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‘It came out because our prayers were real’: How Julius Jones’ life was spared, 7,154 days after conviction, hours before execution, minutes after deer emerged

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Justice for Julius supporters reflect on Gov. Kevin Stitt's decision to commute Julius Jones' sentence to life without possibility of parole only four hours before he was scheduled to be executed. 

McALESTER – Some demonstrators swore signs of life and mercy were already present Thursday morning as over 100 gathered about a mile from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary to protest the planned execution of Julius Jones.

A small group of protesters at the corner of North West Street and Short Stonewall Avenue, standing just across the narrow residential street from police barricades protecting the two-lane road to the prison, had been beating drums and singing solemnly. They stood separated from larger, louder groups chanting “no more murders, no more lynchings” for much of the morning. 

At 11:43 a.m., a large buck deer bolted out of a nearby woodline and made its way toward the prison grounds, which rest within the Choctaw Nation, rushing past small homes, vehicles, protesters and police. The animal’s appearance energized the demonstrators, who cheered as it bounded away.

About four minutes later, former OU student Julius Jones was granted clemency 7,154 days after he was originally convicted – and four hours before he was scheduled to die.

“We were calling from our hearts and spirits to our ancestors,” said Black Tiger, a protest attendee and member of the Pawnee and Seminole nations. “Our ancestors suffered from the same system (as Jones). From the other side, they can help us … (grown deer) don’t come out like that, among the people, when we’re chanting and singing very loud. It came out because our prayers were real. We are on indigenous land, and when we acknowledge that, power can come on our behalf.”

After days of large-scale protests and two recommendations against execution by the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, Stitt granted Jones clemency in his conviction for the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell. 

As the crowd of demonstrators learned the news and joyfully tossed their arms in the air, joined by crowds of students who’d walked out of classes at both of Norman’s high schools and beyond, thousands more Oklahomans celebrated on social media. Despite the jubilation, many criticized Stitt’s decision to wait until the final hours before the scheduled execution before granting clemency.

“After prayerful consideration and reviewing materials presented by all sides of this case,” Stitt wrote in a statement, “I have determined to commute Julius Jones’ sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.”

In the end, Stitt heeded the advice of his appointees. On Sept. 13, the Pardon and Parole Board — which consists of five members and three appointed by Stitt voted 3-1 to commute Jones’ sentence to life with the possibility of parole. Board members Adam Luck, Kelly Doyle and Larry Morris voted in favor of the decision, and Scott Williams recused himself from the vote out of an “abundance of caution” regarding potential conflicts of interest due to his relationship with a Justice for Julius supporter. 

Luck and Doyle were both appointed by Stitt. Following the commutation hearing, Stitt took no action, stating a clemency hearing would be a more appropriate process for the decision to be made. The board again voted 3-1 to recommend clemency on Nov. 1. Seventeen days later, Stitt ultimately accepted the clemency recommendation, but altered the sentence to life without the possibility of parole. 

Jones and his family maintained his innocence for over 20 years following a trial Jones’ attorneys and supporters said was marred by racial bias in the jury, a lack of concrete evidence connecting Jones to the crime and incomplete representation of his alibi the night of the crime. As of Thursday, the petition to spare Jones’ life garnered over 6.5 million signatures and support from high-profile figures, including Kim Kardashian-West, former OU quarterback and Heisman winner Baker Mayfield and several ambassadors of European Union nations.

The week leading up to Jones’ planned execution featured a fervent push from supporters hoping to influence Stitt’s decision. Hundreds of demonstrators sat in at the Capitol building from Monday to Thursday, joined by hundreds more students in the Oklahoma City metro who walked out of classes in support of Jones.

“When I told Julius about (the walkouts), he said, ‘See? We can inspire those kids to help them live better lives,’” The Rev. Keith Jossell, Jones’ spiritual adviser, said as he addressed the throng of protesters after the clemency decision.

According to Jones’ clemency report, he stated he has been “haunted” by decisions he made to form closer relationships with Ladell King and Christopher King, who had established criminal histories when Jones met them. Chris Jordan, another of Jones' acquaintances at the time and a co-defendant in the trial, is alleged to have admitted to several cellmates he was the gunman who killed Howell.

