ABC’s ‘The Last Defense’ shines light on death row

ABC's 'The Last Defense' shines light on death row

Los Angeles (AFP) – Julius Jones, an African American former high school honor student and star college athlete, was 21 when he was convicted of murder by a predominantly white jury and sentenced to death.

Now 37, Jones’s fight to overturn the ruling following what his lawyers describe as “pervasive and highly racialized pre-trial media coverage” is the subject of a new ABC show on death row.

Jones was convicted in April 2002 of shooting dead 45-year-old father-of-two Paul Howell, an Edmond, Oklahoma insurance executive, on July 28, 1999. The victim’s car was stolen after he was shot in the head at point blank range.

ABC’s seven-episode documentary series “The Last Defense” opens with an hour-long episode on Jones’s legal battle as lawyers race against the clock to get him a new trial before his execution date is set.

Executive produced by Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress Viola Davis with her husband Julius Tennon, the seven-episode show aims to expose flaws in the American justice system through in-depth examinations of multiple death row cases. 

The series, which debuts the Jones episode at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27, returns to the scene of the crime in each case, re-interviewing witnesses and delving beyond the details of the court proceedings.

The idea, said a spokeswoman for ABC, was to take “a deep look into the personal stories of the subjects, seeking to trace the path that led them to their place on death row.” 

“With incisive, compelling storytelling, ‘The Last Defense’ gives voice to those who can no longer be heard,” she added.

– ‘Deserved to die’ –

Jones has always maintained that his co-defendant Christopher O. Jordan fired the gun, but Jordan testified against Jones in exchange for a 30-year to life sentence and was released in 2014. 

Prosecutor Sandra Elliott told jurors during her opening statement in the 2002 trial that Jones and Jordan were looking for a sport utility vehicle with keys because they thought they could sell it for $5,000.

“Paul Howell was murdered simply because he had a car they wanted,” Elliott said.

The Denver-based 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals let the death sentence stand in 2014, rejecting Jones’s claim that his attorney was ineffective for failing to seek evidence that someone else had committed the crime.

One of three appellate judges who upheld his sentence, Jerome Holmes, had written a newspaper opinion piece in 2002 while he was still a federal prosecutor, stating that Jones “deserved to die.”

Jones, a former University of Oklahoma freshman on a “presidential leadership” scholarship, was refused a review of the appeal rejection in 2016 by the US Supreme Court. 

Oklahoma’s attorney general at the time, Scott Pruitt — now the controversial head of the Environmental Protection Agency — had submitted that Jones’s attorneys had failed to demonstrate the judge’s personal bias or prejudice.

Then potentially explosive new evidence emerged in a 2017 report from The Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission highlighting systemic flaws in the state’s capital sentencing, prompting a fresh petition from Jones’s legal team, which argues that his sentence is unconstitutional. 

Jones’s attorneys also note that no physical evidence connected him to the scene of the shooting, the murder weapon or the stolen car.

– ‘White victim effect’ –

A study appended to the report stated that defendants accused and convicted of killing white victims were nearly two times more likely to receive a death sentence than if the victim was non-white. 

“Not only does this study illustrate that Julius faced a greater risk of execution by the mere happenstance that the victim who he was accused and convicted of killing was white,” attorneys for Jones contend, “but we also argue that race operated invidiously throughout Julius’s case from the very earliest stages.” 

A study published in 2015 in the North Carolina Law Review in 2016 by Catherine Grosso and Barbara O’Brien, associate law professors at Michigan State University, came to a similar conclusion.

“The white victim effect was the clearest and strongest finding in this study analysis,” Grosso says. 

“Race still matters in the criminal justice system, and it shouldn’t.”

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Jones’s petition, however, and he is now asking the US Supreme Court to review that decision and to direct the lower court to give Jones’s constitutional claims consideration before rubber-stamping his execution.

Amanda Bass, a federal public defender working on the case, said in a statement to the City Sentinel local newspaper last year that the decision was “another example of how that court puts form over substance even in cases where a human life hangs in the balance.”