On the day of Julius Jones’s clemency hearing, a crowd began gathering well before 8 a.m. at the Tabernacle Baptist Church on Oklahoma City’s northeast side. They were dressed for warmth, in winter hats, hoodies, and face masks that read “Justice for Julius.” Some, such as Abraham Bonowitz of Death Penalty Action, were veteran anti-death penalty organizers. Others, like Eugene Smith, were new to the cause. Standing in the parking lot, Smith propped up a massive green banner featuring Jones’s face. It read “Are YOU Willing to Be the Innocent Person Executed?”
“We’re here to free an innocent man on death row,” Smith told me, adding that he wanted to raise awareness about other cases too. A few days earlier, on October 28, Oklahoma had carried out its first execution since 2015, killing a 60-year-old Black man named John Grant by lethal injection. Like the previous two men sent into the state’s death chamber — whose botched executions thrust Oklahoma’s dysfunctional capital punishment system into the national spotlight — Grant struggled before he died. Witnesses described how he vomited and repeatedly convulsed shortly after the lethal injection began. Yet officials denied that anything had gone wrong.
Now Jones faces the danger of a similar fate. Despite pending federal litigation over the state’s execution protocols — and a recommendation from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board that Jones’s sentence be commuted to life in prison — Jones is scheduled to die on November 18 for a crime he swears he did not commit.
Jones was sentenced to death in 2002 for killing a white man named Paul Howell in an affluent suburb of Oklahoma City. The case rested largely on a single eyewitness account, along with the testimony of two confidential informants. Although the alleged murder weapon was recovered from his parents’ home, Jones insists that he was framed by his co-defendant, a former high school classmate named Christopher Jordan, who testified against him in exchange for a secret plea deal. Jordan was released after 15 years in prison.
Jones’s case was relatively obscure outside Oklahoma until 2018, when ABC aired a seven-part documentary series titled “The Last Defense.” Produced by actor Viola Davis, it laid out the case for Jones’s innocence — and catapulted his name into the public eye. Recent opinion polls taken from Oklahoma voters showed that 60 percent of those familiar with Jones believed that his death sentence should be commuted. Yet the publicity around his case has also sparked backlash from prosecutors and Howell’s family, who accuse Jones’s supporters of manipulating the public by misrepresenting the facts. After years of refusing interview requests, the family told a local TV station in September that they felt re-victimized by the celebrity-studded movement in support of Jones. “This is David versus Goliath,” Howell’s nephew said.
Around 8:15 a.m. on November 1, Rev. Cece Jones-Davis took the mic in the church parking lot. A minister and social justice activist, she had helped lead countless actions in Oklahoma City in the days before the clemency hearing. “What makes this different,” Jones-Davis told the crowd, “is that today Julius Jones gets to speak for himself.” After a prayer, the crowd turned out of the parking lot toward Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. Chanting and waving signs, they passed the headquarters of Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections, then arrived at another church.
Cars parked outside had “Justice 4 Julius” written on the windows. A spread of fruit, granola bars, and honey buns was laid out under a blue tent. Rows of folding chairs were arranged to face a women’s prison across the street, the location where the hearing would take place. A large set of speakers sat ready to broadcast the proceedings. “Julius Jones is innocent!” a man shouted from the crowd.
Photos: Liliana Segura/The Intercept
Among the country’s dwindling death penalty states, Oklahoma leads the nation in executions per capita. Although the state reflects national trends in residents’ waning support for capital punishment — and in the declining number of death sentences imposed year after year — Oklahoma remains a bastion in its willingness to carry out executions. “If you look at the states that are outliers in their zeal to kill, they are also the states that are outliers in their failure to provide fair process,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
“Oklahoma has had six years to think about how not to botch an execution, and they squandered it.”
Apart from Jones, five more men are set to die in Oklahoma between December and March 2022. Lawyers for those men are fighting largely under the radar to save the lives of their clients, whose cases reveal longstanding flaws with the death penalty, from ineffective lawyering to prosecutorial misconduct. According to Assistant Federal Public Defender Emma Rolls, head of the capital habeas unit of the Western District of Oklahoma, these cases also reflect “systemic failures resulting in generations of unbelievable poverty, childhood deprivation, mental illness, addiction, and trauma.”
Perhaps more disturbing is Oklahoma’s determination to kill the men despite persistent problems with its execution protocols — problems officials claim to have worked diligently to fix. “Oklahoma has had six years to think about how not to botch an execution, and they squandered it,” said Dunham. In its rush to kill Jones, Oklahoma appears not only unbothered by its ugly death penalty history but also intent on repeating it.
