On an early October morning in McAlester, Oklahoma, a banner with the words “Welcome Rodeo” hung above the entry gates of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
Marc Howard, a Georgetown University law professor leading the Prisons and Justice Initiative, a Georgetown organization that responds to the mass incarceration crisis, drove his rental car through the entrance of the maximum security prison. Howard drove over three hours to meet one of the death row inmates in person, 39-year-old Julius Jones, a man many believe to be innocent.
Over the years, cement bricks painted in a patriotic combination of red, white and blue faded to a soft pink and pale blue from the unforgiving Oklahoma sun. Beyond the gates, deep inside the 1,556 acres of property, 46 inmates waited on death row in the infamous H Unit, which houses all male Oklahomans sentenced to death.
“(Jones’ case) is not a unique situation,” Howard said.
“At least 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the United States are innocent,” according to the National Academy of Sciences.
In the fall of 1998, Jones was an 18-year-old engineering freshman at the University of Oklahoma, a recipient of the president leadership scholarship and on the verge of gaining a basketball scholarship.
“He was supposed to been walking on at OU (his sophomore year), and he was going to get a full ride if he did good and kept his grades up,” said Antoinette Jones, Julius’ younger sister.
In the summer of 1999, three days after his 19th birthday, Jones was the number one suspect in the killing of Edmond businessman Paul Howell.
August 1999 passed, and instead of playing on OU’s basketball court, Jones remained in police custody. By 2002, Jones was convicted of the murder in the first degree and sentenced to death.
In October 2019, Jones filed for clemency after exhausting all efforts to fight the death penalty.
“As God is my witness, I was not involved in any way in the crimes that led to Paul Howell being shot and killed,” Jones’ clemency report stated. “I have spent the past 20 years on death row for a crime I did not commit, did not witness and was not at.”
Over the course of 17 years, as Jones spent his time in solitary confinement in the penitentiary, his story faded out of news publications, until Kim Kardashian West, an American socialite with a net worth of $370 million, tweeted his name.
Yesterday Oklahoma death-row prisoner #JuliusJones asked the Pardon & Parole Board for clemency. Please help by asking the Board and @GovStitt to give careful and thoughtful consideration to his petition. @justice4julius Learn more at https://t.co/Q5IzUCghZu— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) October 16, 2019
“(Kardashian West has) established herself as one of the leading figures in the country in support of criminal justice reform and in support of people who have been wronged by the criminal justice system,” Howard said. “She has a reach through her network on social media that is basically second to none.”
Kardashian West, whom Howard works closely with in efforts to free innocent people from incarceration, believes Jones was wrongfully convicted.
The crime and sentence
On July 28, 1999, Jones enjoyed the summer night at his parents’ Oklahoma City home.
Jones played Monopoly on the dining room table with his siblings, and after the game ended, they moved on to dominoes. Together, the family ate a homemade spaghetti dinner.
“The dinner sticks out in my mind because it was close to my birthday, and one of my friends had given me a large birthday cookie,” Jones’ clemency report stated.
Less than 20 miles away, in the quiet suburb of Edmond, 45-year-old Paul Howell parked his 1997 GMC suburban outside of his parents’ house. Moments later, he was shot as the victim of a car theft. He was murdered just a few feet from his two daughters and sister, Megan Tobey, who were still inside the car.
“(Howell’s sister) described (the shooter) as a black man wearing a stocking cap and a red bandana across his face,” said Dale Baich, Jones’ attorney. “She said that half an inch of hair was hanging out from the stocking cap. Julius, his hair was short. It was almost shaved to his skin.”
As Jones’ attorneys uncovered possible racial bias and questionable evidence in the case, Howell’s murder became the backbone for two attempts for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case in efforts to fight for Jones’ freedom.
“The police, rather than conducting a thorough investigation, let tunnel vision set in and did not follow the facts and evidence,” Baich said. “Instead, they focused on Julius.”
Despite the two decades since the murder, Jones’ retelling of the day of Howell’s murder remains the same. Unlike Jones’ clear memory of the July night, Christopher Jordan, Jones’ teammate from their high school basketball team and convicted co-defendant to Howell’s murder, changed his story six times.
