You may recall that a young Black man named Julius Jones was sentenced to death for murder in Oklahoma. He insisted on his innocence, and his cause attracted national attention. At the last minute, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt commuted his death sentence to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

John Thompson, retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma, was a teacher of Julius Jones. He writes:

I want to share two sets of lessons from the campaign by Justice for Julius that saved the life of my former student, Julius Jones. Despite a huge body of evidence that Julius is innocent of the 1999 murder of Paul Howell, it is unclear whether he still has a chance to be pardoned or paroled.
After the decision to not execute Julius Jones was made, I was able to rethink the reasons why he landed in Death Row. Reading and/or rereading court pleadings during the appeals process, I reached the conclusion that the 22-year battle for Julius’ life was mostly the result of two sets of decisions that were made quickly, without serious contemplation. Or, perhaps, there were no decisions made. Perhaps it was the history and the win-at-any-cost culture of the criminal justice system which prevented consideration of the testimony of Julius and the Jones family. After all, there was a long history of prosecutors trained by an Assistant District Attorney whose mantra was: “Every inmate in “Big Mac” (state prison) is guilty of the crime he was duly convicted of – or something else.”

This post will take a broad view of the conflict between the Oklahoma criminal justice system and a new generation committed to social justice. It will briefly review the key issues, first raised by the ABC News documentary, The Last Defense, that drew the attention of international news outlets regarding the question of whether Julius received a fair trial. And then it will describe the last months of the fight for Justice for Julius. A second post will summarize the most dubious of the prosecutors’ claims in the hope it offers more insights into what is wrong with our country’s criminal justice systems.

Julius was first represented by public defender Barry Albert, who was a great attorney with the ability to research and cross-examine the prosecutors’ dubious claims. But, Albert died suddenly, and he was replaced by lead attorney David McKenzie, who admitted that he was “terrified by this case due to my inexperience in death penalty litigation.” McKenzie later said in a sworn statement: “I believe that if I had been effective in establishing the true state of the evidence regarding Jordan and King, Mr. Jones would have been acquitted.”

Two decades later, McKenzie says he had been too critical of his cross-examination of Jordan.

The “Justice for Julius” campaign began at a time when criminal justice reform was remarkably bipartisan; for instance, Republican Governor Kevin Stitt appointed two of the three parole board members who recommended that the governor grant Jones clemency.

After the documentary, organizations and celebrities such as such as the Congressional Black Caucus; Kim Kardashian, the rapper Common; Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy; and football and basketball football starssuch as Baker Mayfield, Russell Westbrook, Trae Young, and Blake Griffin, whose father coached both Julius and Christopher Jordan, and who appeared in The Last Defense. Eventually, the list of supporters would include the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Black Lives Matter; a significant number of Republican legislators and former legislators like Kris Steele; the George Kaiser Family Foundation; the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice; the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; the American Conservative Union in Washington, D.C.; and the Faith and Freedom Coalition; and many other organizations. Also, the European Union and German ambassadors urged Gov. Stitt to accept the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation.

But the backlash against these efforts demonstrated the political power that prosecutors retained. In June, 2020, then-board member and former district court judge Allen McCall “threatened to seek criminal charges against then-executive director Steven Bickley,” demanding that Bickley help block Jones’ commutation hearing. Bickley took a leave of absence, criticized “threats to criminalize my public service,” and resigned.

Similarly, according to the Parole Board members’ response, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, filed an open records request seeking all references by board members to the terms, “Commutation,” “Commute,” “Conflict of interest,” “Criminal Justice Reform,” “Death penalty,” “District Attorney,” “God,” “Jesus,” and “Julius Jones.” Prater cited a 2019 article describing Luck as “having tears in his eyes as he spoke about the criminal justice system,” and condemned his association with admirable organizations such City Care and Whiz Kids.

Prater was represented by the Asst. D.A. who prosecuted Jones, and asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to block Luck and Doyle from Jones’ hearing. After Prater’s request was rejected, the newly appointed Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor unsuccessfully filed a similar request.

The Black Wall Street reported that Prater then requested a grand jury investigation into the Pardon and Parole board. The judge who approved it is married to the prosecutor in the Jones case. Gov. Stitt criticized Prater’s “latest political stunt to intimidate the Pardon and Parole Board and obstruct the Constitutional process as high-profile cases that his office prosecuted are being considered.” And some of the younger, more progressive supporters of Justice for Julius started an initiative petition drive for a grand jury to investigate Prater.

