In a past life, Julius Jones was a combo guard who turned down offers from small colleges to play basketball and football according to ESPN and chose to attend the University of Oklahoma on an academic scholarship to the school’s College of Engineering.
After completing his freshman year in 1998, he planned to walk on and join the basketball team in the fall of 1999. He never got the chance, getting arrested three days after his 19th birthday, suspected and ultimately convicted in 2002 of first-degree murder for the killing of Edmond, Oklahoma businessman Paul Howell during a carjacking.
Nearly 20 years later, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt granted Julius Jones clemency, commuting his death sentence Thursday to life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to an executive order filled the same day.
The governor’s decision came just hours before Jones was scheduled to be executed at 4 p.m CT after years of protests and public pressure to commute his death sentence.
According to the Washington Post, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board twice recommended Jones’ sentence be commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole as recently as November 1. The 3-1 board vote gave Jones’ family, and supporters hope he could be released with time served. However, since Stitt decided to reject the state’s Pardon and Parole boards recommendation, Jones will likely never get out of prison.
In his executive order, Stitt said neither state constitution nor state law gives the board the authority to recommend that commutation, nor do they give the governor the power to grant it. As a result, the governor commuted Jones’ sentence with the condition that he “shall not be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life,” per the order.
Jones has maintained his innocence from death row for more than two decades, saying he was framed by the actual killer, a high school friend, and a former co-defendant who was a key witness against him. The Howel family reject Jones’ innocence outright, and along with the state Attorney General’s Office, have disputed the evidence cited by Jones and his supporters.
Jones served nearly 20 years on death row when his case gained renewed national attention in 2018, when an ABC documentary series, “The Last Defense,” spotlighted his case.
Since then, more than 6 million people have signed a Change.org petition asking Stitt to prevent Jones’ execution due to scrutiny surrounding his conviction. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr tweeted out a video in support of Jones.
NBA stars with Oklahoma ties like Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, and Buddy Hield have expressed support for Jones in addition to writing letters to the governor’s office. Each letter highlights a critical issue that led to Jones’ conviction, racial bias, a flawed investigation, and an ill-equipped defense.
“[Jones’] conviction was tainted by a deeply flawed process,” Westbrook, the former face of the Oklahoma City Thunder and current Laker, wrote in his letter. “As more details come to light regarding his situation, I join with many voices to express sadness and profound concern regarding his conviction and death sentence.”
There has been increased scrutiny around questionable evidence gathered and racial bias against Jones, as well as questions about Jones’ alibi that he was home the night of the murder. A red bandana was found inside Jones’ fame home with the murder weapon wrapped around it. There are also questions about the DNA testing done at the defense’s request.
“You’re not given a fair chance; you’re not given a fair shake at life in that trial,” Blake Griffin told ESPN. “Let alone just life in general growing up a minority in a predominantly white state. I hate to say that if he was white, it would be different, but there’s a chance.”