Julius Jones was a 19 year-old star athlete who ran around with the wrong crowd and then was fingered for murdering an upper class white man Paul Howell in a carjacking gone wrong, but ABC’s new docu-series The Last Defense has over the past three weeks been re-examining the case, tearing holes in the prosecution’s case with one valid question after another including how racism played out in the case. Now, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals is going to take another look at the case, and Jones’ lawyer is crediting The Last Defense for bringing national attention to racism in the criminal justice system.
The show, which aired at 10 PM on ABC was a seven-part series in its first season that ended Tuesday night. On Wednesday, it was reported on ABC’s Oklahoma affiliate KOCO that the Appeals Court decided to take a look at racism as it relates to the Jones’ case.
While putting together the program on Julius Jones, one of the exec producers communicated with one of the jurors on that case who alleged another juror used the N-word in talking about the Jones’ case after the first break in the trial, saying, “Well, they should just take this n***** out back, shoot him and bury him under the jail.” It was something that the lawyers for Jones found in their investigation.
“What The Last Defense did was bring the issue of racism in the criminal justice system to the forefront and also this case to national attention, and I think that people are paying attention to that,” said Dale Baich, one of Jones’ lawyers.
“During our investigation, we learned the juror used the N-word and we asked court of criminal appeals to look at that issue. Initially, it said no on a technicality. We asked the Court to reconsider that decision and it is now looking at the merits of that issue,” said Baich. “If it finds merit in this issue, the Court could do one of three things — one, it could find that Julius’ constitutional rights were violated and he is entitled to a new trial, it could say that an evidentiary hearing is needed or it could dismiss it.”
In addition, the lawyers are also in the process of testing for DNA on a red bandana which is a key piece of evidence that was used against Jones. If Jones’ DNA is not on the red bandana worn by the shooter of Mr. Powell, that could also make an impact on the 1999 case.
In its first season, The Last Defense has taken another look at two cases of inmates sitting on death row who may not have committed the murders they were charged with. The first was a mother accused of murdering her children in Rowlett, Texas. The second is the case of Jones, 19 at the time of the murder of the Edmond, OK businessman. Jones has been sitting on death row now for 19 years and is 38 years old. Both have claimed their innocence.
How frequently do innocent people get executed? A study conducted from 1973 to 2004 and released in 2014 estimated that 4.1% of those on death row in this country are most likely innocent. The study — which no one has ever disputed — examined the estimated rate of innocence. The lead author of that study is Samuel Gross, Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Michigan and Senior Editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. Gross told Deadline that Jones would have been one of those inmates included in the study.
Asked how many innocent people were put to death during the time examined in the study, Gross told Deadline: “We don’t know that number. Hundreds of innocent people were sentenced to death in that period. It’s inconceivable that we somehow managed to keep all of them from being executed, but we can’t say how many.”
And how many people on death row today may be innocent of their crime? Said Gross: “We don’t know that number either, but judging from the overall rate of innocence among defendants sentenced to death that we found in our 2014 study, it has to be at least dozens and could be a hundred or more.”
Said Baish: “A number of prisoners, most are on death row, who are claiming innocence have also reached out to us about their cases and asked how they could get The Last Defense to also look at their individual cases.”
The show has also prompted a flurry of letters from other inmates sitting on death row to the production offices of Academy Award winning actress Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon’s company JuVee Productions (one of the exec producers on The Last Defense).
“JuVee has started to receive letters from people on death row proclaiming their innocence, and I wish we could investigate every one of them, but I’d be an old man with a beard by that time,” Tennon, JuVee’s President of Production and Development, told Deadline. “If there is any glimmer that someone on death row could be innocent, we really need to dig in. It could happen to anyone. There are cracks in the system and people fall through it all the time and it happens way to often. We have to keep shining a light, shining a light.”
The executive producers on The Last Defense are Academy Award winner Davis (Fences), Tennon and TV development and production head Andrew Wang via JuVee Productions; Christine Connor and Lee Beckett for XCON Productions; Vanessa Potkin, Aida Leisenring and Morgan Hertzan for Lincoln Square Productions.
Tennon said the show came together through a number of people, including Lincoln Square, the news division of ABC. “Viola and I are very interested in social justice. We started getting involved in unscripted two years ago and this came up with Lincoln Square and they thought it might be a fit for us,” said Tennon. “Abra Potkin (who was at Lincoln Square at the time) and Vanessa Potkin (at the Innocence Project) also were involved as were Christine and Lee (for XCON). They went out and did all the field work. We decided to investigate this and, really, that’s how it all came together. We hope to do more, but it’s ultimately up to the powers that be. We will tell as many stories as they will allow us.”
The show is one of the most worthwhile and riveting on any network and gives voices to those sitting on death row who may be falsely accused of crimes they did not commit. Although it came in third in the time slot at 10 PM (0.3/1, 1.6M) behind World of Dance and NCIS: New Orleans, it is one of the most well-crafted docu-series on network television, taking complicated cases and engaging the viewer with evidence of guilt or innocence while also explaining the behind-the-scenes machinations so prevalent behind criminal cases.
In the last episode of the docu-series on Jones, racism in Edmond, Oklahoma, said one juror “played a huge role in this jury.” The juror also said it “has weighed on me for a long time” and that the Jones case “has haunted me for years.”
Asked if they were aware of the extent of racism in the criminal justice system before culling together material for The Last Defense, Tennon said that he was aware of racism throughout this country’s history and, yes, also in the legal system. “And,” he said, “if we are going to have a better society, we need to respect each other. People of color in criminal justice system are often considered throw-aways. It’s a shame, we’re all human and we have to agree to disagree, and lift one another if we are going to have a better society. It’s not going to get better by marginalizing people of color.”