Julius Jones: What does a commuted sentence mean and what happens next

The controversial death row inmate won’t be released from prison unless he overturns his original conviction in court

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Thursday 18 November 2021 23:33
Oklahoma Governor Commutes Julius Jones' Death Sentence
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After spending 20 years on death row, Oklahoma inmate Julius Jones will no longer face the prospect of execution, thanks to a surprise late intervention from Oklahoma's Republican governor Kevin Stitt.

Jones, who has long claimed his innocence in the 1999 murder of Paul Howell that put him behind bars, will instead be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

So what happens now?

For one thing, Jones likely won't be getting out of prison any time soon.

He is out of legal appeals, and the governor's order halting the death sentence stipulates that Jones "shall never again be eligible to apply for, be considered for, or receive any additional commutation, pardon, or parole." In other words, his death sentence has now been turned into a life sentence.

Jones made history in November when the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended the governor grant Jones clemency and offer him the possibility of parole, the first ever such recommendation. Given the two decades he's already spent in prison, Jones could have been eligible for release on parole given time served, but the governor ultimately decided not to allow this possibility.

The Howell family said it took "comfort" that the man convicted of killing Paul Howell may never be released, while civil rights advocates criticised the decision.

"We are thankful that Julius' life was spared," Reverend Don Heath of the Oklahoma Coalition Against the Death Penalty said in a statement on Thursday. "We grieve that he will have to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. That is also cruel and unusual."

Those with the Justice for Julius movement, however, have vowed to keep pushing until Jones is released from prison.

"It's not over," Antoinette, Julius's sister, told The Independent. "This is still just the beginning. The fight, we press on."

Death penalty experts like capital punishment activist Sister Helen Prejean say Jones will still be able to seek exoneration through the court system, if he can prove he was wrongly convicted in the first place.

"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, this does not preclude Julius from pursuing legal exoneration in state or federal courts," she wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

In the meantime, supporters note that being moved off death row may allow Jones more humane detention conditions, such as more access to sunlight and being able to physically touch visitors.

"He hasn't touched his mom in over 22 years. He hasn't hugged his sister. "That's terrifying, you know?" said Jabee Williams, a friend of the Jones family and Justice for Julius leader. "You can't put that into words, a mother not being able to touch her child.”Previously, Jones had been on “death watch,” moved to a bare cell near the execution chamber, and fed his last meal.

Beyond Jones’s case, a number of death row inmates have filed a lawsuit challenging Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment, and a trial is set for February.

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.

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