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Inside The Case Of Death Row Inmate Julius Jones And The Efforts Of Activists And NBA Stars Who Are Trying To Set Him Free

Julius Jones was convicted in 2002 for the murder of prominent Oklahoma businessman Paul Howell, but Jones has always maintained his innocence and his supporter believe his conviction was marred by racial bias, a flawed investigation and a weak defense. 

By Jill Sederstrom
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For nearly two decades Julius Jones has been sitting on Oklahoma’s death row after being convicted of killing a prominent businessman in the suburbs of Oklahoma City in 1999.

Jones has always proclaimed his innocence—but a recent push led by community activists, celebrities and NBA stars to re-examine the case has thrust Jones’s conviction into the spotlight.

Those in support of the Oklahoma man point to what they believe was racial bias, a flawed investigation and a defense that was severely lacking as they advocate for justice for Jones, who has already exhausted his appeals.

“The only remedy available at this moment is the clemency process and in October we filed a commutation application with the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board asking it to recommend that Julius’ sentence be commuted to time served,” Jones’ attorney Dale Baich told Oxygen.com.

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NBA stars such as Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Trae Young and Buddy Hield have all penned letters to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt on Jones’ behalf—along with NFL quarterback Baker Mayfield, ESPN reports.

In Westbrook’s letter—which was obtained by the news outlet—the one-time star of the Oklahoma City Thunder called Jones' conviction a “grave injustice.”

“As I have learned more about the case of death row prisoner Julius Jones, it has become readily apparent to me and many others that his conviction was tainted by a deeply flawed process,” Westbrook, who is now with the Houston Rockets, wrote. “I join with many voices to express sadness and profound concern regarding his conviction and death sentence.”

Blake Griffin Russell Westbrook Trae Young

Cece Jones-Davis launched the Justice for Julius campaign as a grassroots effort to raise awareness about Jones’ case.

“The justice for Julius campaign has been a movement about bringing clarity to what happened, to an incident that happened 21 years ago, and making sure this individual doesn’t die wrongfully,” she told Oxygen.com.

Kim Kardashian West — who has worked in recent years on behalf of criminal justice reform, including Oxygen’s “Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project” — weighed in on the case in a May 2020 podcast episode of “Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom,” urging the governor to grant Jones clemency before his execution can be set.

MPX Video: [P] Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project (560719)

"I know that we have to be loud and I feel in my soul that we are early enough because an execution date for Julius hasn't been set yet," she said, according to a press release promoting the episode. "Now is the time where we all just have to come together.”

The Case Against Jones

Jones—a star high school athlete and student at the University of Oklahoma—had just turned 19 when he was awakened in the summer of 1999 and dragged out of bed and arrested for the murder of 45-year-old businessman Paul Howell, according to the release.

Howell had been shot in the head while sitting in his GMC Suburban outside his parent’s house on July 28, 1999. His sister, Megan Tobey, witnessed the shooting and described her brother’s killer as a young black man wearing a stocking cap and a red bandana over his face.

Jones’ codefendant in the case, Chris Jordan, would later testify against Jones in exchange for the state dropping the death penalty in his own case.

“What Chris testified to was that he and Julius were out driving around looking for a Suburban to carjack and that they followed Mr. Howell to his home and that Julius got out of the car, went up to the window to the take the car and shot Mr. Howell,” Baich told Oxygen.com.

However, Baich said that Jordan had probably made “six or seven different statements” to police about the crime.

Two other confidential informants also testified in the case against Jones in exchange for deals in their own cases, Baich said.

A gun and red bandana were found in an upstairs room in Jones’ parents' house; however, Jordan had spent the night with Jones’ family and stayed in that room the night after the crime, Baich said.

Baich also said that two inmates in the county jail—who did not know each other—each told authorities that Jordan had allegedly bragged to them about setting Jones up for the crime.

“(He said) he would get out of prison after serving 15 years of a 30-year sentence and guess what? He did,” Baich said.

One of the witnesses was never interviewed and the other was dismissed by the defense counsel.

Jones has always maintained that on the night of the crime, he was at home with his family.

