In 2002, an almost all-white jury convicted Julius Jones in the carjacking and shooting death of Paul Howell, a white businessman in Edmond, Okla. For 22 years, Jones and his family have maintained his innocence, contending that he could not have shot Howell because at the time of his murder he was celebrating his 19th birthday with his mother, father, and sister. Despite the seriousness of the crime, the case languished in obscurity until June 2019, when the ABC docuseries The Last Defense brought renewed attention to it.
I first learned about Julius Jones from the Rev. Cece Jones-Davis (no relation to Julius). In October 2019, Jones-Davis asked me if I would be interested in supporting the burgeoning Justice for Julius movement. I agreed to meet with her, and since that initial conversation, I have worked alongside her to bring attention to Julius’s wrongful conviction. Because of her commitment to preventing the state of Oklahoma from killing an innocent man, “Justice for Julius!” has become a national rallying cry, with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and NFL quarterback Baker Mayfield throwing Jones their support. More than 6 million people have signed the Justice for Julius petition.
On September 13, 2021, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board convened a commutation hearing for Julius Jones. By a vote of 3 to 1, the board recommended that Governor Kevin Stitt commute his death sentence. I recently interviewed Jones-Davis, currently the Justice for Julius campaign director, to better understand why she has fought so hard to save Jones from execution and what the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation means for his legal fight.
—Karlos K. Hill
Once he got to trial, Julius had several issues. He had a poor public defense team. They were overwhelmed, underfunded, and ill-equipped to mount the kind of robust defense that someone facing death, particularly a Black man facing death for the murder of a white man, would have needed. Julius also did not have a jury of his peers. His jury consisted of 11 white individuals and one person of color. One of those white jurors even said to another one, “We should just take this [n-word] to the back of the court and shoot him and get it over with.”
Julius had a codefendant named Christopher Jordan, who was the star witness in the case. He took a plea deal with the prosecution to avoid the death penalty and said that Julius was the one who committed the crime. Christopher Jordan went to prison for what was supposed to be 30 years but somehow got reduced to 15. And while in prison, and also outside of prison, he has reportedly confessed, to at least four individuals, that in fact he was the shooter in this case.
Despite all of that, Julius has remained on death row. No court of appeals has seriously considered any of the merits of his case. So this campaign is about raising awareness, getting as much public support as possible, and doing everything that we can to prevent him from being executed.
KH: Can you tell us when and how you became involved in the case?
CJD: I am an ordained minister, a worship artist, and a social advocate. I had been living in Oklahoma for a couple of years when I first heard Julius’s story through Viola Davis’s show The Last Defense, which aired on ABC. I was really horrified. I didn’t know Julius or his family, even though we share part of my last name, but I felt compelled to reach out to his attorneys and to his family to see if there were any ways that I could be helpful. I had never done anything in criminal justice reform before. I knew very little about it. But I thought I had the right skill set to help organize people; to talk to influencers, legislators, and faith leaders; and to create a community that would be all about doing what we could for Julius. So I founded the Julius Jones Coalition in 2018—just normal, everyday people disturbed about Julius’s plight—and today we have a robust national social justice campaign, called Justice for Julius.
KH: What is the status of the case as of right now?
CJD: On September 13, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board members met for a hearing on the case. And the outcome of that hearing was a 3 to 1 vote that Julius’s death sentence should be commuted to life with the possibility of parole. That was historic, it was extremely important. It was the first of the two or three major steps needed for Julius to actually obtain his freedom.
Now the board’s recommendation goes to the desk of Governor Kevin Stitt, who will deliberate and decide whether to accept it. We don’t know when he will decide; he does not have a time frame where he has to make that decision. But our work between now and then is to communicate with Governor Stitt and his office about why it is so important for him to accept the recommendation. As governor, this is a moment in which he could demonstrate an immense amount of courage.
KH: I know that a clemency hearing was scheduled for October 5, with the possibility of an October 28 execution date. Is that off the table now, or might it still happen?
CJD: The death penalty is not completely off the table for him until the governor signs off on the commutation, but the state attorney general is no longer asking for October 28. He’s now asking for the middle to the end of November. He is basically saying, “My timing is off. We need to give Julius a November date because the person before him needs to be at the end of October.” In other words, the request still stands; it’s just a different date. So we need the governor to commute Julius’s sentence before the Court of Criminal Appeals decides to confirm an execution date. [Editor’s Note: Shortly after this interview, Julius Jones received a November 18 execution date.]
KH: Are you suggesting that the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation might be ignored by the state?
