Justice For Julius was written by John Thompson, an award winning historian, an award-winning inner city teacher and author. Now retired.
In 1999, the Edmond businessman, Paul Howell, was murdered in a botched carjacking in his driveway. The tragic death of Mr. Howell and the trauma of the family he left behind, are deserving of justice. But the panic prompted by this cruel murder resulted in an unfair trial and it threatens the life of my former John Marshall student, Julius Jones.
The federal public defender’s office has presented a powerful case that Julius did not commit the murder for which he has been condemned to Death Row. Many more Oklahomans, and people across the nation and overseas, have watched ABC News’ three-hour documentary, The Last Defense. A worldwide audience, including the Congressional Black Caucas, is following the case, looking with fresh eyes at the Jones conviction, and concluding that he did not receive a fair trial. And The City Sentinel reports:
The National Law Journal, former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan wrote that the Julius Jones case “presents an important opportunity for the U. S. Supreme Court to address racism in the criminal justice system and in application of Oklahoma’s death penalty head-on.” Kogan added, “The court should insist, at the very least, that Jones receives a hearing where all the evidence, including that of racial bias, can be heard. Fairness requires it
If the prosecution’s files in this flawed case could be opened, and/or if appeals court judges reviewed the full body of evidence, and it is likely that Julius would receive a new trial.
Jones was arrested in a rush to judgment when the late Bob Macy was the district attorney and the public was terrified by supposed "Superpredators." Society’s fears resulted in a severe overreaction in terms of reducing the rights of the accused, and extreme over-incarceration. Today, however, bipartisan reforms in Oklahoma and across the nation are redressing the wrongs of that sad time.
We have also learned much more about the ways that snap judgments made in the first hours of investigations often result in wrongful convictions, especially in capital cases. Moreover, due in part to legislation passed in the 1990s. appeals judges tend to review the specific evidence that is brought before them. They mostly avoid connecting the dots and evaluating how each mistake fits into the larger narrative.
The courts have noted specific errors in Julius’ case, but decided that they do not merit a reversal or modification of Jones' sentence. If appeals judges could look anew at the full story, each one could be seen within a new context. If the criminal justice system was tasked with presenting a new case against Julius. a very different verdict would likely be reached.
If Julius were retried today, what evidence could now be considered?
The testimony of four family members on what Julius was doing at the time of the murder was not provided to the jury. Neither did the jury hear statements by two inmates who said that co-defendant Christopher “Westside” Jordan (another student of mine) bragged about the killing and the deal he made to get out of prison in 15 years. Jordon, in fact, was released 15 years into his 30-year sentence.
The jury heard Jordan’s testimony, but they were not shown how much his statements contradicted themselves, and how he seemed to be coached by detectives, who improperly kept his attorney at bay. Julius’ inexperienced public defender acknowledged that he did a “terrible job” of cross-examining the key witness who repeatedly contradicted himself when fingering Julius as the murderer.
The jurors heard the evidence provided by two longtime police informants, who had years of experience as felons and who were in danger of being incarcerated for decades for their latest crimes. The jury couldn’t know that one would never be charged for his crime, and the police detective who led the murder investigation would go to bat for the other, helping to get a possible 40-year sentence reduced to four years.
The only eyewitness testified that the shooter, like co-defendant Jordan who had cornrows, had up to an inch of hair sticking out from his hat, but the jury wasn’t shown contemporary photographs of Julius’ close-cropped hair.
A juror now reports a fellow juror saying, “Well, they should just take that n—– out back, shoot him and bury him under the jail.” The juror was not removed, perhaps because the judge was not told that the N-word was used. Under today’s law, a different ruling by the trial judge would be likely.
No DNA evidence linking Jones to the crime was presented to the jury. But, the jury foreman told ABC that, in a case like that one, you “go with your heart more than anything else.” The juror trusted “what you felt in your gut.” When delivering the verdict, the juror “felt right.”
Nearly two decades after the crime, a DNA test was conducted, and here is why the new findings, when viewed as a part of the overall case, do not implicate Jones
The DNA test linked the murder weapon, wrapped in a red bandanna, to the Jones’ family home where it was hidden, and where it would likely come in contact with Julius’ DNA. Since the co-defendant had spent the night (without Julius’ knowledge) in the house and thus had the opportunity to hide it there, the bandanna and gun do not link Jones to the murder. To believe that the bandanna links Julius to the crime, one has to believe that he, an honors student who consistently impressed his peers and teachers with his intellect, was dumb enough to hide the murder weapon in his home.
However, saliva was not found on his bandanna. The shooter was seen yelling, and that means that its DNA should have been found on the bandanna he was wearing. If appeals judges could consider the lack of Julius’ saliva being found, within the context of the other miscarriages of justice in his case, a new trial would be more likely.
Today more prosecutors are opening their files so that the transparency that justice requires can be assured. If the current district attorney would open his files, potential deals between 1990s prosecutors and their professional informants could be disproven or proven. Such openness would also be likely to provide insights into how and why high profile capital cases in the 1990s brought out the worst in the criminal justice systems in Oklahoma and many other states.
Oklahoma is #1 in incarcerations, and prosecutors are still resisting the voters’ desire for a smarter and more humane criminal justice system. The state is still being seen within the context of John Grisham’s novel and the movie The Innocent Man, based on the true case of an innocent Oklahoman sentenced to death, as well as The Last Defense. The last thing we need is to be caught up in sweeping the worst of our past under the rug. Now is the time to look with fresh eyes at the entirety of the evidence in the Julius Jones case.