In September 2015, Richard Glossip came within moments of being killed at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester when the execution was abruptly called off. Glossip swore he was innocent — and an investigation by The Intercept had found his conviction to be disturbingly flimsy, based almost solely on the account of a 19-year-old co-worker who admitted to killing the victim but blamed Glossip for coercing him. Yet Glossip’s execution wasn’t stopped due to the lingering questions about his guilt. Instead, prison officials explained that they had received the wrong drugs from their supplier, discovering the mistake at the last minute.
A grand jury report would later expose stunning incompetence and dishonesty on the part of state officials involved in the fiasco. Confronted with evidence that a man named Charles Warner had been previously executed using the same erroneously procured drug — his last words were “My body is on fire” — the governor’s general counsel pushed to kill Glossip anyway, lest they have to admit what had happened with Warner. Halting Glossip’s execution “would look bad for the state of Oklahoma,” he said.
Oklahoma had already made global headlines by then due to the horrifyingly botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014. Nevertheless, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol, setting the stage for Glossip’s execution. Following the mix-up at the prison, however, executions were placed on hold.
In the meantime, the ruling in Glossip greased the wheels of other states’ execution machinery. Prison officials adopted protocols employing the same sedative used by Oklahoma, midazolam, despite warnings from experts that the drug would not render a condemned person insensate for the purpose of execution. Even more significantly, Glossip largely immunized death penalty states from further challenges to their lethal injection protocols. Under the ruling, people on death row who wish to challenge a state’s execution method must not only prove that it is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment but also propose a viable alternative. The ruling put death penalty lawyers in the perverse position of proposing methods by which the state could kill their clients.
“Asking our clients to choose alternative methods for their own executions has been one of the most difficult experiences in my career,” said Rolls. “It is inimical to the instincts and beliefs of people committed to capital defense.” Still, this “pales in comparison to the anguish it has caused our clients. Many of our clients suffer from serious mental illness and cognitive limitations; they simply cannot understand how and why the law requires them to choose an alternative.”
In a dark technicality, the judge dismissed the six men who failed to choose their preferred way to die.
In 2017, a special commission released a report that found problems in every corner of Oklahoma’s death penalty system and urged the state to correct “systemic flaws” before restarting executions. Instead, Oklahoma merely tinkered with its methods. In 2018, then-Attorney General Mike Hunter announced that the state would start executing the condemned using nitrogen gas. But in February 2020, Hunter changed course: Oklahoma would stick with the same three drugs it had used before but with “more checks and balances.” The drugs “have been successful in the past,” he said, “not only in Oklahoma but in numerous other states.”
For a while, both sides agreed that executions should remain paused pending federal litigation over the state’s revised lethal injection protocol. In July 2020, as required by Glossip, a group of men on death row outlined four alternative methods of execution, including the firing squad. But six of the plaintiffs did not answer an additional question. Prompted to check a box to indicate which execution method they would prefer, the six men left it blank.
This past August, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot ruled that the lethal injection lawsuit could proceed, scheduling a trial for February 2022. But in a dark technicality, he dismissed the six men who failed to choose their preferred way to die. In a footnote, Friot all but invited the state to set execution dates for these men. Noting that “the parties would be well advised to be prepared, at trial, to present evidence as to the actual track record of midazolam,” Friot added that in light of the six plaintiffs who “declined to proffer an alternative method of execution, there may well be a track record … by the time this case is called for trial.” In other words, the men could make useful test subjects to determine the efficacy of midazolam.
On September 20, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued death warrants for all six men, including Jones. A seventh man, who was not part of the lawsuit, was also scheduled to die.
Of the six men facing execution in the next few months, four, including Jones, were sentenced under former elected Oklahoma County District Attorney Robert “Cowboy Bob” Macy. Famed for aggressively seeking the death penalty — and infamous for prosecutorial misconduct — Macy, who served from 1980 to 2001, personally won 54 death sentences during his time in office.
The first man Macy ever put on death row, Clifford Henry Bowen, was accused of a triple murder based on the accounts of two eyewitnesses. After a dozen witnesses testified that Bowen was at a rodeo hundreds of miles away the night the crime took place, Macy suggested that perhaps Bowen had taken a private jet from the rodeo to Oklahoma City. The jury sent Bowen to death row. He was exonerated five years later.
