Cece Jones-Davis moved to Oklahoma five years ago with her husband and children, and after working in the Obama administration where she said she “aged like dog years,” her plan was to settle down and raise her family.
But in 2018 she stumbled onto “The Last Defense,” a documentary that covered the trial of Julius Jones — convicted of the 1999 killing of 45-year-old Paul Howell — and claimed to “(expose) flaws in the American justice system through emotional, in-depth examinations” of Jones’ case.
Before long she found herself among others fighting for Jones’ freedom from Oklahoma’s Death Row.
“Before this I had never done anything like Criminal Justice Reform,” Jones-Davis told The Frontier. “After seeing (the documentary) I knew I couldn’t just sit in Oklahoma and carry on doing nothing. I’m a person who always believed that what you see is what you are responsible for. That’s how I understand my role in the world.”
The documentary brought attention to Jones’ case — attention that has only ramped up in the past year as celebrities and professional athletes have signed on to help, authoring letters or tweets to Gov. Kevin Stitt urging the first-term governor to release Jones from prison.
While there have been other high-profile exonerations in murder convictions in Oklahoma in recent years, none of the cases that were overturned involved inmates serving time on Death Row.
With executions set to resume possibly as early as late next year, the spotlight on Jones’ case will only grow.
“I truly believe we are here talking about Julius Jones’ case because it’s time,” Jones-Davis said. “This has all come together because it’s time.”
Howell was killed on July 28, 1999, gunned down outside his parents’ home in Edmond. Howell’s sister told police the shooter masked his face with a red bandana, and authorities eventually found the murder weapon wrapped in a red bandana in the attic above a bedroom in Jones’ parents’ home.
Jones was 19 at the time and has maintained he had nothing to do with Howell’s death.
The bandana became a particular item of interest in Jones’ case in the years following his conviction, as his attorneys said they believed that if it were DNA tested, Jones’ DNA would not be present. They have said they believe a friend of Jones’, Christopher Jordan, shot Howell and hid the weapon in Jones’ house.
But in 2018, testing on the bandana showed DNA that a lab said belonged to Jones. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, who earlier this year held a press conference in which he said that Jones was “unequivocally guilty” of killing Howell, told The Frontier that Jordan’s DNA was not on the bandana.
“At a minimum, Julius should get a new trial. Now that’s not an option at the moment because there’s no vehicle for that unless we can get the case back into court somehow.” – Dale Baich, Jones’ attorney
Hunter has become a key player in Jones’ case in a number of ways. In June, Hunter ruled that Jones and other inmates on Oklahoma’s death row could apply for sentence commutation. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has been a proponent of the state’s Pardon and Parole Board’s increased use of their authority, but the potential to commute the sentence of a person on death row represented a new frontier for the board’s members, who ultimately posed the question to Hunter.
Not long after his ruling, Hunter held a press conference in which he told reporters that he was convinced of Jones’ guilt, and that “key facts” were “being manipulated to fit a narrative in an orchestrated effort to get Jones off of death row and perhaps out of prison entirely.”
Hunter, in an interview this summer with The Frontier, said he thinks there’s “a mix of emotion and opposition to the death penalty” driving the effort to free Jones.
“One of the motivators I think is a principled view that the death penalty is wrong,” Hunter said. “That debate is ongoing. I respect those people. I have a different view. Mine is every bit as principled as theirs.”
Interest in Oklahoma’s death penalty cases has steadily increased since 2014, when the execution of Clayton Lockett went off the rails. Only one execution — Charles Warner, in 2015 — has been carried out since. Multiple attempts to execute Richard Glossip failed because of a variety of issues that resulted in a hold on the state’s use of the death penalty, an independent review of its procedures and finally an entirely new death chamber and protocol for lethal injections.
Glossip’s case received an influx of both media and public attention, but the focus on Jones’ case is unprecedented. Kim Kardashian has tweeted to Stitt, urging him to free Jones. And athletes like Russell Westbrook, Baker Mayfield and Dak Prescott, among others, have written to Stitt asking for a pardon for Jones.
“I don’t begrudge any of the athletes who’ve written to the governor asking for him, again based on their belief that Jones is innocent, to commute or pardon him,” Hunter said. “That’s their position. I just regret the fact that in a rule-of-law society there needs to be attention to the fact that you are tried by a jury of your peers and your case reviewed by appellate courts. We can’t have a system where the loudest voices or the most influential voices … determine someone’s guilt or innocence.”
