By: Kratina Baker, J.D.
Julius Jones. Many of you-actually most of you probably have never heard that name before. It doesn’t ring a bell. But it should. Julius Jones could be any of us. His story, while deeply terrifying and painful is a reminder of how truly flawed the criminal justice system is and that at any time, justice could in fact be blind towards us. Julius has just hit the 20-year mark on Oklahoma’s death row for a crime he did not commit. How did he get here? Settle in while I tell you the terrifying story of Julius Darius Jones.
On the evening of Wednesday, July 28, 1999, Julius was hanging out at his parent’s home in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. It was a typical night of fun and lighthearted banter between Julius, his older brother and younger sister. His mother was preparing to take his older brother to work.
Eight miles away, in the suburb of Edmond, Oklahoma, Paul Howell was just returning from an evening of school shopping with his two daughters and sister. As Howell pulled into the driveway of his parent’s home, he was confronted by a young black man wearing a red bandanna and pointing a gun at him and demanding he turn over the keys to his 1997 Suburban. What happened next would change the course of Julius’ life forever.
In the Summer of 1999, Julius was a fun and carefree 19-year-old rising sophomore at the University of Oklahoma where he was attending on an academic scholarship and was a member of the school’s basketball team. The John Marshall High School graduate was a member of the National Honor Society and was ranked 11th out 143 students and he had his whole life ahead of him. He was the co-captain of his high school football team, and he played basketball and ran track. Full of promise and hope for the future, Julius was the pride of his family.
But, Julius was a typical teenager. He liked to have nice things in order to fit in and attract girls. He had been charged with petty thefts during his teenage years. There was also a charge for giving a false statement in pursuit of a state ID. Regardless of Julius’ poor choices, he was still destined for a promising future-a future filled with whatever he hoped to accomplish and for that, his family and friends watched with anticipation at the great things he would one day do.
That summer, Julius had begun hanging out with a former classmate from high school. Chris “Westside” Jordan had gotten into trouble for associating with gangs, and, according to reports, his parents were worried about the effect the gangs had on him and had transferred him to John Marshall High School-the same high school Julius attended. Jimmy “J-Law” Lawson, Julius’ best friend and teammate, was rather surprised at the fact that Julius was hanging out with Chris. When Jimmy questioned Julius about his association with Chris, Julius played it off as if it were no big deal. Julius had made a deal with Chris to take the ACT exam for college admissions, in exchange for Chris paying Julius a specified amount of money. Due to this arrangement, the two begin to hangout with one another that summer.
Julius Jones had just celebrated his birthday on July 25th and was enjoying the rest of his summer. On the evening of July 28th, he was at the home of his parents Anthony and Madeline Jones. In “The Last Defense”, a docuseries produced by Academy Award winner Viola Davis, Julius and his siblings Antoinette and Antonio Jones and his parents recount what they were doing the evening of the murder. According to them, they had enjoyed a dinner of spaghetti prepared by Julius’ mother. After that, they played Monopoly. Antonio had to be at work and Madeline prepared to take him. They left around 9:30 so that Antonio could be at work by 10:00pm. Antoinette and Antonio were in “hot water” with Julius after he discovered they had eaten the last bit of a cookie cake that he had gotten for his birthday. By this time Antonio had already left so his sister was the target of his “anger.” As soon as his mom walked in the door, Julius ran to her upset and complaining about the fact that the two had eaten nearly all of his birthday desert.
Twenty minutes away in Edmond, Paul Howell’s sister races in her parent’s home with her two nieces as her brother is gunned down in their driveway and his suburban stolen. Howell’s father frantically calls 9-1-1 screaming that his son had just been shot. Police and EMT are sent to the home. Howell is pronounced dead later at the hospital.
Police immediately begin to investigate the murder. A white businessman murdered in the driveway of his parent’s home, in front of his two daughters and sister took top priority over any other cases. And when the sister of the victim described the shooter as a young black male, police begin to investigate at a fervent pace due to public pressure to catch the killer.
The Beginning of the End
According to The Innocence Project, incentivized witness testimony was the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases. A comprehensive study of the nation’s first 200 exonerations proven through DNA testing concluded that 18% were convicted, at least in part, on the basis of informant, jailhouse informant or cooperating alleged co-perpetrator testimony (See Brandon L. Garrett, Judging Innocence. 108 Colum. L. Rev. 55, 62 (2008)). The case against Julius Jones began when Ladell King walked into the Oklahoma City Police Department and told investigators that he knew who had killed Paul Howell. King told police that on the night of the murder he saw Julius in a white t-shirt and red bandana and driving a Suburban. He stated that Julius was with Chris Jordan and that the two showed up at his apartment on the night of July 28, 1999. He said that he watched Julius park the Suburban and afterwards, Julius asked King did he know of anyone who could buy the vehicle. King was considered a middleman who sold stolen cars to interested buyers for parts. King told Julius that he would make a call. Julius left the vehicle at King’s apartment complex overnight and the next day, King and Julius went to see a man by the name of Kermit Lottie to sell the SUV to him. Lottie refused to purchase the vehicle, stating that he had heard on the news that it had been stolen and that someone was killed during the robbery. According to King, he and Julius then left the vehicle parked at a grocery store near Lottie’s business. King told police that Julius admitted to the killing.
