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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

John Thompson: Save My Former Student’s Life

John Thompson: Save My Former Student’s Life | Diane Ravitch's blog

John Thompson: Save My Former Student’s Life

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, makes an urgent appeal to save the life of his former student Julius Jones.
He writes:
I just watched the rebroadcast of ABC’s “20 20” documentary, “The Last Defense,” about my former student, Julius Jones, who is on Death Row even though he’s probably innocent. It was an abridged version that left time to update the case’s developments over the last two years. It refuted the claims at a recent press conference by Oklahoma Attorney General Robert Hunter that the evidence still says that Jones murdered Paul Howell in front of his children, while carjacking his Suburban. (I also appeared in the documentary.)
As I will explain, there is no hard evidence that Jones committed the crime, and there is plenty of evidence that my other former student, Chris “Westside” Jordan shot Mr. Howell. Closing a documentary which revealed glaring miscarriages of justice, the producer, Scott Budrick says, “I don’t think there is anyone … who can say Julius Jones received a fair trial.”
The criminal justice system has always been torn between the ideal that the defendant is “innocent until proven guilty,” and the prosecutors’ real world commitment to winning. Individual district attorneys operate in a system where 90% or more of cases must be settled with a plea bargain. If fairness was the overriding principle, too many defendants would go to trial and the system would be overwhelmed.
The juxtaposition of A.G. Hunter’s attack on the “Justice for Julius” movement and “The Last Defense,” with the outrages revealed in the documentary, leads me back to the belief that district attorneys like the late “Cowboy Bob” Macy are a huge problem. The even bigger problem isn’t the individual prosecutors, but how the system creates a law enforcement culture where winning is the priority.
For instance, A.G. Hunter has been very effective in presenting the case, as it existed in 2002, against Jones. There is nothing wrong with Hunter visiting with the Howell family and, like the defendants repeatedly have, saying that the family’s suffering must be acknowledged. And trial attorneys routinely cross that line with emotional arguments personalizing the case, as opposed to presenting evidence in a balanced manner.
However, Hunter went too far when he told the press conference, “I’m here today as an advocate for the late Paul Howell and his family … They are the victims in this case, make no mistake about it, and the pain of their loss is revisited with each misguided public appeal on Mr. Jones’ behalf.”
Then Hunter skillfully repeated the evidence that was presented to the jury and subsequent appeals judges. As the defense acknowledged, if that was all that was known about the horrific murder, a guilty verdict would be understandable. The problem is that the attorney general, being a loyal team member, ignores the large body of evidence that has been discovered and compiled over the last decade.
Moreover, Hunter released the trial transcript, but he didn’t seek to release the evidence which mattered the most – the prosecution’s trial record file.
And that leads to the reason why Jones is on Death Row. The high-profile investigation was guided by two police informants, who were both facing long sentences for other crimes.
The experienced prosecutors skillfully appealed to the jurors’ emotions. I doubt the district attorney’s office was surprised to hear the jury foreman tell “20 20” that, in a case like that one, you “go with your heart more than anything else.” The juror trusted “what you felt in your gut.” When delivering the verdict, the juror “felt right.”
Jones and his attorneys had always admitted that he had not been perfect, and he had committed nonviolent offences. But Hunter said that Jones’ “criminal history was replete with the use and threat of violence: armed robbery, carjackings, assault.”
Jones had not been charged with such crimes, and the D.A. never proved these cases against Jones in court. Instead, they were brought up in the sentencing phase where the state can simply say that Jones did this, he did that, without proof. This is because such claims do not need to have been proven. It is a typical tactic that prosecutors use to frighten juries into imposing the death penalty. If the State had the evidence of violent offenses, the defense asks, why didn’t it file charges back in 1999? Twenty-one years later the A.G. is throwing this out there, trying to make it stick.
