Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted Julius Jones' sentence just hours before Jones was scheduled to be executed. (NonDoc)

At 12:10 p.m. today, a little less than four hours before Julius Jones was scheduled to be executed, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced he had issued an executive order commuting Jones’ sentence to life imprisonment 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 press release.

The release stipulated that the commutation comes with the condition that Jones “shall never again be eligible to apply for, be considered for, or receive any additional commutation, pardon, or parole.”

Article 6, Section 10 of the Oklahoma Constitution says the governor can grant commutations “with such restrictions and limitations as the Governor may deem proper, subject to such regulations as may be prescribed by law.”

Jones, who was sentenced to death for the 1999 murder of Edmond resident Paul Howell, has maintained his innocence. He was the subject of the 2018 docuseries The Last Defense, which raised doubt about his conviction, and in the past few years his case has attracted national and celebrity attention.

Members of the Howell family and prosecutors have criticized the docuseries, saying it presented inaccurate and incomplete information.

On Nov. 1, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 that Jones should be offered clemency, recommending that his sentence be changed to life in prison with the possibility of parole. The board had previously reached the same conclusion after Jones’ commutation hearing on Sept. 13.

Jones was scheduled to be executed at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. After the commutation was announced, a crowd of supporters outside the prison erupted in cheers.

Supporters of Julius Jones share their thoughts moments after learning that Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted his death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. (Tres Savage)

Some speakers emphasized that they believe Jones is innocent and said they would continue to push for Jones to be released.

Shortly after the commutation announcement, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor released a statement that expressed disappointment at the governor’s decision:

The Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General respects the statutory authority of the Governor to make this decision. I know Governor Stitt is making what he believes is the right decision. I appreciate the Governor’s condition that Mr. Jones never be released from prison. However, we are greatly disappointed that after 22 years, four appeals, including the review of 13 appellate Judges, the work of investigators, prosecutors, jurors, and the trial Judge have been set aside. A thorough review of the evidence confirms Julius Jones’ guilt in this case and that the death penalty was warranted. Our office will continue to work for justice and for the safety of all Oklahomans, including families like Paul Howell’s. We recognize that the pain of losing a loved one never ends, and our hearts and prayers are with the Howell family.

The final decision regarding Jones’ sentence has been in the governor’s hands since the Pardon and Parole Board issued its clemency recommendation.

Stitt told KOCO on Nov. 5 that he would not make a determination until after meeting with defense attorneys, prosecutors and the Howell family.

When asked by KOCO if he would be meeting with Jones’ family, Stitt said a meeting had not been scheduled.

“But we will be meeting up with the defense attorneys, and if they want me to — we’re just trying to gather up all the information I can,” he said.

On Nov. 15, Jones’ mother, Madeline Davis-Jones, and a number of other family members and supporters showed up at the governor’s office unannounced to request a meeting with Stitt. Davis-Jones also brought a letter to deliver to the governor.

After a long wait, the governor’s spokesman Charlie Hannema told the crowd that Stitt would not meet with the Jones family at that time.

“We received your letter,” Hannema said. “The the governor’s going to take it into consideration. We’ve got a process. Not going to be meeting.”

He did not respond to a question about whether the governor was refusing entirely to meet with the Jones family.

John Grant convulses, vomits during execution

The Jones execution was also scheduled in the midst of controversy over Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure.

John Grant was executed by the state on Oct. 28 for the 1998 murder of a prison cafeteria worker. Witnesses to the execution have reported he convulsed and vomited after being injected with the sedative midazolam.

Though observers who have witnessed multiple executions have said vomiting during the procedure is rare, Department of Corrections spokesman Justin Wolf told the Associated Press that the execution “was carried out in accordance with Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ protocols and without complication.”

In a press conference, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow, who watched Grant’s execution, said he did not agree with witness accounts of what had happened.

“There have been comments regarding the number of times the inmate convulsed or dry heaved on the table,” Crow said. “By my estimation, the number of times is less than 10. There are some that have indicated it was two dozen. From my vantage point, I didn’t see that, but I’m not refuting what was said. I’m just saying what I observed directly myself.”

He also said DOC will continue executions as scheduled.

“It is my intent to continue executions in Oklahoma, utilizing a humane and efficient manner to do so,” Crow said.

Grant was the first person executed in Oklahoma since 2015, when executions were halted after two incorrectly administered lethal injections in the state.

The first of those executions — of Clayton Lockett, in 2014 — resulted in Lockett writhing and groaning, causing the execution to be halted. Lockett died of a heart attack soon after.

The state later said the complications had been caused by an improperly placed intravenous line. However, it was the first time Oklahoma had used midazolam in an execution, and the drug has been the subject of an extended, ongoing lawsuit brought by death-row prisoners who argue it causes significant pain and suffering, in violation of their constitutional rights.

On Wednesday, the Pardon and Parole Board recommended clemency in the case of another death row inmate, Bigler Stouffer, on the basis of concerns about the state’s execution protocols.

Inmates file to reverse upheld executions

On Nov. 3, Jones and three other Oklahoma death row inmates filed an opening brief to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals asking for a stay of executions because the case regarding the constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection protocol is still pending.

The court unanimously denied the request on Nov. 12 without oral argument. The same court had previously granted a stay based on a similar appeal prior to Grant’s execution.

That stay was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme court, but the brief argued that the situation should be reconsidered in light of how Grant’s execution unfolded.

“Director Crow’s flippant, uninformed response confirms that the ODOC has not learned a thing in six years,” the brief said. “At a minimum, allowing a person to remain restrained, prone on their back while vomiting is a recipe for death by suffocation. Here, Director Crow not only failed to immediately halt the execution and act to ensure that Mr. Grant was not suffocating on his own vomit — the Director gave the executioners the proverbial ‘thumbs up’ to proceed with Mr. Grant’s execution and to the executions scheduled in the coming weeks and months.”

Wade Greely Lay, Donald A. Grant and Gilbert Ray Postell, who all have execution dates scheduled, joined Jones on the brief.

The lawsuit regarding lethal injections is set to go to trial in February 2022.
(Editor’s note: This article was updated on Thursday, Nov. 18 at 1:20 p.m. to include a statement from Attorney General John O’Connor.)