Anne Holsinger 0:01

Hello and welcome to Discussions with DPIC. I’m Anne Holsinger, Managing Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. In this episode, I’ll be speaking with two of the people leading efforts to save the life of Julius Jones, whose Oklahoma death sentence was reduced to life in prison in November 2021 because of strong evidence of his innocence. Amanda Bass is an Assistant Federal Public Defender and the Arizona Federal Defenders Capital Habeas Unit. She’s been part of the legal team representing Julius Jones since 2016. CeCe Jones-Davis is an ordained minister and an advocate for racial justice and criminal legal reform. She’s the director of the Justice for Julius campaign, which led efforts to educate the public about the case and obtained more than 6 million signatures on a petition calling for clemency. Thank you both for joining me today.

Amanda Bass 0:50

Thank you for having us.

CeCe Jones-Davis 0:51

Thank you so much.

Anne Holsinger 0:53

Many of our listeners are familiar with the case of Julius Jones, but for those who may not be, Amanda, could you tell us who he is how he ended up sentenced to death in Oklahoma and what evidence supports his innocence claim?

Amanda Bass 1:04

Sure. Julius Jones was 19 years old in 1999 when he was arrested, and capitally prosecuted by the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s office for the shooting death of Paul Howell, who was a white, prominent businessman from Edmond, Oklahoma. As I noted, Julius was 19 years old at the time, an African-American youth. He was immediately racialized by then-District Attorney Bob Macy, who went on television shortly after his arrest and called for the death penalty for him. Julius was represented by three attorneys with Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office who were all fairly inexperienced in capital defense, none had ever tried a capital case before, none had any death penalty experience before. One was a recent graduate from law school, the other one had been out of law school for maybe a year, and they were going up against veteran prosecutors from Bob Macy’s District Attorney’s Office, and so really at the very get-go, he didn’t stand much of a chance. He didn’t have any evidence that was presented on his behalf at his trial and so it’s not surprising that he was very swiftly convicted and sentenced to death. Subsequent investigation really revealed the whole host of evidence that his lawyers never showed the jury that would have established Julius’ innocence of this crime. And so just pointing out a few pieces of that — he didn’t fit the eyewitness description of the shooter. The victim’s sister, a woman named Megan Toby, described the shooter as having half an inch of hair sticking out from underneath a stocking cap. At the time, Julius’s hair was shaved. A photograph of him that that his jury never saw would have established that he didn’t fit that eyewitness description. The jury didn’t know that there were confidential informants who really formed the basis of the state’s case against Julius, two of the star witnesses against him, were professional CIs. Again, the jury never knew that. And then the co-defendant who did fit the description of the shooter, a man named Christopher Jordan, turned state’s witness, got a secret 15-year deal for his cooperation, and blamed Julius for what other witnesses at the time could have testified that Chris Jordan admitted he in fact had done. So, I think those are just a couple of pieces of key evidence that would have established Julius’ innocence that his jury never got to consider.

Anne Holsinger 3:47

How did a case like this with such seemingly strong evidence of innocence reach the point in which Julius Jones came within four hours of being executed?

Amanda Bass 3:57

Well, I think this illustrates how hard it is to undo a conviction and a death sentence after the fact. Once someone is convicted and sentenced to death, automatically, there are strict standards of review that apply on direct appeal of that conviction and sentence. When the case moves over into state post conviction proceedings, there are rules around procedural default and waiver that really limit what courts can do in terms of granting relief and even what they can consider when it comes to upending a conviction and sentenced and so Julius, like many others was a victim of that. So there was a lot of evidence that came out subsequent to his trial that established his innocence, but that for the reasons that I mentioned, courts were not able to grant relief on the basis of.

Anne Holsinger 4:47

So in November 2021, Governor Kevin Stitt granted clemency to Mr. Jones just four hours before he was scheduled to be executed. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board twice recommended his sentence be reduced to life with the possibility of parole, a governor Stitt, instead reduced it to life without parole. And he placed a condition that Mr. Jones not seek a commutation pardon or parole again. What was your reaction to Governor state’s decision? And where does the case go from here?

