The governor of Oklahoma commuted the death sentence at the last-minute of a 41-year-old Black man who was to be executed for a murder he denies committing, and whose case sparked a public outcry.
Governor Kevin Stitt stepped in less than four hours before Julius Jones had been scheduled to die by lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
"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," the Republican governor said in a statement.
Jones was sentenced to death in 2002 for the 1999 murder of Paul Howell, a white businessman, and was to be executed by lethal injection.
Howell was fatally shot during a carjacking. His sister, Megan Tobey, and two young daughters were in his SUV when the carjacking happened in his parents' driveway in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond, per the AP.
Tobey testified she saw Jones shoot her brother. "He is the same person today as he was 22 years ago. He's still getting into trouble. He's still in a gang. He's still lying. And he still feels no shame, guilt or remorse for his action," Tobey said. "We need Julius Jones to be held responsible."
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and the state's former attorney general, Mike Hunter, have said the evidence against Jones is overwhelming.
Investigators found the murder weapon wrapped in a bandanna with Jones' DNA in an attic space above his bedroom.
Jones claimed in his commutation filing the gun and bandanna were planted there by the actual killer — a high school friend who was a key witness against him who had been inside Jones' house after the killing.
Jones also claims he was discriminated against during his trial and that his first lawyer poorly defended him.
His case has been the subject of a documentary series and podcast and has drawn the support of reality TV star Kim Kardashian and a number of other celebrities convinced of his innocence.
"Thank you so much Governor Stitt for commuting Julius Jones sentence to life without parole and stopping his execution today," Kardashian tweeted.
Amanda Bass, Jones' lawyer, said the governor had taken an "important step today towards restoring public faith in the criminal justice system by ensuring that Oklahoma does not execute an innocent man."
Steve Kerr, coach of the NBA's Golden State Warriors, and former University of Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who now plays for the NFL's Cleveland Browns, were among those expressing support for Jones.
"This cannot happen in a civilised nation and we have to keep this from happening," Kerr said in a Twitter video.
A petition asking Stitt to halt the execution had been signed by more than 6.5 million people and hundreds of schoolchildren walked out of class in the state on Wednesday in an effort to put pressure on the governor.
The Oklahoma state parole board had recommended that Jones' sentence be commuted to life in prison.
Jones' lawyers had filed an emergency motion with a federal-district court on Thursday seeking to halt the execution on the grounds that one carried out in the state last month was bungled and there were problems with the drug cocktail used to put inmates to death.
John Grant, 60, a convicted murder, was executed on October 28. He was the first inmate to be put to death in Oklahoma since a series of botched executions led to a temporary moratorium on capital punishment in the state.
Journalists who witnessed the execution said that Grant had vomited and experienced full body convulsions about two dozen times before he was pronounced dead.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections said Grant's execution went as planned and "without complication".
Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer executed in Oklahoma in April 2014, took more than 40 minutes to die after a drug was injected into muscle tissue instead of his bloodstream.
The wrong drug was used in the execution of Charles Warner the following year and another execution was called off at the last minute when it was discovered that the wrong drug was about to be used again.