For Dale Baich, one of the attorneys who represents Jones and other inmates on death row, the upswell in public attention to Jones’ case has been a boon. But to save Jones’ life, it will take more than impassioned pleas from professional athletes and celebrities.
At this point, Baich said, Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board might be their last hope.
“We think that with everything that we’ve developed and presented, anyone looking at it objectively should come to the conclusion that something went wrong here,” Baich said. “At a minimum, Julius should get a new trial. Now that’s not an option at the moment because there’s no vehicle for that unless we can get the case back into court somehow.
So the only option for us at this point is to ask the Pardon and Parole Board to make a recommendation of commutation.”
In Oklahoma, that’s a two-step process. First, the board must review the inmate’s jacket to determine if he or she meets the criteria for a commutation. If the inmate passes to the second stage, a hearing is held where representatives from both the inmate’s camp and the victims’ camp testify. The board then decides whether or not to recommend to the governor that the sentence be commuted. A positive recommendation would then reach the governor, who can decide on his own time whether or not to commute the sentence.
Commutations are not necessarily a release valve — in Jones’ case it’s possible that a commutation would merely be from a death sentence to life without parole, or maybe to a life sentence, which would allow Jones to leave prison in his 60s.
Depending on one’s perspective, the evidence in the case can appear to point to either guilt or exoneration.
From Hunter’s perspective, the evidence against Jones is concrete — the gun was in his parents’ house, it was wrapped in a red bandana just like one a witness described the shooter wearing, and the bandana had Jones’ DNA on it.
But Baich said Jones’ attorneys always knew his DNA would be on the bandana because it was in his parents’ house. There are other DNA profiles on the bandana, Baich said, which complicate the test results.
“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,” Baich told FOX 25 in Oklahoma City in 2018 after the DNA test was completed.
Jones’ attorneys have said repeatedly that Howell’s sister saw the shooter, and testified that he had “half-an-inch to an inch of hair” under his hat. Jones wore his hair close cropped, Baich said, while Jordan, who served 15 years for the robbery before being released from prison, wore braids.
“One of the motivators I think is a principled view that the death penalty is wrong. That debate is ongoing. I respect those people. I have a different view. Mine is every bit as principled as theirs.”— Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter
“That description is far more descriptive of Jordan than it is of Jones,” Baich said. “We’re not saying that Jordan did it, what we’re saying is that the witness identification matches Chris Jordan and not Julius.”
But to Hunter, that description means the shooter couldn’t have been Jordan.
“(Howell’s sister) didn’t say she saw braids, she said she saw half-an-inch of hair,” Hunter said. “Jordan had braids.”
As problematic as the reliability of the evidence is from Baich’s perspective, there are racial bias issues that hang over the case as well, he said.
Hunter is “ignoring the issue that race played in Julius’ case, both systemically and specifically,” Baich said.
In Oklahoma, a non-partisan death penalty review commission found that Black males who are convicted of killing a white victim are three times more likely to be sentenced to death than if both the suspect and victim are not white.
And Bob Macy, who was the district attorney in Oklahoma County at the time of Jones’ conviction, made public comments about the need to execute Jones before Jones was even charged with Howell’s killing.
“Cowboy” Bob Macy died in 2011. Five years later, a study by the Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project ranked his two-decade reign as the “No. 2 deadliest prosecutor in America.”
“Macy sent more people to death row than any other individual district attorney in the United States,” the study claimed.
There are also allegations that a juror in the case referred to Jones with a racial slur. That claim was made in 2017 in a Facebook message from another juror in Jones’ trial, who told Jones’ defense that they had overheard a fellow juror say “just take the n—– out and shoot him behind the jail.”
Hunter refutes that claim.
“Almost 20 years later there’s this recollection that, ‘Oh yeah, that remark included a racial epithet,’” Hunter said. “Why would you not include that specific and incendiary and prejudicial remark originally, why wait until so recently? It’s not consistent with what the juror told the judge at the time. I understand there’s an affidavit this juror entered into, but when you look at it in context at time of trial it just doesn’t ring true.”
The disconnect between the meaning of the evidence is an example of why Jones deserves a new trial, Baich said.
“I think what it points out is that there is uncertainty here, and we know that the evidence that we’ve presented was never considered by the jury because the lawyers did not do the robust investigation that needed to be done,” Baich said.