With all appeals exhausted, Julius Jones' fate lies in the hands of the Oklahoma Governor and the US Supreme Court
Oklahoma is set to resume executions by the end of 2018 by means of Nitrogen gas, meaning time is well and truly running out for Julius now.
The case of Julius Jones remains a divisive one. Convicted and sentenced to death over the murder of insurance executive Paul Scott Howell on July 28, 1999, in Edmond, Oklahoma, the fact remains there are far too many inconsistencies and loopholes in the prosecution's case that should have seen him exonerated by now. Yet, he inexplicably continues to languish in jail, awaiting the state — which had suspended executions over a previous botched attempt — to set his execution date.
While lawyers at the Innocence Project — which works to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing — have been working tirelessly in the years since his conviction to set him free, it is the Viola Davis-produced documentary, 'The Last Defense,' that has once again brought his plight back into the spotlight and to the attention of the American public.
During an exclusive chat with MEAWW, Dale Baich, an Assistant Federal Public Defender in Arizona and Supervisor of the Capital Habeas Unit, whose lawyers represent death row prisoners in federal proceedings challenging their convictions and death sentences, shared his thoughts on how Davis' documentary could possibly impact Julius' case.
"In February 2017, we learned that the producers of the docu-series were looking at a number of cases across the country where there was a potential wrongful conviction," he said. "Over the next few months, we had a number of calls and meeting with the producers about the issues in Julius’ case."
"We were quite happy when we were told that Julius’ case was one of the two cases that 'The Last Defense' would feature," he told MEAWW. "The last time there was any real attention to the case was when Julius was sentenced to death in 2002, and the story then was basically untold. The public did not know of the deals with the confidential informants or that the co-defendant bragged about setting Julius up and that he would only have to serve 15 years of his 30-year sentence. There was no defense put forward by Julius’ lawyers during the trial. There was no airing of the police misconduct or the systemic racism, as well as the racism in Julius’ case."
Dale's office was appointed to represent Julius in August 2016 because the Federal Public Defender in Oklahoma City had a conflict and could not represent him. The case was already out of court at the time and the last avenue for acquittal was clemency from Governor Mary Fallin, and now, Republican Governor-elect Kevin Stitt, but Dale said the case has more to it than met the eye. "The case looked bad," he said. "But, as we peeled away the layers and began our investigation—something that was not thoroughly done during the life of the case—we uncovered misconduct by the police, bad lawyering at trial, secret deals, and racism."
What Dale is referring to are the various facets of the case that had been conveniently ignored during Julius' conviction. Whether it's the failure of the detectives to properly investigate 'accomplice' Chris 'Westside' Jordan, the litany of accusations of bad conduct against prosecutor Bob Macy — prosecutorial misconduct was discovered in approximately one-third of his death penalty cases, with courts reversing close to half his death sentences —or the fact that it was uncovered how at least one juror harbored racial prejudice.
The latter of those alone should have been enough to overturn his death penalty, especially taking into consideration that the US Supreme Court as unambiguously condemned racial prejudice from playing any role in a single juror's decision to convict a defendant and sentence him to death. Yet, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA) dismissed his lawyers' petition — which contested that a member of the jury said the trial was "a waste of time" and they should "just take the n***** out and shoot him behind the jail — this past September, ruling there was no 'racial bias.'
His case took another hit when the results of the DNA analysis on a red bandana, tied to the killing, came to light. After years of petitioning, the bandana — which was found wrapped around the murder weapon inside Jones' home and which Howell's sister claimed the killer was wearing — was sent for testing at an independent lab. In the last week of October, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter revealed the bandana tested positive for Julius' DNA, with analysis showing that the probability it belonged to someone other than Jones was one in 110 million African Americans.
"The lab results, which indicate that Julius Jones’ DNA is present on the red bandana, is an additional validation of the trial and appellate process in proving his guilt," Hunter announced, according to Fox 25. But Dale maintained that the results were inconclusive and that numerous DNA profiles were found on the piece of clothing.
"The testing cannot tell us when DNA was deposited on the bandana, which is why we cannot draw any conclusions when there are profiles of three or more individuals," he said. "Additionally, the final report showed that the DNA sample of Mr. Jones’ co-defendant Chris Jordan yielded only a partial profile that could not be compared to the three or more other profiles located on the bandana."
Some hope remains in form of the US Supreme Court, which previously refused to consider the case, but is now set to review a petition based on an Oklahoma race study that concluded an African American who killed a white male was three times as more likely to get the death penalty. However, despite being distributed for conference on 21 different occasions — the most recent being November 13 — the petition remains unheard.
"Race has always been an issue in the criminal justice system," Dale explained. "Historically, the courts have been reluctant to address the systemic issues surrounding race in the justice system. Until the issue of racism is directly confronted by the courts, it will continue to be part of the system."
While Julius was seemingly 'lucky' enough to have a docu-series chronicle his plight and the injustice he faced, there are currently 47 defendants on death row in Oklahoma alone, 16 of whom have exhausted all modes of appeal. Dale confesses it wouldn't be easy for them to have their cases revisited and reheard. "As a death penalty case progresses through the state and federal judicial review process, it is harder for courts to look at the merits of the claims raised," he said. "This is because the Congress and state legislatures have erected procedural barriers to keep the courts from taking a good, hard look at the merits of the issues through a full and fair hearing process."
At the time Julius was accused of the murder in 1999, he was just 19 years old. He was a model student who was a member of the National Honor Society and had graduated from the John Marshall High School he attended with top honors. He was also the co-captain of the school's football, basketball, and track teams, and had been accepted into the University of Oklahoma on an academic scholarship and had his whole life ahead of him.
But the conviction has seen him spend the last 18 years behind bars in conditions that can only be described as inhumane. Julius is kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and is bound with shackles for the hour he's allowed outside. He also gets only three five-minute showers a week and is allowed no physical contact with visitors, not even his family. 'The Last Defense' was not given permission to film Julius either, something Dale confessed was odd because the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has a policy that allows for death row inmates to be interviewed and filmed by the media.
Furthermore, Oklahoma is set to resume executions by the end of 2018 by means of Nitrogen gas, meaning time is well and truly running out for Julius now. However, family and friends say he still maintains a positive outlook. "Julius has a strong spirit and the fact that his story is finally being told, has given him strength and hope," Dale said.