(OKLAHOMA) — Julius Jones, who has spent the past 20 years on death row, has never been closer to freedom, despite the fact that last week, his execution date was set for Nov. 18.
The Oklahoma Parole Board voted 3-1 to commute Jones’ sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole, and now, the final decision on his fate remains in the hands of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Jones’ mother, Madeline Davis-Jones, told “Nightline” the news is “magical.”
“I’m still in shock, because it’s not over, you know? We still have so much ground [to] cover,” Jones’ sister, Antoinette Jones, said. “I don’t know. I can’t explain it, but it was a good feeling.”
Antoinette Jones said her brother was calm when he heard the parole board’s recommendation, as he knows work still has to be done to secure his freedom.
“He said, ‘I’m good. I’ll be even better when I get out and I can hug y’all and we can start helping change the world,"” Antoinette Jones said. “It was a relief. I could breathe a little bit easier.”
Jones’ sister remains hopeful that he will be freed, and said she can picture justice for her brother.
“Julius being able to feel the sun on his skin, the natural sun on his skin. It looks like him having no chains [on] when he gets to go outside,” she said. “It looks like freedom.”
Julius Jones was 19 years old when he was arrested for the 1999 murder of Oklahoma businessman Paul Howell, and sentenced to death in 2002. What followed were decades of public scrutiny and relentless work from his legal team.
“We think Julius was wrongfully convicted and that Oklahoma is at risk of executing an innocent man,” Jones’ attorney, Amanda Bass, said.
Now 41 years old, Jones has spent most of his life behind bars. Even after so many years, his sister and mother have yet to give up hope.
Before he was in prison, friends and teachers knew Jones as a champion high school basketball player who attended the University of Oklahoma on an academic scholarship.
That all changed in 1999 when Howell, 45, was shot in his family’s driveway after a car-jacking in the wealthy suburb of Edmond, Oklahoma.
Howell’s GMC Suburban went missing and his sister, Megan Tobey, was the only eye-witness.
“Megan Tobey described the shooter as a young black man wearing a red bandana, a white shirt, and a stocking cap or skullcap. She was not able to identify the shooter’s face because it was covered,” Bass told ABC News in 2018.
Two days after Howell was killed, police found his Suburban parked in a grocery store parking lot. They learned later that a man named Ladell King had been offering to sell the car.
King named Chris Jordan and Julius Jones to investigators and said the two men had asked him to help them sell the stolen Suburban.
“Ladell was interviewed by the lead detectives in this case. He told the police that on the night of the crime, a guy named Chris Jordan comes to his apartment. A few minutes later, according to Ladell King, Julius Jones drives up,” attorney Dale Baich told ABC News in 2018.
King accused Jordan of being the driver and claimed that he and Jones were looking for Suburbans to steal, but it was Jones who shot Howell.
“Both Ladell King and Christopher Jordan were directing police’s attention to the home of Julius Jones’ parents as a place that would have incriminating items of evidence,” Bass said.
Investigators found a gun wrapped in a red bandana in the crawl space of Jones’ family home. The next day, Jones was arrested for capital murder.
Jones’ attorneys say the evidence police found could have been planned by Jordan. They say Jordan had stayed at Jones’ house the night after the murder, but Jordan denied those claims during the trial.
In the years since, Jones’ defense team has argued that racial bias and missteps from his then public-defense team played a role.
Jones’ team has submitted files to the parole board that they said proved his innocence, including affidavits and taped video interviews with inmates who had served time in prison with Jordan. They said they allegedly heard Jordan confess to Howell’s murder.
In a statement to ABC News, Jordan’s attorney, Billy Bock, said that “Chris Jordan maintains his position that his role in the death of Paul Howell was as an accomplice to Julius Jones. Mr. Jordan testified truthfully in the jury trial of Mr. Jones and denies ‘confessing’ to anyone.”
Jordan served 15 years in prison before he was released.
In 2020, Jones’ story was thrown back into the spotlight when unlikely legal ally Kim Kardashian drew public attention to his case. Kardashian, who is studying to take California’s bar exam, has been vocal on the issue of the death penalty and prison reform and has campaigned to free a number of men and women who were incarcerated.
“Kim Kardashian, I felt like maybe one of my sorority sisters … she was down to earth,” Davis-Jones said.
Antoinette Jones said Kardashian put in the effort to help her brother.
“She sat down and she broke down my brother’s case. That means that she actually did the work,” Jones said. “She did the work to go back and check certain things, to point out certain things.”
“The fact that she told me that she was able to go see my brother, it was almost like she took a piece of him and brought it to us and then we could feel like he was there with us,” Jones added.
But despite all the efforts, Julius Jones’ execution date is still in place.
His family said they have to just wait to see if Stitt will agree with the parole board’s recommendation and commute Jones’ November death sentence. Three members of the Pardon and Parole board were appointed by the governor, a fact that gives Davis-Jones some hope.
“I’d like for [Stitt] to do the right thing, because the truth will set you free,” Davis-Jones said. “But most of all, being in leadership, I know sometimes it’s hard … to make decisions, [but] you have to try to make the right decisions.”
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