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Oklahoma governor has commuted Julius Jones' death sentence

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Julius Jones was scheduled to die by lethal injection in Oklahoma this afternoon for a 1999 murder that he has always said he did not commit. But the execution was called off after Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt commuted his sentence to life without parole. Logan Layden with member station KGOU was outside the state penitentiary where hundreds of Jones's supporters had gathered. Hi, Logan.

LOGAN LAYDEN, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: Hi. OK, so can you just tell us more about who Julius Jones is and the controversy around his case?

LAYDEN: Well, Julius Jones, a Black man - he was convicted of a murder in the Oklahoma City area 20 years ago when he was 19 years old. And he was a promising athlete at the time, and that's part of the reason why we've seen high-profile athletes be part of the effort to stop the execution - and also other celebrities. Even Kim Kardashian has been involved. And there are big questions about whether he actually committed the crime. In fact, another person has claimed he committed the crime and framed Julius Jones. So there are a lot of concerns around the case, and Jones has always maintained his innocence.

CHANG: And the state - the state parole board recommended clemency here?

LAYDEN: Yes. And since then, the weight has been on to see whether Governor Kevin Stitt would allow the execution to happen, go with the board's recommendation or commute the sentence to life. And then, as hundreds of people rallied for Jones outside the prison today, the governor made his call to commute the death sentence. Now Jones is in prison for life without parole.

CHANG: And I understand that among the crowd outside the prison today were some of his family members.

LAYDEN: Yes, and I talked to his aunt, Lee Anisha Jones (ph), right after word came that he wouldn't be executed, and here's how she was feeling.

LEE ANISHA JONES: Joy - joy of knowing my nephew was no longer going to be on death row and was not going to be killed today. It's going to be hard - not that hard because we've already gone lots of steps now. But I'm still hopeful that he's coming home.

CHANG: Now, Logan, I know that Oklahoma only recently resumed executions after a hiatus of something like several years, right? Can you just remind us how we got to this point in your state?

LAYDEN: Yes. Back in 2014 and 2015, there were two badly botched executions here. They were slow, painful deaths, and it was plain even to the state attorney general at the time that the lethal injection process needed to be looked at. After that, the state stopped executions. And really not necessarily by choice, the courts also were blocking them. So there were no executions in Oklahoma for six years until just a couple of weeks ago. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the stay that was in place, and Oklahoma resumed executions. But the first one also didn't go well. John Grant - he threw up, convulsed, according to the witnesses who saw it. So that was hanging over Jones' execution, as well as the concerns over whether he's actually guilty of the crime he was convicted of.

CHANG: And what did Governor Stitt say about why he decided to commute the death sentence for Jones?

LAYDEN: Well, the governor said he did so, quote, "after prayerful consideration and reviewing materials presented by all sides of the case," end quote. He didn't say it has anything to do with concerns about how humane the process is or that there was the possibility of violent protests in response to the execution or anything like that. And I wouldn't expect the administration to say so, even if that was part of the decision.

CHANG: That is Logan Layden with member station KGOU. Thank you very much.

LAYDEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.