OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has spared the life of high-profile death row inmate Julius Jones.
Following a recommendation from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, Stitt on Thursday granted clemency to Jones, reducing the inmate's sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“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.
As a condition of granting clemency, Stitt ordered that Jones shall never be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon or parole for the rest of his life.
Stitt's decision veers slightly from the Pardon and Parole Board's recommendation to reduce Jones' sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Under that scenario, Jones would have immediately been eligible for parole on his murder conviction.
The governor's decision means Jones' execution, set for Thursday afternoon, is canceled.
The clemency marks a partial win for a diverse group of Jones activists and supporters who have proclaimed the inmate was wrongfully convicted in the 1999 fatal shooting of insurance executive Paul Howell during a carjacking .
Jurors chose the death penalty as punishment at a 2002 trial, and Jones has spent nearly 20 years on death row.
Jones' attorney praised the governor for blocking the execution, but said she had hoped Stitt would have granted her client the option of parole.
“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," attorney Amanda Bass said in a statement.
Jones has maintained he is innocent, claiming his co-defendant shot and killed Howell and pinned the slaying on him.
A growing number of supporters have also proclaimed Jones' innocence and begged Stitt to grant clemency. Millions signed a petition in support of Jones after ABC in 2018 aired a documentary about his case.
Prosecutors have disputed Jones' claims of innocence, saying the trial showed clear evidence of his guilt and the campaign to free him is based on misinformation.
The Pardon and Parole Board this month recommended Jones' life be spared. In a 3-1 vote, the board recommended Jones' sentence be reduced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Stitt had the option to adopt, modify or reject the parole board's recommendation. He also could have issued an execution stay that would have given him more time to consider the recommendation.
Two of the three parole board members Stitt has appointed recommended the governor grant Jones clemency. The third, Scott Williams, recused himself from the vote.
Stitt previously told reporters he would meet with members of the Howell family and prosecutors and defense attorneys on the case before making a decision.
The Howell family said they knew Stitt had a difficult 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," they said in a statement.
Board recommendation:Oklahoma parole board recommends clemency for Julius Jones, faces execution Nov. 18
It is rare for an Oklahoma governor to grant clemency, having only been approved four times in the state's history. Former Gov. Brad Henry granted clemency to three death row inmates. Former Gov. Frank Keating granted clemency just once.
Dating back to when Keating was in office, Oklahoma governors have denied clemency at least nine times.
Oklahoma has one of the nation's busiest death chambers. Before Stitt, the state carried out more than 100 executions under the previous three governors' combined 24 years in office.