“Julius was targeted by self-proclaimed car thugs and a gang member,” Baich said. “Two separate prisoners while he was in jail said Chris set Julius up.”
Three suspects were interviewed by Edmond Police before Jones — Kermit Lottie, a convicted felon and Oklahoma City Police informant, and Ladell King, a habitual offender facing a minimum of 20 years for check fraud, led the police to Jordan and, finally, Jones, according to the clemency report.
Baich said Jordan directed investigators into Jones’ path. Despite King’s past and Jordan’s changing story, police ignored inconsistencies.
The day before Jones’ arrest, police surrounded his parents’ home. With Jordan in police custody nearby, he told officers exactly where they would find the murder weapon.
Wrapped in a red bandana that was tested nearly two decades after the trial and found inconclusive to share a complete connection with Jones, officers found the gun used in the murder inside a crawlspace upstairs in Jones’ family home.
“On Thursday evening, the night before Julius was taken into custody, Chris Jordan spent the night at Julius’ parents' home,” Baich said. “Julius (slept) in the living room on the couch ... Chris Jordan went to the upstairs room where the gun was found ... He spent the night in that room.”
Jordan was given life with all but 30 years suspended. Because the men testified against Jones in the trial for lesser sentences, Jordan served only 15 years, and King was given 10 years of probation instead of two decades in prison.
Although there has never been conclusive evidence found to directly connect Jones to the case, he was given death and 40 years.
“We have serious concerns by the way the evidence was collected, handled and stored,” Baich said.
Jones never testified his innocence in court, Baich said. His attorneys had no prior experience in capital punishment.
“I have been haunted by those terrible decisions every day for the past 20 years,” Jones’ clemency report stated. “I know Ladell and Chris framed me to save themselves.”
Jerome Holmes, a judge assigned to Jones’ case, served as a deputy criminal chief in 2002. Today, he is a judge for the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Before he became the first African American to serve in the circuit court, he published an editorial in The Oklahoman on April 28, 2002, that revealed a bias created by media surrounding Jones’ case, according to page 20 of the appellate report.
“Jones deserved to die for his actions,” Holmes wrote in the editorial.
In October 2014, after Holmes published his opinion, Holmes was assigned through the circuit court as one of three judges to decide the future of Jones’ case. Although Holmes had a conflict of interest due to his published opinion of Jones, Holmes remained on the case.
“Judge Holmes had a duty to disqualify himself under 28 U.S.C. § 455(a) and (b)(1), based on his extrajudicial opinions about this case,” the Appellant’s Petition for rehearing Jones' case stated.
Despite this rule, Holmes remained on the panel of judges and created the possibility of influence over the remaining two judges' final decisions.
On Dec. 7, two days after the panel reached a decision, David McKenzie, Jones’ trial attorney, sent an email to the undersigned counsel that revealed Holmes’ bias from 2002.
Despite Holmes’ ethical obligation to grant Jones a fair trial, Jones has not been granted a rehearing.
“I am innocent."
The words written by Jones are stamped in bold Times New Roman font within the first opening lines of his reasons for seeking a commutation.
Jones was hardly 19 years old when he was forced awake and dragged by the police into a cop car. Jones wasn’t given the option to put on shoes or a shirt before he was handcuffed.
“The officers were high-fiving one another and told me: 'You know you’re gonna fry,'” Jones’ clemency report stated. “While being transferred from an Oklahoma City police car to an Edmond police car, an officer removed my handcuffs and said: 'Run, n*****, I dare you.' I stood frozen, knowing that if I moved, I would be shot and killed.”
This would not be the last time Jones experienced racism in his trial. According to his attorney, a racist juror named Jerry Brown remained on the case, even after being reported by another member of the jury.
“(The juror said the case) was a waste of time and ‘they should just take the n***** out and shoot him behind the jail,’” the clemency report stated. “I was tried by a jury that included at least one racist, and I never had a chance.”
By the time Jones’ trial came in 2002, Jones had been incarcerated for three years. He had no prior violent felony convictions.
