MCALESTER, Okla. - Cheers erupted outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary when Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted the sentence of Julius Jones to life in prison without the chance of parole.
Tears of joy were plentiful as family and supporters — many of whom had gathered outside the prison since 8 a.m. — learned that Jones would not be put to death on Thursday afternoon. The news came less than four hours before Jone’s scheduled execution at 4 p.m. Thursday.
“This is just the beginning,” said Antoniette Jones, Julius’ sister. “It should not have taken this long. But I thank God that our governor does have a heart and he is a merciful and gracious man. It was not what we asked, it wasn't what the Pardon and Parole Board voted, but God has a reason and I trust God has a process.”
Jones had been convicted and sentenced to death in 2002 following his conviction in the 1999 murder of Paul Howell, an Edmond businessman shot during a carjacking. In the years since, Jones had acquired numerous supporters who contend he's innocent and that he was wrongfully convicted.
On Sept. 13, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted to recommend Stitt commute Jones’ sentence to life with the possibility of parole and on Nov. 1 the board recommended clemency for Jones. Stitt modified the recommendation and took it a step further saying Jones can never again apply for “commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life.”
News of Stitt's decision came shortly after the crowd — which police estimated at around 150-175 people — loudly chanted slogans such as "Free Julius Jones," and held a quiet prayer vigil.
Dr. Tiffany Crutcher told the crowd that she had just received a text message and she was "hearing there will be some promising news."
A few minutes later she relayed that the execution was called off — bringing instantaneous jubilant cheers from the assembled crowd.
Tulsa resident Greg Robinson, with an occasional tear streaming down his face, was among those who addressed the crowd after the announcement.
"This was a breakthrough of the human spirit," he said. "We chose life today."
The Rev. T. Sheri Dickerson, leader of the Oklahoma City Chapter of Black Lives Matter, said they were not stopping in their effort to get the life-without-parole sentence changed, too, but she noted Thursday's action meant Jones will be removed from death row to another part of the prison.
"Julius will get to see sunlight," she said. "We are not leaving him. We will continue to fight."
During the elation over the governor's decision, Dickerson said there's another family hurting Oklahoma today. Although she didn't mention the Howell family by name, she urged those present to pray for them as well.
The Rev. Keith Jossell, identified as Jones' spiritual leader, said he met with Jones at the penitentiary on Wednesday.
"We talked about the students around the state of Oklahoma who were walking out," Jossell said, referring to students primarily in the Oklahoma City area and in Tulsa who walked out of class in support of Jones.
"Julius said, ‘See, we can inspire these kids,"' Jossell said.
Madeline Davis Jones, Julius’ mom, said that she won’t rest until her son is out from behind bars. “I still believe that every day Julius spends behind bars is an injustice, and I will never stop speaking out for him or fighting to free him,” she said in a statement. “But today is a good day, and I am thankful to Gov. Stitt for that.”
"I'm happy that Mama Jones doesn't have to mourn tonight, I'm happy Antoinette Jones (his sister) doesn't have to mourn tonight," said Jabee Williams, an Oklahoma City activist who was at the penitentiary Thursday morning. "There was a dark cloud for so long and I really feel like those clouds started to part now."
Jones’ case has spread worldwide with celebrities, athletes and even entire countries advocating on his behalf.
Activists in Oklahoma City led the charge, fighting for years to make Jones’ case known. And while their battle was won in getting him off of death row, the war to end the death penalty is only just beginning, said Dickerson, leader of BLM Oklahoma City, said.
“We will continue our promise to Julius that this is not a moment but it is a movement and we are going to continue to push for abolition and we are going to continue to push and raise that every person's humanity; every person's humanity, must be seen,” she said. “
Earlier in the day, Tasreem Al-Michael led the crowd in chants in support of Jones. Later, he spoke to the McAlester News-Capital about the governor's actions.
"It's fantastic a man is not going to be murdered today," he said. "God softened a man's heart and he chose to break a cycle today."
McAlester Police Chief Kevin Hearod said the demonstrators were peaceful.
Author Rilla Askew, who has roots in Latimer and Pittsburg counties, drove to McAlester with her husband, Paul Austin. Askew, whose works include the 2001 book "Fire in Beulah" about the Tulsa Race Massacre, said she had already been to a number of vigils in support of Jones.
"I'm personally opposed to the death penalty," Askew said. "I really feel he's innocent."
On Wednesday at the state Capitol, Jones’ mother said not only does she not want to see her son executed — she doesn’t want to see anyone else’s child die.
Her daughter, Antoinette, assured the crowd outside the prison on Thursday that they will fight to ensure her mom’s wishes come true.
“This is not over,” she said.