“‘We can help them avoid the type of mistakes I lived.’ This is who Julius Jones is — that even in his final moments, he was not thinking of himself, but thinking of others,” Jossell said.

Execution questions still loom

Jones was scheduled to become the second man to be killed after Oklahoma ended a six-year execution moratorium following the botched executions of Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner. In April 2014, execution witnesses observed Lockett writhing in pain after receiving a dose of midazolam, a surgical anesthetic administered as part of Oklahoma’s three-drug lethal injection protocol. Lockett died 43 minutes after the injection.

In Warner’s January 2015 execution, he described his body as “on fire” after receiving midazolam. In June 2015, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to allow Oklahoma’s continued use of midazolam in executions.

The state’s drug mix received renewed scrutiny after John Grant’s Oct. 28 execution. Media witnesses described Grant vomiting and convulsing after the injections were administered. Current Associated Press journalist Sean Murphy and retired AP reporter Michael Graczyk both said an inmate vomiting is not common in executions. Murphy said following Grant’s execution he’d witnessed “about 14” death sentences, while Graczyk has witnessed “around 450.” Murphy compared Grant’s convulsions to Lockett’s 2014 execution.

A medical professional at OU also said midazolam lacks data to support its use as an effective anesthetic in lethal injections. About an hour before Stitt’s decision was announced, Jones’ attorneys filed an emergency preliminary injunction to stay the scheduled execution, citing concerns after Grant’s execution.

Despite media witness reports, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow spoke in an Oct. 29 press conference to “clarify” the execution procedure. Crow said the process was carried out “without complication.”

‘All life is sacred’

After receiving the news Jones would not be executed, supporters rejoiced across Oklahoma. In McAlester, some burst into tears as the crowd gathered in a tight circle, many with arms linked or around their neighbor’s shoulders, to hear more from Justice for Julius organizers

“I heard a song last night that there’s power in the name of Jesus to break every chain,” said former Tulsa mayoral candidate Greg Robinson. “And Jesus is the power that rests in all of our hearts. It rests in the people like (Oklahoma City rapper Jabee Williams), who are willing to just be so consistent. It rests in (people like The Rev. Cece Jones-Davis and Jones’ sister, Antoinette Jones). It rests in all those who couldn’t make it to McAlester, who said those silent prayers, and in the conservative leaders and students who walked out.”

Jess Eddy, a former OU student and Justice for Julius advocate, praised the organization’s commitment to nonviolent protest even in the hours leading up to Jones’ potential execution.

 

“Never has this community ventured into hate,” Eddy said.

Elsewhere, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor issued a statement saying he  respects the statutory authority behind Stitt’s decision, yet was “greatly disappointed” that 22 years of work on the case was “set aside.

Howell’s family issued a statement as well, acknowledging the “difficult decision” Stitt faced.

“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 statement read. “Julius Jones forever changed our lives and the lives of his family and friends.”

As speakers continued following news of the commutation, Black Tiger emphasized the allyship of indigenous people with Jones’ plight through Native American cultural values.

“All life is sacred, and we want life to be sacred for Julius Jones,” Black Tiger said. “We want to stand side-by-side, not in front of you leading the way. Other times, we want to stand in the back, pushing you forward — because if we’re pushing you forward, we’re pushing you forward into life.”

Jones’ supporters are focused on moving forward as well, to secure his full release.

“I thank God for giving us the faith to stand and walk forward, because this is not over,” Antoinette Jones said to protesters outside the prison. “There shouldn’t be any more lynchings. When my mom said she didn’t want to see a lynching I know God heard her. I know that touched a lot of you, and it takes all of us. … Keep fighting, don’t waste your energy on negative responses.”

Despite the clemency decision that spares Jones’ life but prohibits his freedom, Robinson said Justice for Julius supporters continue to maintain Jones’ complete innocence and will continue their effort to have Jones released from prison. Another prayer vigil is planned for 6 p.m. at the Oklahoma History Center.

“We took a step today. Today is a good day, and so we remain faithful,” Robinson said. “We remain hopeful with our hearts and our minds with the Jones family. … But I know, and I know God knows, where Julius Jones is ultimately meant to be.

“Home with his family.”

Blake Douglas joined the OU Daily news desk in October 2018, and is currently the editor-in-chief. Previously, Blake has served as an intern reporter, senior news reporter, summer news editor and news managing editor.

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