King’s statements led to Chris being questioned about his involvement with the murder. Chris then pointed the finger at Julius after much prodding and guidance from police detectives Theresa Pfieffer and Tony Fike. Chris even went so far as to tell police that Julius had the murder weapon and the red bandana worn by the killer. Police later raided the Jones home, destroying their home and terrifying the family in the process, in an effort to find the gun and bandana. Chris, waiting outside in a police car, told police the exact location of the items-the attic of the Jones home.
Just a few days earlier, Chris had spent the night at the Jones home after telling Julius he had been locked out of his grandmother’s house. Julius told Chris he could stay at his parent’s house and even gave Chris his bedroom upstairs while Julius slept on the sofa. It is obvious that Chris planted the gun and bandana in the attic and then told police exactly where they could find them.
The Trial and its Aftermath
At trial, there would be many inconsistencies in Chris’ testimony and Julius’ attorneys who were public defenders with no capital trial experience failed to challenge Chris’ testimony while he was on the stand. Julius’ attorneys failed to cross examine Chris on the six different and inconsistent statements he gave to the police after his arrest. The victim’s sister, who was a passenger in the vehicle and witnessed the shooting, testified that the shooter had approximately a half-inch of hair sticking out from underneath a stocking cap. Julius’s attorney’s failed to show the jury a photograph of Julius, taken a few days before the shooting, illustrating that Julius had low, crew-cut hair and proving that he could not be the person who the victim’s sister described. The witness’s physical description of the man who shot her brother actually fit that of Chris, who sported cornrow braids during the crime. Julius’ trial attorneys did not put on a single alibi witness to testify that Julius was at home with his family during the time the murder took place, nor did they call on witnesses to testify during the guilt-innocence phase of his trial.
In addition to Julius’ public defender’s failure to provide adequate counsel, there were other factors that contributed to Julius’ being railroaded into a death sentence. During the trial, one juror reported telling the judge about another juror who said the trial was a waste of time and “‘they should just take the ‘nigger’ out and shoot him behind the jail.’’ The juror reported that the juror who made this comment was never removed and the court did nothing. The Sixth Amendment guarantees us the right to a fair and impartial jury. Julius was clearly deprived of this right.
Prosecutorial misconduct on the part of the District Attorney’s office played a major part in Julius’ conviction. Over his career, District Attorney of Oklahoma County, Bob Macy sent 54 people to death row, more than any other district attorney in the United States. Prosecutorial misconduct was discovered in approximately one-third of Macy’s death penalty cases and the courts have reversed nearly half of his death sentences. Macy was forced to retire in 2001 in the wake of a scandal involving a forensic scientist by the name of Joyce Gilchrist, who it was discovered had been falsifying evidence in a number of cases. Three people Macy helped convict were exonerated and freed from death row and it is likely that others were executed before their innocence could be proven. According to a Harvard Law School study, Bob Macy sent more people to death row than any other individual district attorney in the United States,” Macy has ruined the lives of many of Oklahoman citizens-particularly African American citizens and was unapologetic for it.
The case against Julius was racially charged from the beginning. The crime was highly publicized, and the facts were polarizing: young black male shoots and kills well-loved family man in his own driveway in front of his young daughters and sister and steals his car. The case had racial undertones to begin with and Macy capitalized on that fact. Macy went so far as to call for the death penalty on television the night of the shooting. Julius himself also reported that when he was arrested, prior to being put in the police cruiser, an officer removed his handcuffs and said, “Run nigger, I dare you.” In addition, during jury selection, black prospective jurors, with the exception of one, were excluded from jury service on the grounds that they had criminal histories, yet a white man who served on the jury had two prior felony convictions that the prosecution did not disclose to Julius’ defense team.
In Julius’ case, the State of Oklahoma had three witnesses that received benefits for their testimony and the jury never heard the full extent of the benefits that the three main witnesses against Julius received as a result of their testimony. According to Post Conviction Relief filings, Chris Jordan, the primary suspect was released in 2014, after serving only 15 years, despite the fact that the prosecution told jurors that he was facing 30 years to a lifetime of incarceration for his role in the crime. Jurors may not have known that Ladell King, another key witness against Julius, was never prosecuted in connection with the murder, despite his admitted involvement. King’s police interrogation from July/August 1999 as well as his preliminary hearing and trial testimony includes his admissions to being involved in the crime on the night that it occurred. Specifically, he admitted to keeping the stolen suburban at his apartment complex overnight and assisting in transporting and attempting to sell the vehicle the following day. King also received less than the statutorily mandated sentence for habitual offenders in connection with unrelated charges.
The Next Steps
After two denials for review by the Supreme Court of the United States, attorneys for Julius Jones are preparing to file a petition for commutation with the Oklahoma Pardons and Parole Board, to have his sentenced commuted to time served. Julius’ case has never been tried on the merits (true facts) of the case, rather his denials have been due to procedural errors (missing certain filing deadlines, etc.) By filing for commutation, his attorneys are hoping he will be sentenced to time served and can prepare to move on with his life outside of prison walls.
As previously mentioned, Julius’ story was chronicled on the ABC Docs-Series “The Last Defense”. The show can be credited with bringing awareness to his case and restoring hope to Julius, his family and supporters. If you would like to support Julius, please check out his website at www.JusticeForJuliusJones.com. There, you can watch “The Last Defense” and find up-to-date information about his case. Also, please follow his Instagram page @JusticeForJulius and click the link on the page to sign his petition on Change.org.
We are each other’s keeper. We are all we got. Julius could be you, your brother, sister, child, loved one. Be a voice for him. He needs you.