Finally, The Oklahoman reported that Prater released tapes of 600 phone calls by Jones using another death row inmate’s PIN number. According to an investigator, “Among those called were ‘people in the sports and entertainment industries’ and podcast hosts.” The implication was that the calls were evidence that Justice for Julius was a profit-making enterprise.

In the autumn of 2021, the state restarted executions that had been put on hold after Oklahoma’s three-drug execution protocol caused the “botched executions” of Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner in 2014 and 2015. The first renewed execution of John Grant caused him “to vomit, convulse and curse as he was killed.” Even so, Julius was scheduled for execution on November 18.

The state’s Pardon and Parole Board again voted 3-1 to recommend that Stitt grant clemency to Jones. But, according to the Black Wall Street Times, Attorney General O’Connor, who Stitt saw as a mentor, urged Stitt to push forward on the execution of Julius. He was said to be basing his advice on “closure for the [Howell] family,” and “Julius’s past legal troubles as a young teenager, rather than the facts of the case.”

As the execution date approached, Stitt said he was praying over his decision, and he would make no further statement. He met with the Howell family but refused to meet with anyone in the Jones family. By the day before the scheduled execution, the words and body language of Julius’ supporters indicated to me that they retained little hope of saving his life.

As the clock ticked down, even though the Justice for Julius vigils had been nonviolent and respectful, staff at the Capitol were told to close their offices and take time off, and barricades were put upbetween the Oklahoma History Center parking lot where demonstrators gathered, and the Governor’s mansion.

The last week’s vigils exemplified the contradictions in Oklahoma’s 21st century culture. As I talked with my Representative, Mauree Turner, the nation’s first nonbinary, Muslim, Black legislator, the anti-mask, anti-vaccination demonstrators walked by, proclaiming their belief in “Freedom!” Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, who taught in my former classroom at Centennial Mid-High after I retired, described his proposed legislation to expand full-service community schools. My student and basketball buddy, and Julius’ best friend, Jimmie Lawson, reenacted my clumsiness on the basketball court.

On the eve of the scheduled execution, the poetry slam at the Ponyboy, about a mile from the History Center, was cancelled, and this statement was posted:

“Given the intense anxiety and frustration I and others in our community are experiencing, if Stitt has not granted clemency by this evening we will be putting the slam on hold in favor of an intimate night of reading our poetry and focusing on healing.”

The New York Times reported:

The Oklahoma City Public Schools estimated that more than 1,800 students across 13 schools participated in walkouts to support Mr. Jones on Wednesday. The district said it “supports our students’ rights to peaceful assembly and their freedom of expression

Even more students walked out the next day.

Also on Wednesday, Rev. Keith Jossell, Julius’ spiritual advisor, seemed to indicate that there wasn’t much hope for tomorrow, but Julius’ supporters should heed his call for the continuation of their campaign for justice. He said:

Julius is grateful to god. That he chose him to be able to be the spotlight so that you would understand what is wrong with the Department of Corrections in the state of Oklahoma. … This is an opportunity to try to start a new Oklahoma. If you’re a business and you think you may want to relocate to Oklahoma, look at what we do to our citizens! If you are a family and you think this might be a good Bible Belt place to raise your family, look at what we do to people in Oklahoma!

Madeline Jones was not allowed to hug Julius. He was chained down and separated from her by a glass partition. She seemed especially exhausted, saying that whatever happens tomorrow, the movement must continue. Mrs. Jones also said, “And if you think Julius is guilty, give him a fair trial!”

On November 18, less than four hours before the scheduled execution, my wife and I were about to join the huge vigil at the Capitol. Then we heard the news:

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has spared the life of high-profile death row inmate Julius Jones. He announced, “After prayerful consideration and reviewing materials presented by all sides of this case, I have determined to commute Julius Jones’ sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” But “Stitt ordered that Jones shall never be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon or parole for the rest of his life.”

It will take time to determine whether the Constitution actually gives the governor that much power. Also, given Superintendent of Education Joy Hofmeister’s support for clemency for Julius, after switching from the Republican to the Democratic Party, it remains to be seen how this will affect her campaign for governor against Stitt. I believe it and her defense of public schools will likely put her in the Governors Mansion.

Clearly, Mrs. Jones was correct in saying that regardless of the outcome of the campaign to “Free Julius Jones!,” it will have a significant effect on 21st century Oklahoma.

