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Okla. Death Row Case Raises Questions About Evidence, Systemic Racism

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

An Oklahoma man on death row is making one more bid for his freedom today before the state's Pardon and Parole Board. This case is raising questions over questionable evidence and systemic racism. Quinton Chandler with StateImpact Oklahoma reports.

QUINTON CHANDLER, BYLINE: Julius Jones has been behind bars for more than 20 years. He was convicted of murdering Paul Howell in 1999 and stealing his car. Jones is Black. And Howell was white. Jones' supporters believe he is one more innocent man wrongly convicted. Thirty-eight people have been exonerated in the state over the past 30 years. One of Jones' attorneys, Dale Baich, calls the state's case against his client flimsy.

DALE BAICH: We have identified three individuals who said that the co-defendant confessed to them that he committed the murder and that Julius had nothing to do with the murder.

CHANDLER: There are also questions about Jones' former attorneys. Baich says they didn't have murder trial experience and didn't adequately defend him. Court documents also show there were questions whether a juror referred to Jones with a racist slur. The defense team highlighted that accusation on appeal. They cited researchers who found, in 2017, nonwhite defendants in Oklahoma convicted of murdering white victims were much more likely to receive the death penalty. But state leaders disagree. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has said Jones' supporters are twisting the facts in a campaign to get him out of prison. He says the case against Jones is overwhelming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE HUNTER: Julius Jones is guilty. He murdered Paul Howell, and he needs to be held accountable.

CHANDLER: The case has been profiled in a TV network documentary and has garnered support from multiple celebrities. But this case is messy. It has been litigated for years. Prosecutors point to the murder weapon and a red bandanna the gunman is believed to have worn being found inside the home of Jones' parents. Baich, his attorney, alleges his co-defendant planted that evidence when he spent the night at the house. There are hundreds of pages of court documents arguing for and against Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No justice. No peace. No justice. No peace.

CHANDLER: His name was one of those chanted during Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We are also asking for the granting of clemency and immediate release of wrongfully charged and convicted member of our community, our brother, Julius Jones. And we're asking that Governor Stitt do this immediately.

CHANDLER: If the Pardon and Parole Board agrees to give Jones a hearing, he will be one step closer to freedom. They can only give a recommendation. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has the final say.

For NPR News in Oklahoma City, I'm Quinton Chandler. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.