Julius Jones' last-minute reprieve from the death penalty exposed a serious flaw in our criminal justice system or in our governor’s thought process — perhaps both.

Jones was sentenced to death for killing 45-year-old insurance executive Paul Howell. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt granted clemency Thursday‚ less than four hours before Jones was scheduled for execution by lethal injection.

This editorial is not about whether Jones is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. Nor is it about the death penalty — the Muskogee Phoenix Editorial Board opposes capital punishment.

We contend the commutation of Jones' sentence to life without the possibility of parole defies any logical principle.

Stitt clearly believes the death penalty is just or he would not have allowed it to be carried out just a couple of weeks ago. If our governor opposed the death penalty he would grant stays for every death-row prisoner who requested a delay.

The conclusion that must be drawn is Stitt believes Jones might be innocent. If this is the case, the governor might have spared an innocent man from being the victim of state-sanctioned homicide only to languish the remainder of his life in prison — far short of anything close to justice.

Stitt pointed out in an executive order the Pardon and Parole Board lacks the authority to recommend the commutation of a death sentence to life with the possibility of parole. The governor also noted the Oklahoma Constitution or any other law grants him the authority to make a similar recommendation. The Pardon and Parole Board's rules prevent Jones from reapplying to commutation for the same offense following a favorable action from the governor.

Our criminal justice system is founded on principles that includes among other things retribution, and someone must pay for killing Paul Howell. But that someone should be the person who actually killed Howell — it does not serve justice to have an innocent person sitting on death row.

We believe our criminal justice system, while not perfect, is better than most. The system is inhabited by human beings, and all human beings are flawed. Those flaws could lead to individuals being jailed for crimes they did not commit.

The most recent example came this week with the exoneration of two men convicted of killing Malcolm X. These two individuals spent more than five decades behind bars, an injustice that is unfathomable.

Stitt's decision to commute Jones' death sentence appears to have been politically motivated, pandering to celebrities who oppose the death penalty but appealing to law-and-order voters by making sure Jones remains in prison.

His decision fails to address whether Jones was wrongfully convicted.

If Jones is innocent, he was denied justice. If Jones is guilty, Stitt circumvented the jury's decision, and Howell's family was denied the justice they were due.

Stitt could have stayed the execution, providing time for other options that might better determine Jones' guilt or innocence. Greater confidence in that answer would ease any burden on those who would have to set a man free or carry out an execution.

Stitt's action Thursday did nothing to further the cause of justice. True justice should be the only outcome sought by the citizens of Oklahoma.

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