Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Sitt on Thursday granted clemency to death row inmate Julius Jones amid mounting pressure from the public.
Sitt's decision came just hours before Jones, 41, was scheduled to receive a lethal injection Thursday.
"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," Sitt said in a statement.
Jones, who has maintained his innocence for two decades, was convicted in 1999 over the slaying of Oklahoma businessman Paul Howell.
Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor said he is "greatly disappointed" in the decision made 22 years after Jones' conviction.
"I know Governor Sitt is making what he believes to be the right decision," O'Connor said. "I appreciate the governor's condition that Mr. Jones never be released from prison. However, we are greatly disappointed that after 22 years, four appeals, including the review of 13 appellate judges, the work of investigators, prosecutors, jurors, and the trial judge have been set aside."
O'Connor added that "a thorough review of evidence" in the case has confirmed Jones' "guilt."
The case received ABC ran a three-episode documentary series called "The Last Defense" in 2018, which questions Jones' conviction. renewed national attention after Sitt was under mounting pressure from the public and several high-profile celebrities including Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and reality TV star Kim Kardashian.
Crowds of demonstrators appeared outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester on Thursday to protest Jones' imminent death sentence.
Jones maintains he was framed by the actual killer, a high school friend and co-defendant who testified against him and was released from prison after 15 years.
Howell's family posted a statement to Facebook on Thursday after Sitt granted clemency, saying the governor had to make a "difficult decision."
"We take comfort that his 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," the family said. "…Julius Jones has forever changed our lives and the lives of his family and friends."
State and county prosecutors have said the evidence against Jones is overwhelming. Trial transcripts show witnesses identified Jones as the shooter and placed him with Howell’s stolen vehicle. Investigators also found the murder weapon wrapped in a bandana with Jones’ DNA in an attic space above his bedroom. Jones claims the murder weapon was placed there by the actual killer, who visited Jones’ house after Howell was shot.
The state’s Pardon and Parole Board twice voted 3-1 to recommend Stitt grant clemency to Jones and commute his sentence to life in prison.
Paul Howell’s sister, Megan Tobey, testified before the board that she distinctly remembers seeing Jones shoot her brother in front of his two young daughters.
"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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.