A federal appeals court has reversed the conviction of Arizona death-row prisoner Barry Jones (pictured) based on medical evidence suggesting that he may not have committed the murder for which he was sentenced to death.

On November 29, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit threw out Jones’ convictions for child abuse, sexual assault, and felony murder of his girlfriend’s four-year-old daughter amid doubts about the prosecution’s claims that Jones had battered and sexually abused the girl and then caused her death by failing to obtain necessary medical care. Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Circuit Judge Richard R. Clifton said that Jones’ lawyers unreasonably failed to investigate and present medical evidence that the injuries that ultimately killed Rachel Gray in May 1994 could not have been sustained during the time period in which prosecutors said Jones had been alone with the girl.

Clifton, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, said that “[t]he evidence presented [during federal district court] hearings undermines considerably the confidence in the outcome of the trial court proceedings.”

Prosecutors claimed at trial that Jones had sexually assaulted and physically abused Rachel, including striking her in the abdomen and in the head with a pry bar that was found in his van. One day after the alleged assault, Rachel became unresponsive and Jones and his girlfriend took her to a local Pima County hospital, where she subsequently died. A medical examination attributed her death to complications from “a small bowel laceration due to blunt abdominal trauma.” Rachel also had bruises, a scalp laceration, and other injuries that the doctors attributed to sexual abuse. The prosecution argued to the jury that Rachel had sustained the injuries the day before her death, during a period of time she had spent alone with Jones.

Jones argued in federal court that his trial lawyers had been ineffective in failing to properly investigate the circumstances of Rachel’s death. The federal district court conducted a seven-day evidentiary hearing in which Jones presented expert medical testimony that Rachel sustained the injuries that killed her at least two days before her death. The expert witnesses further testified that the state’s testimony concerning the timing of her injuries was false, that her abdominal and scalp injuries could not have been caused by the pry bar, and that counsel would have learned these facts had they adequately investigated the case. Jones’ trial attorneys testified that they “dropped the ball and didn’t follow up properly” on the evidence already available to them. After hearing the evidence, the district court ruled in 2018 that Jones had been provided ineffective representation at trial and in state post-conviction proceedings and granted him a new trial.

On appeal, the circuit panel agreed that Jones’ lawyers’ failure to properly investigate the medical timeline was ineffective. While the expert testimony presented in the federal hearing “would not necessarily exonerate Jones,” Judge Clifton wrote, “there is a reasonable probability that the jury might have arrived at a different conclusion on the question of whether Jones had inflicted the injuries or knowingly failed to seek care.” The appeals court upheld the district court ruling overturning Jones’ convictions and ordered him released or retried on the murder, assault, and abuse charges. It also gave prosecutors the option of retrying Jones on a charge of deliberately failing to seek medical care for Rachel or resentencing him on a lesser charge of reckless failure to seek treatment.

Jones was sentenced to death under a judge-only sentencing process that the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 2002. However, because his first appeal had been completed before then, the courts refused to apply that decision to his case. Prosecutors attempted to deny Jones federal court review of his ineffectiveness claim, arguing that the issue had been waived because his state-appointed post-conviction lawyer had not raised it first in state court. However, Jones’ new federal lawyers successfully argued that a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in another Arizona death penalty case, Martinez v. Ryan, permitted the federal court to hear his claim if his failure to raise it earlier was attributable to ineffective representation during his state court appeals.

State prosecutors told reporters that they will seek rehearing of the case by the full appeals court and, if they are unsuccessful, they will ask the United States Supreme Court to review the appeals court’s decision.


Howard Fischer, AG to chal­lenge court’s order to release man con­vict­ed in child slay­ing, Arizona Capitol Times, December 2, 2019; Vandana Ravikumar, Death row sen­tence over­turned after lawyers dropped the ball’ in case, Cronkite News, December 22019

Read the Ninth Circuit opin­ion in Jones v. Shinn here.