To date, 11 people have been exonerated from Oklahoma’s death row, according to data collected by The Intercept. But the true number of innocence cases is impossible to know for sure. In 2001, as Jones waited to go on trial for his life, Oklahoma was forced to review some 1,200 criminal convictions won with the help of a fraudulent forensic scientist, whose work sent 23 people to death row. Twelve had already been executed.
Oklahoma County’s current district attorney, David Prater, worked under Macy. He has defended his old boss, arguing that it is inappropriate to view his record through a modern lens. But the culture and tactics of that office are reflected in the cases that are now coming up for execution, including Jones’s.
“I never trusted Bob Macy as far as I could throw him,” said Dennis Dill, a former police officer in Edmond, the Oklahoma City suburb where Jones was accused of killing Howell. Dill, who appeared in “The Last Defense,” is haunted by a different death penalty case tried under Macy — that of Jimmie Ray Slaughter, who was executed in 2005. In a phone call, Dill echoed what he said in the ABC series: that Slaughter was sent to death row by corrupt detectives who destroyed evidence and tried to get him to falsify a police report. Their conduct had moved him to speak up about Jones. “The same people that worked on this case worked on the Slaughter case,” he said. “They will focus on a direction and find only evidence to go that direction.”
“They will focus on a direction and find only evidence to go that direction.”
Dill, who spent 24 years on the police force, was one of the first officers to respond to the murder of 45-year-old Howell on July 28, 1999. Howell, an insurance executive, had arrived at his parents’ home just after 9:30 p.m. after taking his young daughters out for ice cream when he was approached by a man as he was getting out of his GMC Suburban. The man shot him in the head at point-blank range. Howell’s sister, Megan Tobey, who was on the passenger side, glimpsed the shooter before fleeing the car with her nieces. She described him as a Black man in a white shirt and stocking cap, with a red bandanna covering his face. She said that she saw at least half an inch of hair coming out from under the cap.
Howell’s murder sent shockwaves through Edmond, where the majority of residents were white and well-off. A city council member and classmate of Howell’s described the neighborhood as a place where “getting a radio stolen out of a car would be a big deal.” For Black people, the city had a different reputation. “The Last Defense” includes an interview with a man who filed a lawsuit against the Edmond Police Department after a plainclothes officer allegedly put a gun to his head and called him the N-word. That officer, Tony Fike, investigated Howell’s murder alongside Edmond police detective Theresa Pfeiffer.
The stolen Suburban was found July 30 on Oklahoma City’s south side. When detectives approached a longtime confidential informant named Kermit Lottie, who owned a “chop shop” nearby, he pointed to a man named Ladell King, who had tried to sell him the Suburban. But King told detectives he was just a middleman. He said that on the night of the murder, two men had pulled up to his place driving separate cars: 20-year-old Jordan in an Oldsmobile Cutlass and 19-year-old Jones in the Suburban. It was only the next day after trying to sell the car that King said he saw a news report about Howell’s murder. He realized that the vehicle was linked to the murder — and that Jones was wearing a red bandanna and a stocking cap.
Dill, who said he was taken off the Howell case early on, remembers being skeptical. He was well acquainted with King, who had been an informant of his for years. “He knew if he started pointing fingers that he would get out of it,” Dill said.
Three days after the murder, Fike and Pfeiffer interviewed Jordan. There were signs that the detectives suspected Jordan might be the real shooter. “We don’t have this backward, do we?” Fike asked Jordan at one point. But the interview is most striking for how dramatically Jordan’s answers changed in response to detectives’ leading questions.
Jordan told detectives early on that he and Jones had been out together in the Cutlass the night of the murder when they spotted a Suburban driving behind them. Jones told Jordan to let him out of the car so he could “pop” it. Jordan said he did, then drove on to a taco place to get burritos. “I didn’t have nothing to do with it.”
But police told Jordan that his version of events didn’t make sense — or align with Howell’s known whereabouts that night. “He wasn’t in that part of town,” Pfeiffer said. Fike suggested that Jordan and Jones were out cruising around looking for a Suburban. Jordan denied it at first but then said it was true. As the detectives fed him more information, Jordan’s story evolved.
Where he’d previously said that he did not find out about Howell’s murder until the next day, now he said that he’d followed the Suburban into Howell’s neighborhood and let Jones out of the car. “So you followed him out, and you saw that man lying there on the ground, didn’t you?” Fike asked. Jordan said no, but Fike pressed him. “You saw him lying there, didn’t you? You knew he was shot right then, didn’t ya? Come on, Chris, you’re just a better witness that way.”
