 3-1 vote that Jones be granted clemency.
“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,” Jones’ attorney, Amanda Bass, said in a statement after the announcement.
“While we had hoped the Governor would adopt the Board’s recommendation in full by commuting Julius’ sentence to life with the possibility of parole in light of the overwhelming evidence of Julius’ innocence, we are grateful that the Governor has prevented an irreparable mistake,” Bass added.
— Nuria Martinez-Keel (@NuriaMKeel) November 18, 2021
Notably, Christians have been front and center in the fight to free Jones and have his death sentence commuted.
“As a person of color and a person of faith, I knew that I couldn’t stand by while an innocent man was killed,” said Cece Jones-Davis, creator of the Jones petition. “I am an Oklahoma taxpayer and the idea that my money will be used to kill Julius makes me sick.”
One Virginia pastor, the Rev. Marvin Morgan, had even offered to die in Jones’ place — an act that he believes would have ended the practice of capital punishment in Oklahoma.
But one pastor in particular has been walking alongside Jones and his family for the last six months as Jones waited to be executed.
According to The Oklahoman, the Rev. Keith Jossell taught Sunday school and vacation Bible school lessons to Jones as a teen. On Thursday, the day of Jones’ scheduled execution, Jossell was prepared to be in the death chamber with Jones to offer him “spiritual comfort” as his official spiritual advisor.
Jossell had been holding weekly prayer meetings to intercede on Jones’ behalf and meeting with him directly on a regular basis to offer guidance and support.
On Wednesday, before Jones’ fate had been decided, Jossell described this experience as “an emotional roller coaster.” He told the Black News Channel that he would have just 30 minutes with Jones before the execution if Gov. Stitt decided not to intervene.
“I’ll be able to touch his hands, and I plan on administering communion to him. Julius is a man of faith — he knows God, and God knows him,” Jossell said. “I’ll be anointing his head with oil. And I believe that my primary responsibility at that time is to usher him into the presence of God.”
After Gov. Stitt’s announcement, Jones’ mother released a statement expressing gratitude to the governor.
“I still believe that every day Julius spends behind bars is an injustice, and I will never stop speaking out for him or fighting to free him,” she said. “But today is a good day, and I am thankful to Governor Stitt for that.”