On Thursday, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) commuted the sentence of Julius Jones, a Black man on death row for a murder that all available evidence suggests he didn’t actually commit.
“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 wrote in a tweet announcing his decision.
The announcement was made just hours before Jones was scheduled to be executed. Upon hearing the news, activists who were gathered in the state capitol building to demand action from the governor erupted into cheers.
— The Black Times Oklahoma News (@TheBlackTimesOK) November 18, 2021
Stitt lessened Jones’s sentence from death to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Although the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board had recommended that Jones’s sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole, Stitt cited the Oklahoma state constitution, which says that a governor may only lessen a death sentence to life without parole.
Life without parole is essentially itself a death sentence, confining a person to a prison cell until they die, oftentimes in spite of evidence showing that they are innocent. Political scientist Marie Gottschalk has described life without parole as “death in slow motion,” and Pope Francis has likened it to “a death penalty in disguise.”
Advocates for Jones’s commutation said that their work was far from over, but celebrated the victory of ensuring Jones wouldn’t be executed on Thursday.
Jones “will not be executed today,” author and activist Brittney Cooper said on Twitter. “And though I hope he will be free someday, we take all wins today.”
“Julius Jones will live to fight another day,” Temple University media studies professor Marc Lamont Hill said, adding that the commutation from the governor was only possible because “The People fought back.”
“The People are the heroes here. Not Governor Stitt,” he added.
According to reporting from The New York Times, over 1,800 students across 13 Oklahoma public schools participated in walkouts to show solidarity with Jones on Wednesday.
Jones was convicted in 2002 for a murder that took place in 1999. Throughout his nearly two decades behind bars, has always maintained his innocence. Since his conviction, another man has privately admitted to the murder and claimed that he framed Jones.
Discrepancies in the case have demonstrated Jones was convicted too hastily and without consideration of important evidence proving his innocence — including the fact that the lone witness to the crime described the murderer as having a certain hairstyle, when Jones was clean-shaven at the time.
Race plays a major role in who is sentenced to death in the United States, with Black people making up a disproportionate number of the people on death row in Oklahoma and across the country. It’s also far more likely that someone convicted of murder will be executed if the person who was killed was white.