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Stitt grants Julius Jones clemency but orders he spend the rest of his life in prison

julius jones at trial.jpeg

Updated Nov. 18, 1 p.m.

Less than four hours before Julius Jones' scheduled execution on Thursday, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced he is commuting his death sentence but ordering him to remain in prison for the rest of his life.

After Jones' clemency hearing on Nov. 1, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended for a second time that Stitt commute Jones' death sentence to life with the possibility of parole. The board made the same recommendation after Jones' commutation hearing in September — the first for a death row inmate in Oklahoma — but Stitt said at the time a clemency hearing was the appropriate venue for such a recommendation.

Stitt's announcement Thursday was his first public statement on the board's Nov. 1 recommendation. He had met with the family of murder victim Paul Howell, prosecutors, defense attorneys and clergy in the days since, but not with Jones' family or supporters. The governor's office has said Stitt was in prayer about the decision the past several days.

"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 executive order granting clemency was filed with the Secretary of State's office at 11:47 a.m. In it, Stitt wrote neither he nor the pardon and parole board have authority under state law to commute a death sentence to life with the possibility of parole.

Stitt has ordered that Jones, 41, shall not be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life.

"Gov. 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. 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," Julius Jones' attorney Amanda Bass said in a statement.

Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor released a statement saying he respects the governor's authority to make the decision reached Thursday and appreciates the condition 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 the 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," O'Connor said.

Members of the pardon and parole board who voted to recommend commuting Jones' sentence expressed serious doubts about his guilt in the 1999 murder of Howell.

This is a developing story.