CeCe Jones-Davis 5:15

I’m sure Amanda will have some thoughts as well. But from an advocacy point of view, we had fought so hard to bring the information that Amanda just shared with you all about the issues in Julius’s case, to public awareness, you know, especially in Oklahoma, because that’s where it mattered the most. We felt like the governor’s office itself was very well apprised to the issues, in Juliues’s case, and, you know, obviously, the Pardon and Parole Board, heard the issues themselves and were three of them, I believe were folks who the governor appointed to those positions himself. And so for him not to take the recommendation not just once, but twice, having, you know, understanding that these people really review the information better than anybody outside of the lawyers. And they came up with this recommendation not once but twice. You know, that was so disheartening. I can’t even tell you how, how the people who love Julius and support Julius felt, you know, and we we really were confused, you know, how, how do you not take your recommendation of your your own Pardon and Parole Board? Twice? Like, how do you decline that recommendation? And so, you know, that was really hard. It was particularly obviously hard for Julius, it was hard for his family. It was hard for those of us who advocate for him and support him. But I don’t know, I think it really, again, points to the train — you know, this out of control train that the death penalty is, that when somebody has a date with death, like it is a very hard train to stop. Even, even with the information that came forward, you know, even with the doubt, the community, society, we learned so much from Julius’ story about this system and how destructive and unjust it really is.

Amanda Bass 7:31

And I agree with what CeCe shared. It was disappointing that the governor did not accept two recommendations from his board to give Julius the opportunity at release in light of the overwhelming evidence presented, not once but twice, of his innocence and his wrongful conviction that that also reinforced what Oklahomans in 2017 found with respect to Oklahoma’s system of capital punishment and the kinds of risks that lead innocent people like Julius to be wrongfully convicted, and wrongfully executed. I think at the same time — when the news came that the governor commuted Julius’ sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole, I was sitting in what I thought was my last legal visit with Julius — it was just a couple of hours before his execution. And no, we were at that point, helping him work on what he wanted to be his last words, his last message to his supporters, to his family, to the people who have loved and cared about and fought for him. And it was shortly before that visit ended, that the warden came into the visitation room and said, you all haven’t heard but the governor commuted Julius’ sentence, it’s going to be life without parole, he’ll be immediately reclassified and moved off of death row. You know, and at that point, the conversation went from being about Julius’s last words to being about him being moved off of death watch and off of death row, and to a medium security classification status. And so it was also I think, for me, I felt relief, that, you know, we wouldn’t be watching Julius die that day that he would live that, we we still had a path forward to fight for him. But again, as CeCe said, that is in no way to take away from I think the disappointment and concern around the you know, the failure to follow the recommendation of the board to give him an opportunity that release,

Anne Holsinger 9:45

Given the governor’s conditions on the clemency, what is that path forward to continue to fight for him?

Amanda Bass 9:52

Well, I think we still need to look hard at the legality of the order and the conditions that the governor placed on Julius’ ability to seek a future commutation of his life without parole sentence. What the Governor did was historic in many ways. It’s also unprecedented to kind of include those sorts of conditions on a prisoners ability to ever even pursue another commutation going forward. So I think because it is so novel, we’re still reviewing that order and thinking through what options may lie ahead for Julius.

Anne Holsinger 10:31

This is a case that has attracted attention from celebrities, from professional athletes, from people across the world, including the European Union and numerous European embassies. As we said, at the beginning, 6 million people signed a petition in support of clemency. That level of attention is really rare for a death penalty case. So first, what was it about this case that attracted such widespread attention? And second, what role has that played in the outcome, do you think?

CeCe Jones-Davis 10:59

I think what drew so many people to Julius’s case was what drew me to his case, right that even as a person who doesn’t have any legal experience or doesn’t, has never done any particular advocacy in the criminal justice reform space, just as a person with good common sense, the issues that the last defense, which was the documentary that Viola Davis and the Innocence Project produced, really laid out in layman’s terms, why it was so important for people to come alongside Julius and fight for his life. I think first of all, that the last offense was an amazing tool that really gave us all a window into what had happened to Julius, you know, so many people had never heard of him. I know, I had never heard of him before 2018 and so that was an incredible tool that really broke it down. And of course, Amanda was in that and the family was in that and it, it really did bring it, bring it home. And I think really, further, what really caught the hearts of people was, you know, this could happen to anybody. You know, Julius was a bright, young man with a promising future from quote unquote, good family. And if this could happen to the Jones family, then this could happen to so so many people. And I think the power of social media once, once kind of a fire started to get caught, and particular celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Scott Button at Cooper, do some movie, Just Mercy, and others started to be so consistent in raising awareness about Julius. That really helps so much and kind of validating the issue and the problem and so, of course, that led to so many other folks getting involved wanting to learn about Julius and so it’s really a wonderful snowball effect. I would hate to think actually what it would have been, if we did not have the support of those kinds of influencers. We could not have had the social media presence that we did, we could not have had all those signatures on that petition and so for for celebrities to use their platforms and influence in such a powerful way like that was pivotal for the justice for Julia’s campaign.

