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As millions around the nation reflect on Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt’s last-minute decision to provide partial clemency for Julius Jones, some say the agonizing wait reflects a broken criminal justice system. Others see a system working exactly as intended.
Hours before Julius Jones’ scheduled 4 p.m. execution on Thursday, November 18, Governor Kevin Stitt’s statement calling it off sent a wave of relief across the state and nation. Yet, for the Julius Jones supporters posted outside the McAlester Penitentiary on the rocky gravel, for the students who had walked out of schools across the state, and for the organizers desperate to save a Black man’s life, the internalized trauma was overwhelmingly visible.
“It definitely should not have taken all of this,” Rev. Cece Jones-Davis said after the governor’s announcement that Jones’ death sentence would be commuted to life without the possibility of parole.
Stitt’s delay causes “torture”, terror and trauma
Julius Jones, who has maintained his innocence for over 20 years in the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell, was the first death row detainee in the state’s history to receive a recommendation for a commuted sentence by the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on September 13.
Yet after a week of silence, Stitt, who rose to the governor’s mansion on a platform of being an outsider, claimed he didn’t want to break precedent by following the historic recommendation.
Thus, he forced Julius Jones to wait over a month later for a clemency hearing. Again, the Board recommended clemency on November 1. And again, the governor remained silent. Many on social media called the governors’ decision to wait cowardly, even as he claimed he was praying about it. Others called the delay a “tool of white supremacy.”
As we collectively wait for @GovStitt to do what is morally & politically right—by accepting the recommendations of the Pardon and Parole Board—I have been thinking about how waiting is a tool of white supremacy.
Think with me.
— leah a palmer (@leahapalmer) November 16, 2021
Ultimately, the governor’s inaction caused a reaction from communities unwilling to allow the state to execute a man whose family says he was at home during the night of Howell’s murder. In the waning hours ahead of Jones’ scheduled execution, religious leaders, students, and community organizers orchestrated a spontaneous campaign of direct action that the governor couldn’t ignore.
Rev. Cece Jones-Davis calls out Oklahoma’s criminal justice system
Surrounded by reporters, Rev. Jones-Davis and Julius Jones’ sister Antoinette made their way from the prison to a crowd of supporters eager to hear what they had to say about an hour after the governor approved clemency on Thursday.
Antoinette said she woke up Thursday morning with a peace “that passes all understanding.”
“All I can tell you is that when you have that peace you don’t worry about the naysayers, you don’t worry about the negative, you stay focused on what God has told you and you trust that,” Antoinette Jones told reporters.
She admitted that her family has persevered through an “uphill battle of emotions” but expressed gratitude for the governor’s decision.
“This was torture for Julius and for his family”
Meanwhile, Rev. Cece Jones-Davis, a family friend and lead organizer of the Justice for Julius Campaign passionately and humbly called out the state’s legal system.
Thanking God and the “work of a lot of people”, Jones-Davis said the governor should’ve acted sooner.
“We should not have received this news four hours before an execution. This was torture for Julius and for his family and for the people who love him,” she said. “And if you watch social media at all, you would’ve seen how much anxiety people had around the world about what was happening with Julius.”
“Children not able to function in schools today and yesterday because of what was happening with Julius Jones. This teaches us a lot. You don’t have to be a lawyer. You don’t have to have some fancy degree to know what is basically right and wrong. And what we have experienced here has been wrong. What Julius has been though has been wrong,” Rev. Jones-Davis said.
Wednesday: Day before scheduled execution
While Thursday afternoon morphed into celebrations, the hours leading up to the November 18 execution date were filled with anxious desperation.
With no word from the governor, religious leaders, students and community organizers began to take matters into their own hands.
High school students who walked out of Oklahoma City Public Schools echoed “ain’t nobody gonna turn me around” inside the state Capitol the day before on Wednesday, November 17. The students joined hundreds of supporters of death row detainee Julius Jones at the Capitol building less than 24 hours before Jones’ state-sanctioned execution was scheduled to take place.
