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Weeks before Julius Jones set to die, appeals court pauses first Oklahoma executions in six years until 2022

A federal appeals court has ruled that Oklahoma can’t execute two men before they can finish their lawsuit challenging the state’s death penalty protocol as unconstitutional. The decision temporarily delays what would’ve been the state’s first two executions in six years, after a series of botched killings in 2014 and 2015. The first execution, of John Marion Grant, had been set for Thursday evening.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, a day before the execution was set to take place, the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that the two men, Grant and Julius Jones, shouldn’t be executed before they can participate in a federal lawsuit alongside other Oklahoma death row inmates. The case, set for a federal trial February 2022 in Oklahoma, challenges the state’s lethal injection processes as an unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment.

“They risk being unable to present what may be a viable Eighth Amendment claim to the federal courts before they are executed using the method they have challenged,” the appeals court wrote in its ruling.

Public defenders representing the two men celebrated the decision.

"The 10th Circuit did the right thing by blocking Mr Grant’s execution on Thursday," Dale Baich said in a press release on Wednesday. "Today’s order should prevent the state from carrying out executions until the federal district court addresses the ‘credible expert criticism’ it identified in Oklahoma’s execution procedures. Those issues will be carefully reviewed by the court at the trial scheduled in February."

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s office vowed to appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court.

“We have received the Order of the Tenth Circuit granting a stay of the executions of John M Grant and Julius D Jones. We are appealing the decision to the United States Supreme Court. We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will vacate the stay so that justice can finally be served for the people of Oklahoma, including the families of the victims of these horrific crimes,” the Office of Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor told KFOR. The previous attorney general, Mike Hunter, had agreed to hold off on executions for the duration of the constitutional lawsuit.

The decision doesn’t affect the underlying death sentence against the two men, but it does push back their execution dates.

John Marion Grant was given the death penalty for the 1998 murder of Gay Carter, a prison staff member where he was incarcerated for a previous robbery charge.

Julius Jones, meanwhile, was convicted of the 1999 murder of Paul Howell, a businessman in the Oklahoma suburbs who was shot in front of his children during a carjacking.

Jones has maintained his innocence for the last two decades, and has in recent years become a cause célèbre, attracting a growing movement of followers as well as high profile celebrity advocates like Kim Kardashian. Prior to Wednesday’s ruling, Jones’s family had been reeling from the announcement that his hearing asking for clemency from the governor, his final form of legal appeal available, had been pushed back into November, just weeks before his scheduled execution.

“I was frustrated. I was hurt,” Dionne Carruthers, Julius’s cousin, told The Independent on Tuesday. “I felt pain for Julius in that moment upon hearing the news because he has never been able to use his voice to speak on his own behalf, to speak his own truth, and to be heard. He deserves that like every other human being to be heard, and to have their truth be told.”

Oklahoma hasn’t executed anyone since a series of high-profile errors in the execution chamber.

In April 2014, it took executioners 17 attempts to set an IV line on Clayton Lockett, who began moaning, groaning, and attempting to speak after he was supposed to be unconscious. Witnesses were ushered out and a curtain was pulled over the death chamber, where Lockett died of a heart attack. A 2015 autopsy revealed he had accidentally been given the wrong execution drug.

That same year, Charles Warner told onlookers “my body is on fire” during his execution in January, which mistakenly used the same wrong drug, potassium acetate, that had killed Lockett.

By September, Oklahoma was about to bungle a third killing, that of Richard Glossip, before then-governor Mary Fallin called off the execution at the least minute after she learned he too was about to be injected with the incorrect poison. Glossip came within two hours of death. Glossip remains on death row.

In 2020, Oklahoma said it was ready to resume executions and had tightened its safety protocols around executions. Critics say the state retains the same three-drug cocktail that makes inmates feel like they’re being “burned alive” during executions, and that it doesn’t disclose the suppliers of its injection materials, raising concerns.

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.