Jordan said he saw the man fall backward onto the ground. “How’d you know that he’d shot him? How’d you know he didn’t just hit him in the head or something and knock him down?” Fike asked, then answered his own question. “You heard the gun,” he told Jordan. “I heard the gunshot,” Jordan said.
By the time Jones’s trial began in 2002, the state’s theory was that Jones and Jordan had spotted the Suburban at an ice cream shop, then followed it to Howell’s parents’ home. Although Jordan never mentioned the ice cream shop to detectives, a man who was at the shop that night said he saw two Black men circling the parking lot. The driver had cornrows, like Jordan, and the other man wore a white shirt.
That man was among a slew of witnesses who took the stand against Jones at trial. But when it came time for the defense to present its case, Jones’s lead attorney, David McKenzie, called no witnesses. In an affidavit, McKenzie later said he had never tried a death penalty case before and “was terrified by this case due to my inexperience.” He admitted that he’d relied on an investigator who was “completely untrained and unqualified to be interviewing witnesses or otherwise performing investigative functions.” McKenzie also said he should have presented a key piece of evidence at trial: A photograph of Jones taken the week before the murder showed that Jones’s hair was cropped short — too short to match what Tobey, Howell’s sister, described.
Jones and his lawyers have long argued that if McKenzie had investigated Jones’s whereabouts on the night of the crime, he would have understood that Jones had an alibi. According to Jones’s family, Jones was at his parents’ home, eating spaghetti. In “The Last Defense,” his siblings recall how Jones got upset that they had eaten the rest of a leftover cookie cake from Jones’s birthday a few days before. His brother Antonio remembers that Jones was still there when their mother drove him to work. “I left, like, at 9:30 to go to work at 10 p.m.,” Antonio said. “There’s no way he could’ve skipped to Edmond and shot that guy at 9:30.”
Jones admits that he saw Jordan later that night. And he says that he did help move the Suburban, not on the night of the murder but the next day. According to Jones, King paged him looking for Jordan. When he could not reach him, King offered to pay Jones if he would help move the vehicle. Against his better judgment, Jones said, he agreed, but he refused to drive it. Regardless, Jones insists that he did not know what had happened to Howell. Later that night, Jordan spent the night in an upstairs bedroom at the home of Jones’s parents. It was there that police would find a .25 caliber gun wrapped in a red bandanna.
“In a death penalty case of a Black man accused of killing a rich white guy, I don’t think there is any possible way you could have gotten a fair trial in Oklahoma City.”
In “The Last Defense,” lawyers for Jones emphasized the need to test the bandanna for DNA. They believed that the results could implicate Jordan. But when the bandanna was tested in the fall of 2018, DNA instead came back pointing at Jones. There were three other male DNA profiles detected, but they were too degraded to compare to known profiles. Today, Jones’s lawyers say that the DNA raises more questions than answers.
They also argue that junk science was used to convict Jones, like discredited bullet lead analysis provided by a former FBI analyst who later admitted to giving false testimony in a different case. And they point to the absence of other key physical evidence, like the lack of fingerprints linking Jones to the Suburban.
Finally, they emphasize the racism that animated Jones’s trial. Only a single Black juror served on the panel that convicted Jones. One juror has since come forward to say that a fellow juror referred to Jones using the N-word, saying that he ought to be shot and buried under the jail. As McKenzie put it following the verdict, “In a death penalty case of a Black man accused of killing a rich white guy, I don’t think there is any possible way you could have gotten a fair trial in Oklahoma City.”
With so many lingering questions, Dill, the former Edmond police officer, can’t say for sure who really killed Howell. He is certain, however, that Jones does not belong on death row. “Let’s put it this way: He did not get a fair trial. I know that for a fact,” he said. “And if you don’t get a fair trial, then how can you be guilty? So I have to say that he’s not guilty.”
In the months before Jones’s clemency hearing, members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board repeatedly showed that they tended to agree with Dill. In March, over the protests of the state’s attorney general, board members agreed to consider Jones’s application for a commutation — a rare chance “to remedy an excessive sentence,” as defined by the board. Following a hearing in September, they recommended reducing Jones’s sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole by a vote of 3-1. But Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt declined to make a decision at the time, explaining that he would prefer to wait for a clemency hearing, which traditionally precedes an execution date and gives both victims’ families and the condemned a chance to speak.
The board’s actions enraged Prater, the Oklahoma County district attorney, who along with state officials has taken extreme measures to block the board from considering Jones’s case. In March, he sued both the governor and his appointed board members just days after the decision to allow a hearing. He then repeatedly petitioned the state Supreme Court to disqualify two board members from voting on both Jones’s commutation and clemency applications. In October, Prater convinced an Oklahoma County judge to convene a grand jury to investigate the parole board. Although Prater has repeatedly accused board members of having conflicts of interest, the move evinced a double standard: The judge who gave the green light was the husband of one of the prosecutors who sent Jones to death row.
