Governor's last-minute reprieve spares Oklahoma death-row inmate

·3-min read

By Peter Szekely

(Reuters) -Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt on Thursday halted the high-profile execution of death-row inmate Julius Jones, hours before he was scheduled to die for a 22-year-old murder in which doubts about his guilt have been raised.

The governor's eleventh-hour reprieve followed the clemency recommendation of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, which voted 3-1 on Nov. 1 that Jones' sentence should be commuted to life in prison.

"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.

The commutation was filed just over four hours before Jones was to die by lethal injection of a three-drug cocktail that his lawyers had challenged as inhumane in a separate last-minute appeal.

Jones, 41, was convicted of fatally shooting insurance executive Paul Howell during a 1999 carjacking in his driveway.

But his lawyers have cited evidence that he was home with his family when the murder occurred, which they said the jury never learned because his lawyers at the time failed to fully investigate it.

The case, which has drawn widespread interest from celebrities, including Kim Kardashian West, and anti-death penalty activists, sparked several protests and vigils across the state in the past two days.

"Thank you so much Governor Stitt for commuting Julius Jones sentence to life without parole and stopping his execution today," Kardashian West said on Twitter. "I’m so grateful to everyone who used their voice and helped to save Julius’s life today."

'AN IMPORTANT STEP'

A crowd outside the state penitentiary in McAlester where Jones was scheduled to be put to death erupted in cheers after learning of the governor's decision. Supporters chanted Jones' name, hugged and wiped away tears, video posted on Twitter showed.

Bernice King, daughter of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. also hailed the reprieve, adding on Twitter, "Very importantly and most urgently, we must abolish the death penalty."

A more tempered response came from the Howell's family, whose members believe that Jones is guilty of the murder, but nevertheless accepted the governor's decision.

"We take comfort that his decision affirmed the guilt of Julius Jones and that he shall not be eligible to apply for, or be considered for, a commutation, pardon or parole for the remainder of his life," the family said in a statement.

Amanda Bass, an attorney for Jones, said she regretted that the governor did not adopt the board's recommendation to allow Jones the possibility of parole, but was grateful Stitt did not allow "an irreparable mistake" to take place.

“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," she said in a statement.

Jones was among five condemned inmates who won stays of execution from a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Oct. 27.

But the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the stays the next day, allowing the state to resume executions for the first time since 2015 by putting to death John Grant, another of the five inmates, hours later by lethal injection.

Witnesses said Grant convulsed and vomited https://www.reuters.com/world/us/oklahoma-can-carry-out-executions-john-grant-julius-jones-high-court-rules-2021-10-28 before dying, while the state Department of Corrections said there were no complications.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New Yorkl; Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

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