The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Facing execution, Julius Jones seeks clemency — with help from an unlikely ally

Julius Jones’s high school friend, Jimmy Lawson, shows a photo of him and Jones, right, on Aug. 6, taken at their John Marshall High School prom in Oklahoma City. Jones, a prison inmate on death row for the 1999 murder of Paul Howell, says he was wrongly convicted. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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OKLAHOMA CITY — For 22 years, Connie Ellison has sought answers to the questions that sprang from the night her boyfriend was murdered in the driveway of his parents’ home. Her questions lingered even after a man was convicted and sentenced to death row for the crime. They have led her to an unexpected place: advocating for the man, Julius Jones, as his case reaches an urgent new phase.

Last week, Oklahoma’s attorney general requested an Oct. 28 execution date for Jones, who was 19 at the time he was arrested for the murder of Paul Howell, Ellison’s boyfriend. Jones, now 41, has spent half his life in prison and maintained his innocence.

After a nearly two-year wait to plead to Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board for a commutation, Jones has arrived at his last real chance to walk free. The board meets Sept. 13 to determine whether it will recommend that Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) grant his commutation. A favorable outcome would commute his death sentence to life and spare him from another execution date; his team hopes he will not only be freed from death row but released on time served.

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In vastly different ways, both Ellison’s and Jones’s lives were altered the night of July 28, 1999, when Howell, a 45-year-old father of two and beloved community figure, was shot in front of his parents’ Edmond, Okla., home in a carjacking gone wrong.

The commutation application submitted last week by Jones’s defense is packed with affidavits, testimonies and exhibits that aim to distill 20 years of information to buttress Jones’s claim of innocence. Among them will be a 13-minute video from Ellison, now 75, that recounts her closeness to Howell and her experience on the prosecution’s side of Jones’s trial.

Ellison’s video also explains that after reviewing evidence and information that wasn’t presented at Jones’s trial and squaring that with what she witnessed as the trial unfolded two decades ago, she views the case against Jones as weaker than ever. Meeting Jones in person was what finally prompted her to speak out.

“I just can’t be silent anymore,” Ellison said in her Oklahoma City living room during an early August interview with The Washington Post. “This is a guy whose guilt is questionable to me and they’re wanting to execute him.”

Just as she was after Howell’s death, Ellison is again wary of a media frenzy that may follow the case. She declined to be photographed for this story and said she was hesitant to speak publicly about her role in Jones’s commutation request, but weighed it against the possibility her contribution could help stop an injustice.

In Oklahoma, the board’s ruling is expected to echo beyond Jones. In the past few years, the state has begun to reassess its historic perch as one of the nation’s top incarcerators and death sentencers. A string of botched executions has kept the state’s death chamber quiet since 2015, and voters have since moved unevenly toward reform. More recently, the murder of George Floyd and the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre have prompted broad reflections on racism, fairness and Black Americans’ and Black Oklahomans’ ability to get justice.

If Jones succeeds in his bid, he would be the fifth person since 1973 to be granted clemency from Oklahoma’s death row.

“Clemency is rarely granted, but it’s granted in extraordinary cases,” said Robert Dunham, who directs the Washington-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. “But if you can say anything about Julius Jones’s case, it is that it’s extraordinary.”

‘We don’t have this backward, do we?’

Jones’s post-conviction lawyers allege his trial was tainted by racial bias and ineffective counsel who disastrously opted not to cross-examine witnesses, air key testimony or show crucial photo evidence. In a 2008 affidavit for the defense, the lead defense attorney in Jones’s murder trial criticized his own performance, cataloguing the failures he believes lost the case for Jones.

Jones’s recent history worked against him, too: At the beginning of college he began shoplifting, stealing clothes and pagers, and things he could sell. Jones admits the wrongdoing but insists those crimes do not make him a murderer. But the behavior remains one of his deepest regrets. The other is not calling police when he suspected he knew the person involved in the crime.

Jones’s defenders say he was framed by Christopher Jordan, a high school acquaintance who was charged as Jones’s co-defendant. The defense said Jordan was the shooter and an accomplice helped him steal the car. Jones, it says, had no part in the crime until Jordan concocted an excuse to stay at Jones’s home after the murder, and planted a gun and bandanna used in the crime. Jordan and his co-conspirators then directed police to Jones’s home and implicated him as the shooter. The three men who testified against Jones are no longer in prison in Oklahoma. Attempts to contact them for this article were unsuccessful.

Ellison recalled at the time she was surprised the DA’s case seemed to rest largely on the testimony of Jordan and his associates. Jordan emerged as the prosecution’s key witness despite his story changing so often during interrogation. According to transcripts, detectives at one point asked Jordan: “We don’t have this backward, do we?”