Legislators from various political parties and people of all ages and backgrounds filled the Rotunda, chanting, praying and singing songs of hope. Speakers ignited the crowd with fiery reminders of the power of God found in lessons throughout the Christian bible. The ACLU even called on Governor Stitt to place a hold on all executions.
Students speak out in support of Julius Jones
Normally filled with right-wing gun-toting activists, Oklahoma politicians walking through the Rotunda throughout the week were surprised to instead see a multicultural crowd of supporters for a death row detainee. Between Wednesday and Thursday, students from nearly a dozen schools across OKC and Tulsa walked out for Julius Jones.
Kymonti is a student from Northwest Classen High School. In an interview at the Capitol with The Black Wall Street Times, he described the atmosphere as very supportive. “I feel welcomed here,” he said.
Fellow Classen student Poliana echoed Kymonti’s impression. “I just think it’s insane how many showed up and there were so many speakers who said so much that meant a lot to me. It made us feel like we’re all together,” she said.
Adding to the public pressure, legislators across the political spectrum have urged the governor to spare Jones’ life. Some joined the crowd of Julius Jones supporters at the Capitol on Wednesday.
Black caucus chair speaks out
Rep. Jason Lowe (D-OKC) is chair of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus.
He told TheBWSTimes it was “extremely disheartening” to see the governor refuse to meet with Julius Jones mother, Madeline Davis-Jones. On Monday, Nov. 15, after not hearing directly from the governor, Rep. Lowe and other members of the Black Caucus escorted “Mama”Jones to the governor’s office. Once there, she hand-delivered a letter asking for Gov. Stitt to spare her son’s life.
“We often hear that Julius’ death sentence is about ‘justice’ or ‘closure’. This cannot be true, however, because we know Mr. Howell’s real killer is still out there,” Davis-Jones wrote in her letter to Gov. Stitt. “Nothing is ‘just’ about executing our boy. His death will not provide closure or healing. Only the truth can do that.”
Nevertheless, a communications director for the governor shut the door in her face.
“Right now a lot of people don’t have trust in the criminal justice system,” Rep. Lowe added. “We have the second highest incarceration rate in the nation. It’s just shameful. And then when we submit bills as Legislative Black Caucus members, recently in trying to promote criminal justice reform, we don’t get a hearing. We don’t get heard. So it’s discouraging. We need to make a change in our criminal justice system and it starts here.”
Bipartisan group of gubernatorial candidates call on Gov. Stitt to grant clemency
Other Democratic legislators who joined Julius Jones supporters on Wednesday included Rep. Emily Virgin (D-Norman), Forrest Bennett (D-OKC) and scores of others throughout the week.
Connie Johnson, a Democratic candidate for governor, and Natalie Bruno, a Libertarian candidate for governor have both come out strongly against executions, though Johnson has been a vocal opponent of the death penalty for years.
By Wednesday, even Republican-turned Democrat Joy Hofmeister, who is also running for governor, made it clear that she would spare Jones’ life were she in Gov. Stitt’s shoes.
Yet, by Wednesday evening, the silence from the governor’s office became too loud to ignore.
Prayers escalate into protest
Community organizers, led by a group of Black pastors in OKC, decided to escalate direct actions to apply one last bit of pressure on the governor.
Following a regular 6 p.m. vigil for Julius Jones outside the Oklahoma History Center on Wednesday evening, nearly 200 Julius Jones supporters made their way to a recently constructed wall of barricades across the street from the governor’s mansion.
Chanting “no justice no peace” and “justice for Julius”, a swarm of Oklahoma Highway Patrol officers and Oklahoma National Guard members greeted the crowd with ammunition and armored tanks.
As a few unarmed protestors made their way onto the street, law enforcement warned they would use force and arrest anyone not on the sidewalk.
For OKC Pastor Derrick Scobey of Ebenezer Baptist Church, there would be no turning back. He refused to move and was eventually arrested. After being released the next day, he stood by his act of civil disobedience.
“I simply did something that I was hoping and praying would send a particular message,” Pastor Scobey told KFOR.
Spiritual advisor reminds Oklahoma that “God is watching”
Yet, even the damning viral image of a Black pastor being arrested over the governor’s delay wasn’t enough to convince Stitt to act.
