The chance viewing helped Wesley connect the Jones case to a confession he said Jordan made in 2009 while they were housed together at the Arkansas prison, Brickeys: “My co-defendant is on death row behind a murder I committed.”
As Oklahoma looks to resume executions after a six-year hiatus, Jones’s attorneys said Wesley’s testimony is the latest compelling evidence supporting their case that Jones was framed and wrongfully sent to death row. The defense is hoping the testimony will bolster Jones’s plea for a commutation, which the state’s Pardon and Parole Board will review on Monday.
Wesley’s accounts are taken from letters to Jones’s defense team and three videotaped statements, all made between July 2020 and February 2021, which were shared with The Washington Post.
More than a decade before Wesley knew Jordan as Jones’s co-defendant, he knew him as a friend; the two bonded over shared commissary work and basketball. Occasionally, when things got heated on the court, Jordan would erupt with, “I’ll f--- you up like I did that man,” Wesley recalled in a 2020 letter provided to The Post. He wrote it off as trash talk.
But during the fall of 2009 when Wesley mentioned his own robbery charges, he recalled Jordan “just decided to spill his guts to me.” Jordan didn’t detail the shooting or say when and where it occurred, leaving Wesley unsure of what to make of the admission. Eleven years later, as he watched the ABC docuseries “The Last Defense,” he finally had his answer.
An ‘Old Testament’ ethic at work
Paul Howell was behind the wheel of his sand-colored GMC Suburban the night of July 28, 1999, as he pulled into his parents’ driveway in Edmond, Okla., with his sister, Megan Tobey, and his two young daughters in tow.
As he pulled to a stop, a man approached with a gun. Tobey and the girls ran, but the man shot Howell, killing him. Before the man drove off with Howell’s car, Tobey caught a glimpse of him and later provided what would be the sole eyewitness account: She described a Black man with a red bandanna on his face and a stocking cap covering all but an inch of hair peeking out.
Jones’s post-conviction lawyers cite the detail as one of several facts that point to Jordan being the shooter — he wore cornrows that curled past his neck — and not Jones, whose hair was close-cropped.
Efforts to reach Tobey, Howell’s daughters and their relatives for comment were unsuccessful.
Tom Cheney covered crime and cops for the now-defunct Edmond Sun in 1999 and remembered the murder’s impact on the community as “huge.” Howell, 45, was well known in town, active in his local church and worked in insurance.
“When there’s violent crime in the a community the size of Edmond, it gets noticed,” Cheney said. In the late ’90s, Edmond was conservative, Christian and backed harsh prosecutions.
“There’s kind of an Old Testament ethic at work here — ‘You kill my guy, I’m gonna kill your guy,’ ” Cheney said of the attitude toward capital punishment.
No one embodied that attitude more than the Oklahoma County District Attorney, “Cowboy” Bob Macy, who died in 2011. Notorious for being one of the most prolific death penalty prosecutors in America, Macy sent 54 people to death row in his two-decade tenure — including Julius Jones.
Not all of those prosecutions have held up. Courts found prosecutorial misconduct in a third of Macy’s capital convictions, according to a 2016 report by Harvard’s Fair Punishment Project. Three people Macy sent to death row have been exonerated.
“Oklahoma County is among the five worst of the worst counties in the U.S. in terms of wrongful capital convictions,” said Robert Dunham, who leads the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center.
Trial, and errors
A growing recognition that the ’90s tough-on-crime era was disproportionately harsh toward Black death penalty defendants in the South has led to cases such as Jones’s getting newly scrutinized as a possible wrongful conviction.
Dale Baich, Jones’s federal public defender representing him post-conviction, said ineffective counsel enabled the prosecution to get away with using questionable police informants, secret deals and bad forensics. At the same time, Jones’s original lawyers failed to mount a basic defense, such as putting Jones or his family on the witness stand.
Antoinette Jones, Julius’s younger sister, said the whole family was at her parents’ home the night of the murder. They ate dinner together and the siblings played Monopoly. She recalled Julius’s dismay that night when he discovered his brother had eaten most of the cookie cake left over from his recent birthday celebration.
“I remember because he was pacing, saying, ‘I can’t believe he ate my cake, he’s always eating my stuff. I can’t wait to tell Momma,’” Antoinette Jones told The Post.
She signed an affidavit, but a jury never heard her or her family testify; Baich said Jones’s original lawyers felt a jury wouldn’t believe an alibi provided by the defendant’s family.
Jones’s trial lawyer was a public defender who had no capital murder trial experience when he was assigned Jones’s case. David McKenzie acknowledged he gave ineffective counsel in a 2008 affidavit and detailed at least five major failures he made in Jones’s 1999 trial.