Anne Holsinger 13:28

So we’ve talked about the innocence claims in this case, but compounding those claims, there’s also evidence that racial discrimination contributed to Mr. Jones’s conviction. Mr. Jones is black and was charged with the murder of a white man, Paul Howell. Prosecutor Bob Macy played on those racial stereotypes and his media statements surrounding the trial, emphasizing that the crime took place in a safe neighborhood, and saying that Mr. Howell was killed to get money to buy drugs. A white juror reportedly used a racial slur to describe Mr. Jones and, even before deliberation began, told another juror he believed they should take him out and shoot him behind the jail. Yet, in 2019, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal brought by Julius Jones and another African American Oklahoma death row prisoner, Tremaine Wood, who alleged that their senses were the product of racial bias. This challenge was supported by a 22-year study that analyzed racial disparities in Oklahoma death sentences. Why do you think the Supreme Court refused to to address that racial bias in this case?

Amanda Bass 14:30

Well, as you poignantly pointed out, the evidence of racial bias is apparent not only in Julius’s case, but also in the case of my other Oklahoma client, Tremaine Wood, and that is well documented. As you also noted, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission did undertake a study that included a statistical analysis of the ways in which the race of defendants and the race of victims impact and inform death sentencing outcomes in Oklahoma. This is something that was borne out through the data as having influenced Tremaine Woods and Julius Jones’s death verdicts. We presented that evidence to the Supreme Court in as you said, cert petitions that the court ultimately declined to review. At the same time, the court did re-conference those petitions more than 26 times over the course of a year, and that was encouraging because what we were asking the Supreme Court to do in those petitions was to overrule McCleskey versus Kemp, which is a 1987 Supreme Court case that categorically rejected statistical evidence of racial discrimination in the administration of the death penalty as sufficient to make out a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution. And so we reraised the same issue presented in McCleskey in Julius’s and in Tremaine’s cases based on the statistics that showed that they were predisposed as black men accused of killing white male victims, to receiving death sentences on that basis alone and controlling for other aggravating circumstances. We don’t know why the court ultimately declined to take up review. But I do think it is encouraging that the court — there’s, there’s an indication that the court struggled with that decision. Because, as I said, those petitions pended in the Supreme Court for more than a year and were re-conferenced by the justices more than 26 times before they ultimately declined to review the case. So it does suggest that this issue of race and its impact on not only the death penalty, but also on criminal justice outcomes more generally, is something that a court is concerned with.

Anne Holsinger 16:47

Julius Jones was tried in Oklahoma County, which has been responsible for more executions than any other county outside of Texas. The prosecutor Bob Macy was notorious for his hyper-zealous pursuit of the death penalty — he put 54 people on death row. Only three counties in the US have had more exonerations of wrongfully convicted death row prisoners then Oklahoma County, and that doesn’t include Mr. Jones or the case of Richard Glossip, both of whom are widely believed to be innocent. The county has had at least six death sentences overturned because prosecutors hid evidence or engaged in misconduct in their arguments to the jury. So how do you think that context of being tried in Oklahoma County affected his case?

Amanda Bass 17:31

Well, Julius’s case was prosecuted at a time when Oklahoma County was churning out death prosecutions. I don’t think there was ever any question at the time Julius was arrested and charged that anything less than the death penalty would be sought for the person who shot and killed Mr. Howell. In support of the state’s case for death, the prosecution and police committed all sorts of misconduct to ensure that that was going to be the outcome. And I think it’s just part and parcel of what we know to be Oklahoma County’s death penalty machine at the time Julius’s case was passing through that office and that we know resulted in innocent people being wrongly prosecuted capitally — a few people who come to mind are Parris Powell and Nancy Douglas, and also being wrongfully executed.