At the clemency hearing on November 1, Antoinette Jones watched as her brother’s lawyers prepared to speak. She wore a “Justice for Julius” face mask along with a strand of pearls given to her by her mother. In the months leading up to the hearing, she had taken leave from school to focus on fighting for her brother. Now she prayed for everyone at the hearing — for the Howells, who had to relive their loved one’s murder, and for her family, who stood to lose their own. “It was a lot of tension. It was a lot of emotion,” Antoinette said. But it was nothing compared to growing up with her brother facing execution for a crime she knew he did not commit.
Jones’s attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Amanda Bass, emphasized three key pieces of evidence that Jones’s jury never saw. She reiterated that the photograph showing Jones’s short hair conflicted with the claim from Howell’s sister, Tobey, that there was half an inch to an inch of hair sticking out from under the shooter’s cap. Jordan, on the other hand, had cornrows, which would more closely match what she saw.
Second, Bass said, two of the state’s main witnesses — Lottie and King — were longtime confidential informants who had cut deals with the Oklahoma County district attorney in exchange for their cooperation. In fact, just a few years before implicating Jones, Lottie had helped that same office send two innocent defendants to death row. Those men were exonerated in 2009.
Finally, the jury never heard from multiple people who said that Jordan had bragged about killing Howell and letting Jones take the blame. Two men had spoken up around the time of Jones’s trial, after spending time with Jordan at the Oklahoma County jail. Two more came forward earlier this year. “The attorney general’s office has argued that none of these individuals are credible because they have felony convictions,” Bass said. “At the same time, they ask you to credit the testimony of the prosecution’s central witnesses against Julius.”
In response, a prosecutor with the state attorney general’s office reiterated the witness accounts presented at trial. She also emphasized something Tobey told the local TV station in September: that her description of the shooter’s hat and hair had been misconstrued for years. When she said she saw a half-inch to an inch of hair, Tobey meant the hair visible between the man’s ear and cap, not the length of the hair itself.
For all the debate about the hair, a fundamental fact cuts to one of the biggest problems at the heart of the case: Eyewitness descriptions, particularly cross-racial identifications, are notoriously unreliable and a leading factor in wrongful convictions. Tobey’s account was based on what she saw in a moment of extreme panic, at night, as she frantically tried to escape the car with her nieces. Yet the state went so far as to insist that if Jordan were the real killer, Tobey would have been able to see “the outline of cornrows under the shooter’s cap.”
When it was time for the Howell family to speak, they were emotional, at times angry. Howell’s daughter, Rachel, who was only 9 years old when her father was murdered in front of her, said that she recalled waving to Jones before he shot her dad. She also read portions of a letter she said she had received from a defector from the Justice for Julius movement, who apologized for his role in misleading people about the case.
It was approaching noon when Jones spoke via video. In a maroon prison jumpsuit and glasses, he read from a prepared statement. He said he was sorry for Howell’s family. “My family and I never lost sight that they have lost a loved one.” But he maintained his innocence. “I’m here to tell you what I never got to tell the jury in my trial,” he said. “Yes, I’ve made many mistakes in my youth, but I did not kill Mr. Paul Howell.”
Around 12:30 p.m., the activists in the church parking lot gathered to listen to the vote. They bowed their heads and held hands. The board members spoke one by one. “I continue to believe that there is doubt in this case,” said Kelly Doyle, voting yes for clemency. Richard Smothermon, a former district attorney, voted no. Next came Larry Morris, who said both sides had given persuasive presentations. But to him, it was “not so much about his guilt or innocence” but the disparity between Jones’s sentence and Jordan’s. “To give one person 15 years and then execute the second one — there is something inherently wrong in that decision in my opinion.” He voted yes.
The last vote came from Chair Adam Luck. Yes. The final tally was 3-1. In the parking lot across the street, the crowd embraced and wiped tears from their faces. A woman went around giving hugs to strangers. But it was not over yet. The final decision would be up to the governor.
With the board now voting twice to spare her brother’s life, Antoinette hoped that Stitt would announce his decision swiftly. But two weeks later, she and her family are still waiting. In the meantime, a week after the clemency vote, she received a notice from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections asking her to fill out information for her attendance at her brother’s execution. “It’s so inhumane,” she said. “An invitation to an execution.”