Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt on Thursday commuted the death sentence of Julius Jones, just four hours before he was scheduled to be executed in a case that had drawn international attention.
"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 Republican governor commuted the sentence on the condition that Jones never again be eligible to apply for, be considered for, or receive any additional commutation, pardon, or parole.
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board had twice recommended his sentence be commuted, but the final decision rested with the governor.
Following the announcement, Jones defense attorney Amanda Bass released a statement in which she said the governor had taken "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," Bass said.
Jones, 41, had been on death row for 20 years after he was convicted for the 1999 murder of Paul Howell during a carjacking.
The case received renewed attention thanks to the 2018 docuseries The Last Defense, which was produced by Viola Davis.
Jones and his family have insisted he was home playing games on the night of Howell's murder — a claim prosecutors have questioned.
Jones has long blamed the murder on his codefendant, Christopher Jordan, who accepted a plea deal from prosecutors in exchange for testifying against Jones.
Jordan was released from prison after 15 years, but three fellow prisoners said Jordan admitted to them while incarcerated that he had killed Howell and framed Jones. Prosecutors have said those accounts were not credible.
Howell's sister, Megan Tobey, witnessed the murder and testified in court that the killer was wearing a stocking cap that came just above his ears, with hair sticking out from both sides.
Jones' defense team has said that Jordan better matches that description, but Tobey has maintained she still believes Jones was the murderer.
After Gov. Stitt's announcement, Howell's family released a statement to media saying they "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."
However, Howell's girlfriend at the time, Connie Ellison, said she came to have doubts about Jones' conviction and ultimately urged parole officials to commute his sentence.
There was also evidence of racial bias during Jones' trial. The arresting officer was said to have used the n-word while detaining him, while 11 out of 12 jury members in the case were white. One of them allegedly referred to Jones by the n-word and said he should be shot behind the courthouse.
More than 6.5 million people had signed an online petition calling for Jones to be spared from death.
Students in Oklahoma also walked out of class on Wednesday in protest against his impending execution by lethal injection.
Anti–death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, author of the 1993 book Dead Man Walking that was turned into a 1995 film, had called the possible execution of Jones "evil."
After he was spared death, Prejean said on Twitter that Jones could still push to be fully exonerated.
"While Julius Jones's death sentence was commuted to life without parole on condition that he can never again apply for a pardon or commutation," she wrote, "this does not preclude Julius from pursuing legal exoneration in state or federal courts."