Anne Holsinger 18:24

At the time that Oklahoma issued a death warrant for Mr. Jones, The Board of Pardons had already expressed doubts about his guilt, so serious that it recommended his death sentence be commuted. A federal court had already found that death row prisoners had presented enough evidence that Oklahoma’s three drug execution process was unnecessarily torturous that the court ordered a trial on the issue, which as this podcast is being recorded is scheduled to begin in just a few weeks on February 28. The Attorney General sought a death warrant for Mr. Jones anyway, and both the Attorney General and District Attorney David Crater, then tried to manipulate the clemency process by seeking to remove two pardons board members they believed would vote in favor of clemency. Why did the state want to kill Julius Jones so badly?

CeCe Jones-Davis 19:10

I think that the state of Oklahoma wanted to kill him to do a couple of things. Number one, to avoid having to say that the state of Oklahoma has made yet another very drastic mistake. As Amanda has already spoken to you know, this is not completely unique in Oklahoma and we know across the country, of course, but in Oklahoma 10 people have been exonerated from death row because of prosecutorial misconduct or actual innocence. And more than that, 38 or more people have been exonerated from the prison system, from incarceration because of you know, wrongful convictions. I think this was really about number one, Oklahoma saving face. I don’t think they were willing to say, okay, 20 years ago, we know what our system was like 20 years ago, and we’ve clearly got it wrong again. I don’t think they were willing to reckon, to be reckoned with, or to reckon themselves to make things right. Secondly, I think they were so gung ho, to kill Julius because a national spotlight had been brought, really an international spotlight had been brought in place on Oklahoma, around Julius Jones. And I think they were eager to kill him to see if they could just go back to being an island unto themselves as a state, and getting that attention off. And then thirdly, I think that, quite frankly, they were eager to kill Julius because his life didn’t matter to them. You know, I feel like we see that over and over again, where, particularly African American men, their lives are just not valuable to to a lot of people in power. You know, in Oklahoma, and I’m sure it’s like this a lot of places in most places, you know, we have a white governor, a white Attorney General, a white DA, all male and I have no indication that any of those folks cared about an African American man who was on death row — I just don’t think his life mattered to them.

Anne Holsinger 21:37

How has this case, and the enormous public attention surrounding it affected your work? Has it changed the way that either of you approach advocacy?

CeCe Jones-Davis 21:46

This has been definitely the hardest thing I’ve been involved with in my life and I think sometimes that they’re often moments when I wish I didn’t know some things, and I bet Amanda thinks believes that for itself, too, sometimes. Like, I just wish I didn’t know how evil this system is, you know, sometimes it’s extremely daunting. And what I realize is that there are so many Julius’s in the world in this country, that need advocacy, that needs somebody to hold on to them and not let them go. But I’ve also realized how powerful people are and one great lesson I’ve gotten from all of this is that people are really stronger than systems — community is stronger than systems. And we saw that demonstrated in such a magnificent way in Oklahoma with Julius shows the amount of leaders who came forward to work day in and day out, the legislators who was so helpful, the media in Oklahoma, just so many, and just everyday people who slept outside the governor’s office every night for a while, who attended prayer vigils every day. People are incredible. People are incredible. And, you know, I have learned just how powerful and important mobilizing people is to do the work of justice.

Amanda Bass 23:20

Yeah, I would also echo just how inspiring it was to see so many people from all sectors of the community, the nation, internationally, elevate Julius’s story, elevate the injustice of his case, and come alongside us in the fight for his life. As CeCe said, though, there are so many Julius Joneses in the system, who we don’t know their names because they don’t have the spotlight or the visibility that allowed people to come around us in Julius’s case. At the same time, it’s important to just know that that our system is flawed, that it’s only through community and through collective work, advocacy work alongside litigation, that we can change, or have the hope of at least changing the system so that its outcomes are at least closer to what justice looks like.

Anne Holsinger 24:18

What lessons do you think others can take from Julius Jones’s case? Do you think that other prisoners who maintain their innocence can benefit from the public awareness that this case has created?

Amanda Bass 24:29

I do, and you know, I’m interested in CeCe’s thoughts on this as well, but I do think all of the work that was done in Julius’s case was instrumental in laying the groundwork for more consciousness around the death penalty in Oklahoma, but also beyond Oklahoma. The fact that through Julius’s case people became aware about racial bias and the way it impacts death sentencing outcomes, the way our system targets people who are poor and who don’t have resources to bring to the table at moments when they’re needed the most, the way in which prosecutors often commit misconduct just to win guilty verdicts and death sentences, the role of CIs, confidential informants in securing the most serious sentencing outcomes. You know, I think all of that was borne out through Julius’s case and people became aware that this is actually very much how our system works. This is not an anomaly. This is the way it works. And so I think that’s the kind of foundation that is going to be helpful for people beyond just Julius who are sucked up and victimized by this very same system.