Millions of supporters were forced to fall asleep in uncertainty Wednesday night even as Julius Jones underwent preparations for execution. With his arms chained to his chest, he wasn’t even able to hug his spiritual advisor, Rev. Keith Jossell.
The inhumane condition infuriated Rev. Jossell, who made a blistering speech ahead of the governor’s decision.
“The world is watching. But you need to understand something, God is watching,” Rev. Jossell said, his voice echoing throughout the building like thunder to an eruption of applause in the state Capitol on Wednesday. He said Julius asked him why the state is doing this to him. Rev. Jossell responded by taking Julius to scripture.
“God sees all”
“I took him to the word of God that says ‘Vengeance is mine,’ said the Lord of Hosts. And I promised Julius that regardless of what happens tomorrow, God is taking detailed and meticulous notes.”
Lastly, Rev. Jossell explained that he didn’t have a problem signing the Department of Corrections’ waiver. It ordered him not to release the names of those performing the execution.
“I know I don’t have to say anything about who is strapping him and who is injecting him because God sees all, God knows all, and God holds everyone accountable!” Rev. Jossell said.
Through prayer, songs and fiery chants, Wednesday’s message at the Capitol was clear: as long as Julius Jones holds breath, hope remains.
Thursday: Day of execution
Meanwhile, by Thursday, uncertainty had turned into desperation as supporters of Julius Jones made their way to an area outside the McAlester Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla., where Jones would be executed at 4 p.m.
To the sounds of Lauryn Hill classics and Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture”, the outward appearance of hope covered a thin veil of righteous fury among the crowd of Julius Jones supporters ahead of Governor Stitt’s delayed decision. After weeks of prayers, vigils, and peaceful requests for communication, community organizers were ready to take drastic measures.
By noon, both organizers and law enforcement were ready for whatever came next. Yet, before any direct actions or arrests took place, the governor finally announced his decision.
“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,” Gov. Stitt announced.
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.https://t.co/fLsnYnxInw
— Governor Kevin Stitt (@GovStitt) November 18, 2021
Rev. Cece Jones-Davis expressed gratitude for the governor’s decision to choose life. She also made clear that the fight to free Julius Jones from prison continues.
“We would have hoped that he would have taken the full recommendation of the board. But we got time for that. Where there is life there is hope, where there is light there is strength. So today we’re gonna celebrate Julius Jones’ life,” Jones-Davis said on Thursday.
Trauma and relief follow clemency announcement
Julius Jones’ high-profile case has drawn millions of supporters from across the world after ABC’s The Last Defense highlighted reasonable doubt in his case. No one from his family was able to testify that Jones was home with them the night of the murder. Chris Jordan, Jones’ co-defendant, has already confessed to the murder, according to sworn statements from prison inmates, a ReadFrontier report has found.
Despite two recommendations from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board for clemency and a commuted sentence, Governor Kevin Stitt remained silent for months. Instead of giving both the Howell and Jones families closure by announcing his decision, Stitt instructed the Oklahoma Highway Patrol to place barricades around the Governor’s Mansion in anticipation of riots and protests.
News of Oklahoma’s pending execution of a man millions believe is innocent had reached international ears. Representatives with the European Union and other nations have sent letters to the Governor urging clemency. Republicans and Democrats inside and outside the state have pleaded for Stitt to spare Jones’ life.
State prioritizes White family’s feelings over the facts
Yet, unelected Attorney General John O’ Connor, whom Stitt holds in high regard, has indicated the desire to execute Jones was about “closure” for the Howell family.
In a statement, the Howell family expressed “comfort that [Gov. Stitt’s] decision affirmed the guilt of Julius Jones and that he shall not be eligible to apply for, or be considered for, a commutation, pardon or parole for the remainder of his life.”
Yet, many who believe Chris Jordan was the real killer of Paul Howell don’t see the justice in forcing Julius Jones to remain in prison. Supporters and attorneys have vowed to find a way to free Julius Jones, even if it means electing a new governor.
Ultimately, in an attempt to appease one family at all costs, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has traumatized millions of people in the process.