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Jones’s defense team said the jury was never told about the extent to which Jordan had benefited from implicating Jones; he was ordered to serve the first 30 years of a life sentence. In 2018, Ellison was shocked to learn Jordan had been released — four years ago.

“When I found out he only served 15 [years], I was furious,” she said.

Over the years, several men who served prison time with Jordan or were in pretrial detention with him after the murder said Jordan admitted to shooting Howell and framing Jones. Prosecutors have dismissed those affidavits as the word of “convicted felons,” and citing the unreliability of jailhouse testimony.

Ellison said that view left her questioning when prosecutors decide to value such testimony — like when it helped to convict Jones — and questioned how the deal Jordan cut with prosecutors for a lesser sentence made him more credible or trustworthy than Jones.

Jones’s conviction came during a prolific era for capital prosecutions in Oklahoma County, where the district attorney’s office under “Cowboy” Bob Macy sent 54 people, including Jones, to death row. At least three capital defendants from that time have been exonerated.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater (D) was not in office during Jones’s trial but vigorously defends Jones’s conviction as accurate and just.

Prater, who did not respond to The Post’s request for comment about Jones’s case, has previously noted that appellate courts have rejected appeals by the defense on claims of racial bias and ineffective counsel. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined without comment to hear Jones’s case.

Prater’s other active role is in opposing Jones’s bid for commutation. Jones cleared the first phase of review in March. Days later, Prater sued Stitt (R) and the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to block the governor from granting commutations, alleging conflicts of interest with at least two board members and misconduct.

Prater’s aggressiveness has stunned Jones’s family and supporters.

“The district attorney has said this case is airtight, but he actively tries to seemingly thwart anything that would bring more light to it,” Oklahoma state Sen. George Young (D) told The Post. Young is among the state lawmakers supporting Jones’s commutation bid. Jones asked the senator to be his voice during September’s meeting, since Jones is not allowed to address the board directly because of minor infractions: possessing a cellphone cord (Jones denied it was his) and being put on speakerphone at a rally for him — which officials said was an unauthorized conference call.

“What is it about this case that has made it, in my mind, so personal to [Prater]?” Young asked.

A documentary opens a door

News late last week of Jones’s pending October execution has skewed the hopeful trajectory Jones and his loved ones said they had not felt in years.

In the quietest moments, the years between Jones’s sentencing and the renewed attention to his case, he was quite literally forgotten.

Jones’s mother, Madeline, and sister, Antoinette, told The Post that relatives who had not seen or heard from him assumed he was playing basketball overseas. Some cousins thought he had died.

“It seems like all these years it was nothing that we could say or do,” Madeline Jones said, standing on her front lawn with her daughter.

Their fight for Jones started three days after the murder when police and SWAT teams tore through the family home. Police recovered the murder weapon, which Jones said Jordan probably planted when he asked to sleep over in the days after the murder.

Friends say the family hasn’t entirely recovered from the violent raid; glimpses into the home confirmed signs of it still evident 22 years later.

“If you did not know what the house looked like, you would think somebody took a grenade and blew it up,” said Jimmy Lawson, Jones’s childhood best friend and neighbor.

Jones’s mother was even more blunt: “It was like being raped and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

A break came in 2018: A documentary series produced by actress Viola Davis selected Jones as one of the cases to re-examine. “The Last Defense,” a three-part series, reintroduced Jones’s case at a time when the public was primed to reevaluate old cases through a new lens.

The documentary prompted NBA stars and celebrities to write letters on Jones’s behalf and tweet about his case. Rallies calling for justice in Jones’s case drew people by the hundreds and a movement coalesced in Oklahoma City.

“'The Last Defense’ unsilenced us,” Antoinette Jones said.

To grow the momentum from the documentary, Lawson planned a rally at the Oklahoma Capitol weeks after the series debuted. He has supported Jones since his arrest, throwing himself into learning about legal procedure and keeping attention to Jones’s case alive. He promoted the rally on social media hoping to catch the attention of people who might remember Jones from his days as a high school basketball champ.

Dale Baich, Jones’s federal public defender, suggested Lawson should expect a modest crowd — “25 hippie types,” Lawson said, laughing. When Baich arrived, Lawson estimated there were already 300 people.

Young, the Oklahoma senator, said since the 2018 rally, energy around police reform, the murder of George Floyd and the centennial commemoration of the Tulsa massacre have funneled into Jones’s case law.

“People have started to connect those things. They see the discrepancies in fairness and the way these cases are handled,” Young said.

‘It was a mistake’

Ellison still struggles to describe the sense of loss she felt after Howell’s murder. The crime was terrifying and violent, with Howell approached by a bandanna-clad gunman as his two young daughters and his sister fled to safety. For a year after he died, Ellison visited his grave every day, tending to flowers and watering the grass.

