Just hours before the execution was scheduled to happen, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced that he was commuting the sentence of Julius Jones, 41, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1999 killing of a businessman during a carjacking.
Jones' pending execution became a national news story. Not only has Jones insisted he was innocent and not at the scene of the crime, but several Republican state legislators and members of Oklahoma's Pardon and Parole Board agreed that there was enough of a question of Jones' guilt to spare him death. The Board voted 3–1 earlier in November to recommend that the Republican governor commute his sentence.
Advocates of Jones' innocence note that co-defendant Christopher Jordan got a deal from prosecutors that let him point the finger at Jones in exchange for getting 15 years instead of a seat on death row. Several people have come forward to say that they've heard Jordan confess to the crime.
Stitt had kept quiet about the issue, waiting for the recommendation from the Pardon and Parole Board. He has overseen the return of executions to Oklahoma, which had been on pause for the past six years due to concerns about drug protocols that have caused some serious problems. In October the first execution after the hiatus, of John Marion Grant, made the man go into convulsions and vomit before his death.
"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 wrote in a statement announcing the commutation.
Stitt's executive order comes with some truly harsh conditions. Oklahoma's administrative code states that "After receiving a favorable commutation of a sentence from the Governor, an Inmate is ineligible to apply for an additional commutation on the same sentence." The Board recommended that Stitt consider commuting Jones' sentence to life with the possibility of parole. In his executive order, Stitt maintains that neither the Oklahoma Constitution nor state law grants the authority of the board to make such a recommendation. And according to the state's constitution, the governor doesn't have the authority to grant parole to somebody sentenced to life without parole.
Stitt includes the following command in his executive order: "Julius Darius Jones shall not be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life."
Despite this demand that Jones never attempt to be fully released even if he can prove his innocence, Jones' lawyer, Amanda Bass, put out a statement expressing relief that her client won't be put to death.
"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," wrote Bass. "While we had hoped the Governor would adopt the Board's recommendation in full by commuting Julius's sentence to life with the possibility of parole in light of the overwhelming evidence of Julius's innocence, we are grateful that the Governor has prevented an irreparable mistake."