Messages of relief and praise poured in from both Republicans and Democrats after Gov. Kevin Stitt announced he is commuting Julius Jones previous death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

“I thank Gov. Stitt for issuing an executive order to commute the sentence of Julius Jones,” said Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, shortly after the news became public Thursday afternoon. “This was a very difficult process. I am grateful the governor gave consideration to the facts of the case and made this decision.”

Jones, who was convicted of murdering Edmond businessman Paul Howell in 1999, was scheduled to be executed at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. He maintains his innocence. The Howell family argued the evidence is overwhelming and Jones’ execution should be carried out. 

The governor’s executive order, which was announced at 12:10 p.m., commutes Jones’ sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility for parole, on the condition that “he shall never again be eligible to apply for, be considered for, or receive any additional commutation, pardon, or parole.”

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Civil right advocates, celebrities and politicians across the country had been lobbying Stitt for months as he weighed whether to accept, modify or reject the state Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation that Jones’ sentence be modified to life in prison.

This included a Tweet thread from Kim Kardashian West to her 70.6 million followers that specifically thanked Stitt and “everyone who used their voice and helped to save Julius’ life today.”

Stitt, who hasn’t been on the friendliest terms with Oklahoma Democrats as of late, also received praise from some of his harshest critics. 

State Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, who has feuded with the governor on several topics, including the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and critical race theory legislation, was among those who tweeted his thanks.

He was joined by several of his Democratic House colleagues, including Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, in thanking Stitt for the move. 

In addition to the praise from Democrats, several Republicans also said they support the governor’s decision. Among those were Rep. Jessica Garvin, who tweeted that: “In leadership, we make decisions daily that leave one side or another angry. Today, my Governor, 

@GovStitt, did what he felt was the right thing to do, based on the information he had, and I wholeheartedly and proudly stand beside that decision.”

Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, also a Republican, also said he “stands by” Stitt. 

But not everyone was happy with the news. 

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor, who Stitt appointed to his position earlier this year, said he respects the governor’s authority and that he believes “Stitt is making what he believes is the right decision.”

But O’Connor said he is “greatly disappointed” that the legal work over the past 22 years “have been set aside.”

“A thorough review of the evidence confirms Julius Jones’ guilt in this case and that the death penalty was warranted,” he wrote. “Our office will continue to work for justice and for the safety of all Oklahomans, including families like Paul Howell’s.”

On the other side of the debate, many anti-death penalty groups sounded off that Oklahoma needs to go farther and stop all executions. 

“We join our partners, local organizers, and especially the Jones’ family in a collective sigh of relief that Julius will have an opportunity to live, after decades of waiting to die,” said Tamya Cox-Touré, ACLU of Oklahoma’s executive director. “We also recognize Oklahoma is set to kill five more people over the next four months and call on Gov. Sitt to reimpose a moratorium on executions immediately and indefinitely.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who announced recently that she switched political parties in order to challenge Stitt as a Democrat in the 2022 governor’s race, also criticized the governor’s decisions. 

She questioned why Stitt waited less than four hours until the scheduled execution to announce his executive order and attacked his decision to not let Jones seek parole as a condition of the commutation.

Trevor Brown has been an Oklahoma Watch reporter since 2016. He covers politics, elections, health policies and government accountability issues. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589. Email him at tbrown@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tbrownokc

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