The dramatic weeks that preceded Julius’ commutation drew national and international coverage, as the Kyle Rittenhouse, the organizers of the Charlottesville violence, and the killers of Ahmaud Arbery trials were coming to a close. And commentators often expressed surprise that this multi-racial, cross-generational and often bipartisan movement occurred in Oklahoma.

I would especially recommend Rachel Maddow’s commentary and video of the celebrations which placed Justice for Julius in the context of direct actions across the world. I especially loved her exuberant declaration:

This was outside the prison where Julius Jones is incarcerated right after the news broke. You hear the crowd chanting “‘We`re going to be all right.’ This was Oklahoma this week! This was Oklahoma today!”

#2

As ABC’s The Last Defense reported after the 1999 murder of a white father by a Black carjacker, “fear was almost palpable” in Edmond. Moreover, this was a time when the Oklahoma County District Attorney, the late Bob Macy, was listed as one of America’s top-five deadliest prosecutors. As was explained in the previous post, this meant that there were not enough experienced death penalty defense lawyers to meet the demand. Julius Jones’ lead attorney, David McKenzie, told ABC that he lacked death penalty experience and had an overwhelming case load. (I appeared several times in the documentary.)

The Last Defense offered a compelling narrative that connected the evidence in ways that the jurors or the appellate courts never heard. For instance, it quoted a juror who explained:

And this thing has weighed on me for a long time. What happened was, several of us from the jury were getting on an elevator. This was well before deliberations. And one of the jurors said, “Well, they should just take that n—– out back, shoot him and bury him under the jail.” It didn’t matter what happened, this was a black man that was on trial for murder.

Conversely, 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.”

To the contrary, we at John Marshall H.S. had thought the following scenario was most likely: As defense attorney Amanda Bass later explained, “Unfortunately in our criminal justice system … the first person to be interrogated and to talk to the police who tells the police the story can be the one who gets the deal.”

So, this second post will focus on the main witnesses that the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s office claimed to believe, as opposed to listening to Julius and his family.

On July 28, 1999, a neighbor of Christopher Jordan, saw him driving a car with an unidentified person with a red bandanna. They followed Paul Howell, his sister, and his two daughters home, where he was fatally shot during a carjacking. According to the Oklahoma County district attorneys’ virtually unchallenged argument, that was evidence that Julius committed the murder and Jordan drove the getaway car!?!?

But, in 2021, Julius’s federal public defender, Amanda Bass, explained to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board that Jordan and Jones were almost the same size and weight, and Prater said that the person who accompanied Jordan was a half a head taller, more muscular and bigger. And, Ladell “Day Day” King was 6 inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than Jordan.

Jordan, like Julius and his brother and sister, were students of mine. I also played basketball with all of them, almost daily. That’s why I knew each of them so well that I was confident that the hundreds of students and teachers at John Marshal H.S were correct in believing Jordan, not Julius, should have been the prime suspect.

Jordan, who was known as “Westside,” told the Edmond investigators five different stories as the interrogators kept directing him back to the narrative that would make him “a better witness.”“Day Day” King had been a confidential police informant since the mid-1980s. The Edmond detective who handled him said he informed the Oklahoma City Police that “we needed to find my informant Ladell King.” The detective further explained that King “had the pulse on all auto thefts in the Oklahoma metro,” and he had told King that “his cooperation would then be shared with the District Attorney and he could get deals on his own charges or avoid charges altogether.”

During the subsequent investigation, King’s girlfriend told a detective that she and King “were trying to get the reward money” for helping to arrest the shooter. She was not asked about that statement during the trial. King was not charged and received a significant reduction in another sentence.

The second confidential informant was Kermit Lottie, who had cooperated with the Oklahoma City police since the early 1990s. He had assisted in the prosecution of two persons accused of murder and who were sentenced to death, but later exonerated.

According to the prosecution, it was a coincidence that the police stumbled across their confidential informant; an Edmond detective testified that the Oklahoma City police “just wanted to get an idea of what the area looked like.” And, at trial, the Asst. D.A. said, “By fate, by chance, [the police] pull up into Kermit Lottie’s garage and start talking to him.”

Under questioning by the prosecutor, Lottie denied he had made any requests of the D.A.’s office. However, two days before, he had written a letter to the Asst. D.A. reminding her of the “big time evidence” he had provided in the Paris Powell and Yancy Douglas death penalty case. (Powell and Douglas, were the nation’s 137th and 138thconvicts on death row to be exonerated; they served 16 years in prison and received $3.1 million in compensation. The federal appeals court criticized the Oklahoma County prosecutor for “knowing use of false testimony.”) Lottie also offered to help the prosecutor in return for “a little help for myself.”