The State eventually agreed to a DNA test of a bandanna that was found wrapped around the apparent murder weapon in the Jones’ family home. A.G. Hunter argues that “the major component of the DNA profile matched Jones.” But, Dr. Eli Shapiro did a more complete and nuanced analysis. Seven of the 21 genetic markers were found to be consistent with Jones’ DNA. The Jones defense notes that the finding doesn’t “constitute a match under law enforcement standards.” Moreover, no saliva DNA was found on the bandanna, as would be expected after the gunman shouted into it as the eyewitness testified to at trial.
The biggest problem with the State’s claim is that Jordan came by the Jones’ house the day after the murder, said he was locked out of his grandmother’s house, and spent the night sleeping upstairs where he could have easily planted the bandanna and the gun. And when the police searched the Jones’ house, Jordan was in a police car outside, so he could direct them toward the evidence.
In other words, had all of this DNA evidence been presented at trial, it would not have incriminated Jones in a trial where he was considered “innocent until proven guilty.”
“The Last Defense” includes statements by his public defender, who was inexperienced in murder trials and who acknowledged that he did a “terrible job” of cross examining Chris Jordan, who repeatedly contradicted himself when fingering Julius as the murderer.
The jury did not hear statements by two inmates who said that co-defendant Jordan bragged about the killing and the deal he made to get out of prison in 15 years. Jordon, in fact, was released 15 years into his 30 year sentence.
Neither did the defense attorney call Jones’ family to the stand even though they would have testified that he was visiting their home until about 9:30, the time when the murder was committed in Edmond. His current attorneys explain:
Julius’s trial lawyers claim in sworn affidavits in 2004 that they delegated the investigation of the alibi to an investigator who was untrained and unqualified. This investigator never provided written or taped notes of his supposed alibi investigation
Neither did the Jones defense do an adequate job of distinguishing between Jones, who was photographed just before and just after the murder with close-cropped hair. The witness, Megan Tobey, testified that the shooter had “a half an inch to an inch” of hair sticking out of the bandanna. This is crucial because Jones had close-cropped hair that didn’t fit such a description. Hunter indicates that the defense claimed that the witness said the shooter had “cornrows.” But the Jones defense position is:
She did not testify, as the AG’s Statement misrepresents, that the shooter did not have braids or corn rows. Ms. Tobey also specifically affirmed that the shooter had hair sticking out from both sides and about a half an inch.
Moreover, the defense attorney did not stress the point of how important that testimony was in terms of incriminating Jordan, not Jones.
Finally, at least one juror heard a fellow juror say, “Well, they should just take that n—– out back, shoot him and bury him under the jail.” The juror told the judge about the comments the following day, but the juror was not removed, supposedly because the judge was not told that the N-word was used.
As I rethink the Julius Jones case, and the district attorney’s response, I recall the 1980s when I was a legal historian and when violence in Oklahoma City was so much worse than we could imagine today. Back then, I was one of many who was cautiously optimistic when Bob Macy took office.
My research had focused on Oklahoma County from the 1960s to the 1990s. Clearly, the War on Drugs undermined the progress which I had witnessed. Despite my intense involvement with the inner city, and seeing many abuses of power, it never occurred to me that law enforcement in 1999 could resemble the brutality of 1969. I’m now shocked that today’s prosecutors, who in my experience want to distance themselves from the corrupt violence of Jim Crow Oklahoma, are still refusing to break with the system of the past which deprived Julius Jones of a fair trial.

During either era, however, the publicity that accompanies capital crimes means that death penalty cases bring out the worst in the system. But, this is not 1999 or 2002 when Jones faced trial. We now know far more about the facts regarding that horrible murder and biased prosecution. Because of longstanding practices and the 1980s and 1990s “reforms,” designed to get tougher on crime by undermining defendants’ rights, no jurors, and few or no judges, have looked at the whole story. Julius Jones’ life now depends on the Pardon and Parole Board and the Governor, and whether a majority will commit to justice for Julius, taking a step toward a criminal justice system worthy of our democracy. 
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