They had been friends long before their relationship turned to romance in the last year of Howell’s life. Ellison cringes at the term “boyfriend”; she and Howell were 53 and 45 respectively, each previously married with children and with successful professional careers. They met in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Ellison remembers noticing Howell, who was tall, handsome and interesting. “Everyone in AA had a crush on him,” she said.

Howell always chatted with Ellison in the evening, but the night of July 28, 1999, he never called. She switched on the TV to see reports that a man was shot in Edmond. Pictured was a familiar driveway.

“When I saw his parents’ house, I knew it was Paul,” she said.

When the murder investigation started, she was still in a haze of grief. She and the family leaned on the Oklahoma County district attorney’s office, which helped them navigate being a murder victim’s surviving loved ones.

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In hindsight, there were questions Ellison might have asked the district attorney as it built its case against Jones, but in the moment, enduring the day-to-day of the trial was enough. And she thought of the prosecutors as their advocates, a relationship she likened to the first time you plan a funeral.

“You just do whatever the funeral home tells you; you buy the most expensive casket, you do the best thing you can for your loved one. You don’t ask any questions. You don’t ask about cost or if there’s another way,” Ellison said. “You’re just trying to get through it.”

Small doubts shaded what Ellison said was her general acceptance at the time of the prosecutor’s case. She remembers noting what an abysmal defense Jones received and how heavily prosecutors relied on the word of Jones’s co-defendants. Even small details, like the fact the judge allowed her to smoke in the clerk’s office on breaks until Jones’s trial lawyer complained, stood out as evidence of soft bias.

Over the years, Ellison would seek out records from the case, including material filed by his post-conviction lawyers — some of which was information that was not argued in Jones’s trial. She reread the trial transcripts and reflected on moments in the case. Then “The Last Defense” aired and further complicated the picture.

For five years, Ellison said she’d have a recurring dream about Howell, who would appear, alive, in a crowd of faces from AA, or people from Edmond. The astonished Ellison would always say, “You’re here!” and Howell would always reply: “It was a mistake.”

She knows it sounds flighty, but the dream has become more poignant in the past six months as she wrestled with whether to speak up on Jones’s behalf. She worries about backlash, that her intentions will be misread and most of all, that it will permanently alienate her from Howell’s surviving family, who she believes still back Jones’s conviction.

Multiple messages and calls left with phone numbers and emails associated with Howell’s three surviving siblings were not immediately returned.

Ellison is confident that Howell and his parents, who are deceased, would oppose execution.

“I feel like he’s saying the arrest of Julius is a mistake,” Ellison said, reflecting on her recurring dream. Howell and his father, Bill, are both gone, but Ellison asked them to send her some kind of sign — “something to help me not go forward if I’m wrong.”

She never got a clear sign, but said she feels a growing sense of peace.

Signed, Mary Smith

When Ellison heard through Howell’s sister about the “The Last Defense” in 2018, she wasn’t yet sure if she’d watch — but she was ready to go straight to the source with some of her questions.

Ellison had resolved to write to Jones and hear what he had to say. Even as doubts about his guilt had crossed her mind, she was, on paper, corresponding with a convicted murderer on death row. She used an alternate address and signed her letters “Mary Smith.” Then she waited.

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Jones’s attorneys did not immediately realize Ellison’s connection to the case and advised Jones not to respond to the mysterious Mary Smith. Ellison continued to write one-way letters until spring of 2020, when he replied.

The two met for the first time in March. For the first time in 20 years, Ellison laid eyes on the man she had once believed was Howell’s killer. Jones, she said, wept after she greeted him. She asked him what happened, what he knew of that July night in 1999. He told her he was not involved and Ellison sensed he shared her sadness about Howell’s loss.

“To meet with you was an awesome blessing,” Jones later wrote in a letter after Ellison’s visit. He apologized for crying and ended with his admiration of her stylish sneakers. Jones was aware what Ellison might bring to his case but told her the decision was hers. “I don’t want to guilt trip you or force you,” he told her.

Ellison had emerged in Jones’s life, using her pseudonym, around the time the defense team was gathering support for his commutation petition. When they confirmed Ellison’s identity, they saw she had a perspective no one had yet heard.

She was at Howell’s bedside the night he was shot, and sat through the entire trial. She was on good terms with prosecutors, who had delivered a conviction. And yet, with no loyalty or obligation to Jones, she questioned his guilt. What did the case look like through her eyes?

Ellison didn’t want to hurt any of Howell’s survivors by supporting Jones. But after finally meeting him face-to-face, she felt at peace with her decision.

As his hearing nears, Jones has written to Ellison more often. Recently he sent her a multicolored card with thick black letters that read: “You’ve got a powerful voice.”

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