Just three days after Julius was sentenced to death, Lottie received “very significant” help in reducing his federal sentence after the Edmond detective asked for leniency because Lottie was a “key witness” in the case against Julius.

The police officers’ and the prosecutors’ presentation of the testimony of Jordan, and the two professional informants were the biggest drivers of the case against Julius. But their arguments were doubly powerful because the overworked and inexperienced defense attorney’s failed to investigate their claims. And as explained in the previous post, they did not investigate the four inmates who said Jordan confessed/bragged about being the murderer, or competently cross-examine witnesses.

The defense attorney’s equally important, questionable decisions, to not bring Julius and the Jones to the stand, were also due to their failure to interview Julius’ girlfriend and Mrs. Jones’ friend who dropped her at the Jones’ home where she said they were about to have a spaghetti dinner. Neither of them could confirm the claims that Julius was at his family’s home when the murder occurred, but contrary to McKenzie’s understanding, neither of them made statements about where he was at the time of the murder. (emphasis mine) In other words, neither statement undermined the credibility of Jones or his family when they said Julius was with them at 9:30pmwhich was the time when the murder occurred. (And, McKenzie could not find the letter that he remembered as Julius telling his girlfriend he was on the south side, not his parents’ home. Neither could he remember the investigator, who everyone on the team agreed was incompetent, ever providing a written record of his interviews of potential witnesses.)

In the 1980’s, I extensively researched the incredibly corrupt Oklahoma County criminal justice system. Prohibition had not been repealed until the late 1950’s, and bribing the Supreme Court was routine into the 1960’s, while the prison system’s brutality and corruption prompted the 1973 McAlester prison riot. I concluded that progress began in the late 1970s and the 1980s; progress may had slowed during the Macy years, but I was still shocked by its behavior in front page headline cases. As was common in much of the nation, the chances of an innocent person being convicted were higher in high-profile capital cases, especially when the prosecution relied on confidential informants.

When I spoke to District Attorney David Prater a few years ago, he seemed to know little about the Jones case, but his opinions were driven by his respect for the Asst. District Attorney who prosecuted the case.

I especially admired the bipartisan leaders of the criminal justice movement who had brought Oklahoma to the start of what promised to be transformational improvement. But, I suspect that the Oklahoma experience followed the same pattern which is common across America. On one hand, District Attorneys believe that can’t keep their power unless they win 90% or more of their cases through a plea bargain. Defendants supposedly will not plead guilty unless they know that prosecutors are almost certain to win. That makes for a culture of winners and losers; so D.A.s must remain the “biggest bear in the woods.”

On the other hand, it seems like the anger generated by Trumpism has turned a harsh winner-take-all mentality into a commitment to cruelty. Especially when a multi-racial movement unites to defend a Black man, too many believers in “law and order” are more committed to defeating their opponents, believing whatever spin the prosecutors deliver.

Before the D.A.s full scale assault on Julius’ quest for clemency, I thought Gov. Stitt would split the difference in a way he hoped to satisfy the 60% of Oklahomans (and 49% of Republicans) who know of Julius’ case, and believe he should receive clemency, according to poll of 500 voters. As The Black Wall Street Times reported, “The poll comes after former Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter called on the Jones family to die quietly, and as Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater refuses to turn over Jones’ case file.”

But I was less hopeful that Stitt would pardon or parole him. It never occurred to me that his compromise would include a ban a pardon or parole by any other governor or parole board. I suspect he chose to avoid the debacle which the execution could prompt, especially if was another botched one, while minimizing anger from his Trumpian supporters who have such a taste for blood.

Finally, I had read about the change of statutes and rules during the War on Drugs that made it unlikely that evidence of innocence would be allowed as grounds for an appeal. But I had not fully appreciated the ways that today “courts were all prevented by strict and procedural
bars from reviewing the full merits of Julius’s claims.”

I was dismayed by the logic of the Court of Criminal Appeals, which I had long respected. I could have agreed with the Court that some of the circumstantial evidence was valid – if it had been investigated. The Court said the evidence against Julius was “damning,” even though I could not find any solid evidence in their statements that had been adequately analyzed. It concluded that “King was not involved in the Howell murder in any way,” even though a fair trial would have required something that didn’t happen – an investigation of confidential informants’ credibility and participation in the crime. I would hope the Court would agree that today the evidence points to Julius’ innocence and ask what that says about our appeals process.