CJD: It could be. The governor still has the power to not act upon their recommendation. I don’t think that he’s going to do that, though. The governor had a major hand in creating that board. Three, if not four, of the members are his appointees. These are people that he trusts, that he values. So I do not believe he would pass completely on their recommendation. However, we are still in a very intense political climate, so it’s hard to say what pressures the governor might be getting that are in opposition to us. Thus we have to remain vigilant. We had a huge victory on September 13, but we have a ways to go.
KH: So through pushing for a commutation hearing instead of a clemency hearing, the movement was able to create a situation where the Pardon and Parole Board has said there’s a basis for commutation. And now that gives them leverage to advocate it to the governor.
CJD: Under Oklahoma state law, the governor could not act without first getting a recommendation from his board. They have a tremendous amount of power in this, so knowing they gave him a recommendation away from death row—a recommendation away from even life in prison—that is huge. So now that it’s in his hands, he has the enormous task of reviewing their recommendation and understanding why they made the decision that they made and deciding whether he is going to accept it.
KH: I think this will help our readers understand that while the Justice for Julius movement has created an opportunity, it’s just an opportunity. We have to continue to put pressure on the governor not only to review the case but to make a decision that is reflective of what the Pardon and Parole Board suggested. Is there anything else that you think would be helpful for readers to know? Is there anything you want to share that might stir people to action or motivate them to learn more about his situation?
CJD: First and foremost, I want people to understand that Julius’s life matters. I want people to understand that Julius is innocent. He hasn’t been a perfect person in his life, but he has never been a killer. And I want people to understand that the criminal justice system has a hard time reckoning with its wrongs. I believe that’s why we are where we are. We are here because the people who have the power and who represent the institution have been completely unwilling to humble themselves and admit that something here has gone terribly wrong.
What we want the public to do now is turn their attention toward the only person in Oklahoma who can do something about this—and that is Governor Kevin Stitt. Our website, justiceforjulius.com, includes a take-action tool that people can use to contact the governor and implore him to make the right decision regarding this case.
There are two other ways the public can help. Number one, we need people to continue to spread the word. A lot of people have heard about Julius, but that’s not enough. I need the whole wide world to hear about Julius Jones. Social media is a very powerful force. So in terms of raising awareness about who Julius is and exactly what is going on, we want people to follow Justice for Julius on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Follow the posts, like them, share them, all those kinds of things. Rally the online community around this cause. Make use of social media and the tool kit on our website, and let’s stay with it until we get it done.
The second way to help is to donate to the campaign. Every campaign requires resources, and it’s no different when we’re talking about a campaign to save an innocent man’s life. So we want people to consider donating.
KH: Is there anything you want to share about how this case has impacted you personally? In what ways has it transformed you?
CJD: I’ve often wondered what my life will look like after this. I pray that I will continue to be an openhearted person. I pray that I will be an optimistic person. I pray for my own level of peace after this is all said and done. Because you can’t un-see things. You can’t un-hear things. You can’t un-know things. And when you walk in close proximity to this kind of suffering, this kind of pain, these kinds of realities, they do have a way of changing you. I’ve got to figure out who I really am after this and what I want to do and how I’m going to maintain peace and joy in my life after seeing what I’ve seen, hearing what I’ve heard, and knowing what I know now. That’s going to be a challenge.
KH: I know that Justice for Julius has been transformed by you and your singular spirit. It’s been amazing to see. It’s often said that one person can’t make a difference, one person doesn’t make a movement. But one person can start a movement, and one person can reignite a movement. And over time, one person can often grow interest, grow understanding. I’ve seen all of that in you.
CJD: That is one of the morals to this story. That people still matter. That community is still more powerful than systems. That some things are worth laying our lives down for, and this has been worth it. It has been worth laying down my life for this, but it has also been a responsibility. I didn’t come to this with a feeling of “I think I could” or “maybe I want to feel helpful.” I came into this feeling like I had an enormous responsibility. Woe unto me if I live in the state of Oklahoma and pay taxes as a Black woman, standing on the shoulders of my grandmothers from the South, woe unto me if I don’t use the voice I’ve been given through an HBCU education, and the strengthened voice I’ve been given through an Ivy League institution. Woe unto me if I just sit around here and go grocery shopping as if I never saw anything. I think it’s important that we hold on to our memory. The thing that has gotten me to this point is my memory of who we are as a people, what we’ve been through. And not just broadly and generally, but the memory of my people, personally, who have struggled and mopped floors and moved off sidewalks for white people. I have a tremendous sense of honor and a tremendous sense of debt that I owe those people. So woe unto me if, with all the privilege and opportunities I have been given, I allow myself to watch a Black man, in anybody’s state, die—particularly wrongfully—and I do not open my mouth and say something about it.
KH: If we only had 7 billion more people like you! [Laughter] Then we wouldn’t have to talk about much. We would be in real harmony.