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EDMONTON, Oklahoma—When Julius Jones was charged with killing a white man in a carjacking, he faced a 12-person jury with only one Black person. One juror used a racial slur and threatening language in the jury room. Jones’ arresting officer also allegedly used a racial slur when confronting him.
On top of the racial bias, Jones’ own state-appointed defense attorney says his legal team failed to defend him adequately. Advocates also say the evidence never stacked up; the case against Jones was largely based on informant testimony, but he didn’t match the description of the killer. And he had an alibi.
Jones, who was 19 when he was arrested, was sentenced to death in 2002. Almost 20 years later, he still sits on death row in Oklahoma.
He’s been unsuccessful in nine attempts to have his case reviewed. And now that Oklahoma is restarting capital punishment after a five-year hiatus because of two botched executions, Jones and his advocates are afraid he could be next.
“I have spent the past 20 years on death row for a crime I did not commit, did not witness and was not at,” Jones, now 40, wrote in his 2019 commutation application, which is part of his 10th and ongoing appeal, his final hope in avoiding execution.
Jones’ case attracted new attention during the national movement for racial justice sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in May, and celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Blake Griffin, and John Legend have called for Jones’ release.
The case against Jones involved three suspects who alleged that Jones and a high school basketball teammate, Christopher Jordan, murdered Paul Howell, an insurance agent. Jordan, a police informant, claimed Jones was the shooter. He received a 30-year sentence and was released after 15 years. While in prison, Jordan allegedly told his cellmates that he had framed Jones for the crime.
“Even if I get out of here tomorrow, I can’t get back 21 plus years.”
Howell’s sister, and the only witness to the crime, described the shooter as a Black man wearing a stocking cap with half an inch of hair hanging out. Photographs from days before the murder show Jones with a closely shaved head. Jordan, on the other hand, had longer hair. Despite the fact that Jones was at home playing games and eating spaghetti with his family during the murder, he was sentenced to death and 40 years in prison in 2002.
Racism runs deeply through Oklahoma’s criminal justice system. The state has the highest Black incarceration rate in the U.S.: Black people are imprisoned at 4.5 times the rate of white people. Racial disparities have been shown at every level of the justice system—from arrest to conviction and ultimately sentencing. The Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Comission found that the state is 3.2 times more likely to ask for the death penalty if the victim is white.
“During my trial, prosecutors took every opportunity to racialize me by appealing to the deeply entrenched and stereotypical association between blackness and dangerousness,” Jones stated in his commutation application.
Since Oklahoma State Penitentiary went into lockdown in 2008, Jones has spent 23 hours a day alone in a concrete cell. He’s allowed one hour of sunlight a day in a room with a grated roof, and three showers a week. He hasn’t hugged his mother since he was 19.
“Even if I get out of here tomorrow, I can’t get back 21 plus years,” he told VICE News.
But he remains hopeful, buoyed by the support he’s received around the country.
“I’m hopeful that we are at the precipice of change and that change is for the better,” he said. “The truth should matter. The actual truth should matter.”