CeCe Jones-Davis 25:43

Yeah. And, you know, I get, I get people reaching out all the time, and I have for the last three years. People and their, and their family members who see what has happened for Julius Jones, and are reaching out because they need it need that kind of advocacy themselves. I think that, I think there’s so many possibilities here, I think there’s so many lessons learned and I think there’s so many assets to this movement that can be applicable in other places for other people. Social media, again, is extremely powerful and just having people that know how to make social media work and run well, is a huge part of this advocacy work in this kind of space, right? Having a way to share somebody’s story over and over and over and over again, until it catches fire. But also understanding that in terms of the advocacy, you need somebody strong in communications, you need someone strong in a governmental affairs, you know, you need particular pieces to come together, which really, honestly, every campaign needs, no matter what, no matter what the topic is. And so I think that there are so many things about about this advocacy that can be applied to other people’s situations. And I really hope that I hope that it will be because I know that there’s so many people who need this kind of help.

Anne Holsinger 27:19

How do you think the legal system would need to change to prevent this from happening again?

Amanda Bass 27:25

Well, first, I think we need to adequately fund public defense offices, because as I said, previously, you know whether someone gets the death penalty is more a function of poverty than it is of culpability. And of course, race plays into that as well, as we’ve talked about, and I think if public defenders were adequately resourced at the front end, where defendants need that assistance the most, it would avoid cases getting to where Julius’s case ultimately got, which is you know, he came within four hours of being executed. I also think the rules around procedural default, and the hurdles that are in place in a lot of states, like Oklahoma, and here in Arizona, where I live and work, to getting back into court with new evidence of innocence or of, of a wrongful conviction, would need to be changed to make it easier for people to get a court to look at the merits of new issues and new evidence that’s uncovered, after the fact, that call into question their conviction, and sentence. So those are two things that I think would go a long way to preventing something like this from happening.

CeCe Jones-Davis 28:38

I will add to what Amanda had said, that we need to abolish the death penalty. That’s really what comes out of this for me, we need to abolish the death penalty in Oklahoma and everywhere else where it exists because we have proven over and over again, and I think Julius story highlights this better than anybody that I know that we can not trust ourselves, as a society, as a system, as the as whatever, to end people’s lives — we can’t trust ourselves, we should not trust ourselves. And so to ensure that innocent people are not executed, we need to end the death penalty everywhere and I think we need to start seeing the death penalty, more and more as a matter of racial justice. You know, when we think about the disproportionate numbers of African Americans and other people of color, who are executed in this country, opposed to our white counterparts, I mean, that should be shocking. That should that should lead us all to the conclusion to end the death penalty.

Anne Holsinger 29:56

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our listeners?

CeCe Jones-Davis 29:59

You know the only other thing I want to add is that we’ve talked a lot, obviously about Julius Jones today, and I just want to remind people that his fight isn’t over, that Julius is still, still suffering, that an innocent man is still incarcerated in Oklahoma. And he’s gonna still need our support, his family is going to need our support and so stay tuned and follow Justice for Julius on social media platforms and stay engaged because all of the issues that that are raised in Julius’s situation are broad, and are relevant in so many ways, and so many other people’s cases. And so we want to use our time wisely and really dig in, you know, while while we’re still fighting to get Julius out.

Amanda Bass 30:47

And I would just echo that our fight for Julius isn’t over. I think it’s also important, as CeCe’s already powerfully said, to know that there are a lot of Julius Jones’s in the system, people who are facing execution for the very same reasons that that Julius was facing execution: inadequate representation, prosecutorial misconduct, because of their poverty, their race, junk forensics, all of that. And so I would encourage your listeners to learn about and get involved in those cases as well, because as, as we’ve talked about, it was through elevating people’s individual stories and the issues in their case, that that we have the hope of actually getting decision makers to take those seriously.

Anne Holsinger 31:34

Thank you both for joining us today.

CeCe Jones-Davis 31:36

Thanks so much.

Amanda Bass 31:37

Thank you.

Anne Holsinger 31:38

If our listeners would like to learn more about the Justice for Julius campaign, they can visit To learn more about the death penalty, visit And to make sure you never miss an episode, subscribe to Discussions with DPIC in your podcast app of choice.