“His parents, sister, and brother say that he was at home that evening,” Baich said, who took on the case in 2016 to help Jones with his appeal for clemency. “They had a spaghetti dinner. The family was just sort of hanging out that evening.”

After the prosecutors made their case, Jones’ defense attorney at the time rested their case without ever calling a witness to corroborate Jones' alibi.

Baich contends the initial defense “put on no case.”

“There was a lot of investigation that did not take place and the cross examination of the state’s witnesses was not very robust,” he said.

A jury convicted Jones in 2002 and sentenced him to death.

Possible Racial Bias

In the years since the trial, concerns have emerged about possible racial bias on the part of both law enforcement officers and a member of the jury.

Jones has said that after he was arrested, he wasn’t given the option to put on a shirt or shoes and was dragged into a waiting police car, according to his clemency report obtained by the OU Daily.

“The officers were high-fiving one another and told me: ‘You know you’re gonna fry,” the report said. “While being transferred from an Oklahoma City police car to and Edmond police car, and 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.”

Jones defense team has also said that one of the jurors on this trial—Jerry Brown—had made racist comments about Jones.

“(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 said. “I was tried by a jury that included at least one racist, and I never had a chance.”

Jones has continued to adamantly maintain his innocence.

"As God is my witness, I was not involved in any way in the crimes that led to Howell being shot and killed," Jones said in the report, according to ESPN. "I have spent the past 20 years on death row for a crime I did not commit, did not witness and was not at."

The state of Oklahoma had put a hold on executions after two botched executions in 2014 and 2015.

In February, the state announced it now had a new and improved protocol and would once again be able to carry out executions.

Baich said, however, that because of ongoing litigation in federal court, it’s likely no executions will go forward until the legal issues are resolved.

“At this point, we don’t know if it’s going to come to an end this year or next year,” he said.

Jones' supporters worry that once the state does resume executions, Jones' name may be one of the first on the list.

Support From Powerful Allies

Jones’ more-than-two-decade-long journey to try to prove his innocence was the subject of a Viola Davis-produced documentary in 2018 titled “The Last Defense,” but the case has garnered new attention in recent months as the Black Lives Matter movement has taken center stage across the country and more celebrities and athletes have used their influence to draw attention to the case.

Jones-Davis, who has no relation to Jones himself, told Oxygen.com it has “definitely amplified” the efforts to get justice for Jones.

“We have needed strong influence, strong influential voices to lift this up, lift this man’s name up so that it has a better chance for the masses to know that he exists and has been on death row for 21 years,” she said.

Baich said it's important to "shine a light" on injustices that happen in the judicial system and believes the support from those with name recognition has helped to do just that.

"I met with Julius last week and gave him copies of the letters (from the NBA players). He was overwhelmed and at the same time humbled by the support that he has received. He’s grateful that the celebrities and athletes took time to study his case, to see the injustices and then to put pen to paper and share their opinions with the decision makers in Oklahoma," he said.

Jones-Davis also believes the support serves as a “validator” that there are real concerns with Jones’ case.

“What that means is that there have been some people who have listened hard enough to say for themselves, ‘Okay, there are some problems here and none of us should feel comfortable with a man losing his life while those problems have not been adequately accounted for,” she said.

Jones-Davis said she and others are committed to find justice for Jones—but she called the work “sober” and said the victim and his family are also always at the forefront of her mind.

“These people have come forward and we’re glad and we’re grateful, but we don’t gloat because we realize that there is another family out here that they’ve been without for 21 years,” she said.

Her hope is that the pardon and parole board will re-examine Jones’ case with a “clear set of eyes”  and consider the troubling elements of the conviction.

“We know that Oklahoma has led this country in mass incarceration for quite a while and we know that reform is necessary and we have gotten to this place because we have checked the boxes in the legal system. We have followed the laws and all the technicalities, but what we realized more and more as more stories of wrongful convictions come out is that doing law and doing justice are very different and in this situation, we need justice. Not just for Julius Jones, but for Mr. Howell, the man, the victim of this crime. If we put to death the wrong person, nobody has gotten justice.”