“If I had presented the photographs of the confessions and the prior statements, I believe Mr. Jones would’ve been acquitted,” McKenzie wrote.
Wesley, Jordan’s friend from the Arkansas prison, was not the first person to recount a confession by Jordan: Manuel Littlejohn and Christopher Berry separately heard confessions from Jordan while detained with him in the Oklahoma County Jail following the 1999 murder.
“Mr. Jordan also said that because he was the first to talk to the police, he was getting a deal and would not get the death penalty,” Berry wrote in a 2004 affidavit.
Baich said Jones’s trial was tainted by racial bias, including an arresting officer and a member of Jones’s nearly all-White jury who both allegedly used the “n-word” against Jones. In Jones’s clemency application, he said the prosecution leaned into stereotypes of young Black men as inherently dangerous.
Jones’s sister said her brother was ultimately betrayed by his once most-endearing quality.
“He thought everyone was your friend,” Antionette Jones said. “He has this ability to want to help people and not think about the consequences.”
Their parents stressed good grades and athletics to keep them busy. It paid off for Julius, who was a strong student-athlete and won a partial academic scholarship to the University of Oklahoma.
Jones was not particularly close with Jordan, his future co-defendant, but they knew each other through basketball. After his first year in college, Jones started to make decisions he now regrets, his family and lawyers said: petty theft, traffic violations and spending more time with Jordan.
The summer of 1999, the two hung out together, usually offering rides if the other was having car trouble. “It was almost like a relationship of convenience,” Baich said; Jones was clearly smart, but perhaps not street-wise.
“He’s the kind of person who would be generous and would give someone the benefit of the doubt,” Baich said.
Jones and Jordan saw each other a few times after the night of July 28, culminating with Jordan asking Jones to help him after locking himself out of his grandmother’s home. Jones brought Jordan back to his parents’ house. While Jones was downstairs on the phone, Jordan was upstairs ditching a gun wrapped in a red bandanna in Jones’s bedroom, his lawyers say.
The next morning, Jordan was gone.
A cause ‘celeb’
Jones’s case had languished in semi-obscurity outside Oklahoma for years until last year, when the ABC documentary and racial justice protests after the death of George Floyd drove new interest in the case.
Celebrities have rallied to Jones’s defense in the past year, as well, including Viola Davis, who co-produced the documentary; Kim Kardashian West, who visited him in prison; and NBA star Blake Griffin, whose father coached both Jones and Jordan in youth basketball in Oklahoma in the ’90s.
The Oklahoma attorney general and Oklahoma County district attorney have chafed at the celebrity interest in the Jones case and accuse his defense lawyers of leveraging Jones’s newfound recognition to manipulate and mislead the public.
“The last few years, Julius Jones and his attorneys have engaged in a coordinated and alarmingly successful campaign of misinformation,” Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater complained in a letter sent Monday to the state Pardon and Parole Board. His office stands by Jones’s conviction.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has echoed the district attorney’s view dismissing the two earliest witness allegations that Jordan confessed as unreliable jailhouse testimony. On Wednesday, Hunter’s office had not yet reviewed Jordan’s alleged 2009 confession.
“This statement was conveniently not disclosed until the day before the state’s protest letter regarding Jones’s request for clemency was due,” Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for Hunter, told The Post via email Wednesday.
Baich, Jones’s defense attorney, said the state is standing by the 1999 trial because it produced the desired outcome despite being what he said is an incomplete presentation of the facts.
“What’s troubling is that the Julius case is getting a lot of attention — rightly so — but if he wasn’t, the facts of the case would still be the same,” Baich said. “Without people shining a light on what happened here, my concern is that his claims of innocence would have just been ignored.”
He said Jones has no more appeals and that the defense is procedurally barred from presenting new information to the court. “The commutation process is it.”
The hearing already is proving contentious.
Late Thursday, Prater demanded that Pardon and Parole Board member Adam Luck recuse himself from Jones’s Monday hearing and accused Luck of “bias.”
The source of Prater’s complaint: Luck retweeted Kim Kardashian West (“one of Offender Jones’s most high-profile advocates”) in 2019 in a 13-part thread in which Luck detailed Oklahoma’s commutation process. Luck, who regularly tweets updates about cases coming before the board, declined to comment Thursday.
Baich called Prater’s actions a “desperate move.”
“The fact that the district attorney is willing to go to such lengths to tamper with this process and deny Julius a fair hearing is deeply disturbing,” Baich said.