“During my trial, prosecutors took every opportunity to racialize me by appealing to the deeply entrenched and stereotypical association between blackness and dangerousness,” Jones’ clemency report stated.
Cece Jones-Davis is an advocate who created Justice for Julius, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness on Jones’ case. Jones-Davis was inspired by the ABC featurette “The Last Defense,” a three-part docuseries featuring Jones as an innocent man on death-row.
“Being a taxpayer in Oklahoma and then a person living here, and then pressing on as if I had not seen this,” Jones-Davis said. “There was just something about it I couldn’t shake. I just knew that, in my conscience, I wasn’t going to be able to move on as if this was not a major problem.”
“Should we expect, from the outside, better from ourselves and of our own humanity?” Jones-Davis said. “Should we be a more merciful people?”
Jones-Davis said Justice for Julius has grown throughout the state with the help of her grassroots advocacy bringing awareness to Jones’ case.
“There is a lot of luck in the criminal justice system,” Baich said. “It’s arbitrary.”
Baich said David Prater, the district attorney of Oklahoma County, initially refused to release the prosecution files that could address the injustices in Jones’ case. After two years of asking Prater for the files, Prater agreed to release the files to Baich.
Baich said Prater later went back on his word.
“(Prater said) ‘I can’t let you see the file, I need to protect the integrity of the file for the people of Oklahoma,’” Baich said. “He changed his mind after ignoring me for almost two years.”
In a report from NonDoc, Prater said everything Jones’ supporters claim has either been disproved or addressed.
“(Jones’) advocates and lawyers are some of the most dishonest people I have dealt with in my professional career,” Prater said in the report.
On Oct. 24, Prater was accused of whistleblower claims for partaking in activities deemed unethical by a former U.S. Secret Service agent after wrongful termination.
The Daily contacted Prater’s office for a comment and did not receive a response in time for publication.
Despite Prater’s resistance to release the persecution files, Baich holds out for the files in hopes they will help Jones’ case.
“The facts are the facts, and what we are trying to do is get information from his files and other sources,” Baich said. “You know, if he doesn’t have anything to hide, why is he keeping the file from us?”
Through the glass
With a thick pane of glass between them, Howard and Jones met for the first time in the state penitentiary.
Howard, a man free enough to travel 200 miles from Tyler, Texas, to McAlester, bent down to speak through a grate at the bottom of the glass pane. Jones, a man whose identity is now a collection of numbers and letters, #270147OSP, leaned forward to listen to the other man.
This is the closest Jones has come into contact with other people for the last 20 years. On death row, inmates are isolated in solitary confinement and forbidden from touching anyone from the free world, aside from their attorneys.
“That’s the only human contact that he has, aside from when the guards put handcuffs on him or the leg shackles to move him from his cell to the visiting room,” Baich said.
As well as decades spent without human touch, Jones is shackled while he showers for five minutes three times a week.
“He’s been locked away, essentially buried alive,” Howard said. “And that’s a horrible, horrible mistake that absolutely needs to be corrected.”
Although Jones hasn’t seen the sun in 14 years, he remains connected to the outside world through his calls home and letters written to supporters across the country, despite the carpal tunnel in his right hand.
“(Jones is) blown away by the fact that, while he’s sitting 23 hours a day alone in a cell, in the outside world, all of these people ... are talking about him and know his name and want to help him,” Howard said.
Currently, Jones has no execution date due to the botched 2015 execution of Clayton Lockett. For now, Jones’ attorneys are fighting to get him off death row and to time served, which would allow him to live the remainder of his life as a free man.
As the case for Jones’ innocence grows, Jones-Davis believes every step can help uncover the truth of Jones’ conviction. On JusticeforJulius.com, supporters can send an e-letter to Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board or download and print a letter to send to Gov. Kevin Stitt.
“He was a Sooner — he still is,” Howard said. “And if something were to happen to you, wouldn’t you want your community to help you? ... Bring that out and support Julius Jones.”
Editor’s note: Cece Jones-Davis has no relation to Julius Jones.