Why Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook and other NBA stars fought to save Julius Jones

3:44 PM

The story was first published in June of 2020. On Thursday, Julius Jones' death sentence was commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

JULIUS JONES has been living in H Unit for 18 years.

He's on death row, serving time for a crime he maintains he didn't commit, in a cell with 53 other people in two rows inside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

Jones was found guilty of murder in 2002. The businessman was shot in the head while sitting in a tan Suburban in his parents' driveway. There were shell casings at the scene. Megan Tobey was the only person who saw it.

Jones was arrested after a three-day search for a young black male wearing a white shirt, a skull or stocking cap, and a red bandana.

Jones said in his clemency report that he was not involved in the crimes that led to the death of Howell. I have been on death row for 20 years for a crime I did not commit, but I did not witness.

Jones requested that his sentence be commuted to time served. As soon as this fall, Jones is eligible for an execution date, as he has exhausted every appeal.

The Julius Jones Coalition, a group composed of family, friends and community organizers pursuing Jones' innocence, has gathered support in recent months as NBA stars, including Russell Westbrook, and Baker Mayfield, wrote letters to the governor.

Each letter pointed to the wrong person on death row and led to Jones' conviction.

The conviction of Jones was "tainted by a deeply flawed process", wrote the long-time face of the Oklahoma City Thunder who is now with the Houston Rockets. I join with many voices to express sadness and profound concern regarding his conviction and death sentence.

The name recognition of the athletes, all of whom have strong ties to Oklahoma, is something that organizers hope will make a difference. Oklahoma City's Black Lives Matter chapter has included a commutation for Jones in a list of demands presented to Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt.

The goal for those fighting for Jones' freedom has remained the same: show the Pardon and Parole Board there is a reason to consider his clemency and get it to the governor for approval.

I didn't realize the impact people could have in making sure justice is served. I'm willing to do anything. The man is named Blake Griffin.

The state's bungling of two executions in the last two years helped propel Jones' case. The executions in Oklahoma were put on hold after a full review of the prison's procedures and the resignations of two prison employees.

The state plans to resume executions this year. Jones will be one of the first in line, according to his legal team.

The death chamber is a hundred feet from Jones' cell. It was the site of more than 100 executions in the 1950s.

Three cream-colored phones were added to the operations area as a result of the renovations, which are on the other side of a door leading into the execution room.

The line out of the prison is labeled "external extension." "Internal extension" is a line into the execution room to let the warden know it's time to start.

The last phone hangs from the Governor's office.

Maya Moore's quest for justice is extraordinary.

Julius Jones won a state championship in his sophomore season at John Marshall High School.

The GRIFFIN BROTHERS were in the gym at John Marshall High School. Both Taylor andBlake watched in awe as their father led the basketball team.

"That was like my prime years of being obsessed with basketball, begging my dad to go to every practice, because I wanted to play for the Pistons," said the Detroit Pistons player. We would go to all the home games. The guys on my dad's teams were my heroes.

One of the future All-Star's favorite players was Jones, a combo guard 10 years older than Blake.

He played with a certain swagger and charisma. The guys that made the game look easy stood out to me.

"We looked up to him," Taylor said. He was one of my dad's players.

Jones was a good teammate and a leader, according to Tommy. As a sophomore, Jones was a part of an incomprehensible state championship team, and as a junior, he became a role player.

Tommy said that he was liked by the players on the team and that he was always doing his job. He was a good person to have around.

Tommy has eight state championship in Oklahoma, with three stops, including Oklahoma Christian School, where he is the head coach.

The head coach, Gail, Taylor,Blake, and Tommy are posing for a picture at Oklahoma senior day in 2009. Julius Jones was a teacher at John Marshall High School.

Nobody could play for him. Discipline and Fundamentals are two areas of strength for Jones.

Jones always found the open man. Jimmy Lawson, Jones' high school teammate and best friend, said that Jones was a great passer.

They played basketball together in high school. Jones wanted to go to the University of Oklahoma even though he was offered a few scholarships to play football and basketball.

He had an academic scholarship to the College of Engineering at OU. He was going to join the basketball team in the fall of 1999. Tommy was going to be there for him.

"I would've jumped right on that," he said.

He never got the chance. Jones was arrested. When he saw his former player's face on TV, he was watching the news. He thought it was a different Julius Jones.

He remembered thinking that it couldn't be the Julius. He had never shown any of those types of characteristics.

The character witness list had Tommy Griffin on it, but he did not testify in the original trial. Tommy lost track of the case after Jones' conviction. The docuseries "The Last Defense" highlighted issues surrounding Jones' trial, which his sons didn't know about.

"I was in shock after watching that, like everybody else," he said.

After the documentary ended, he called his dad. He wanted to help. It came from KimKardashian West, the reality star turned criminal justice reform advocate.

To start, the governor of Oklahoma and the Pardon and Parole Board should be supported by a letter written by Griffin.

"I don't pretend to know the ins and outs of the justice system," he said. I know that it would be a tragedy and shame for another innocent person to be jailed and put to death.

Scott Budnick, producer of the upcoming legal drama "Just Mercy," along with local PR firms, all using connections to collect influential voices, have played a significant role in the letter-writing campaign.

It was not the only letters from the celebrities. Bryan Stevenson is the author of "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption," the memoir that the film is based on. It was letters from people.

Legal analysts caution that celebrity causes don't always generate much of a reaction from judges and elected officials, but they do carry weight with the public in Oklahoma.

Wes Lane, the former Oklahoma County District Attorney, said that crowd-think has always played its role in shaping culture for both the good and the not-so-good. The Pardon and Parole Board or the governor have a challenge in deciding what the right thing to do is, regardless of what seems popular.

The role race may have played in both the trial and the sentencing is something all the players can't ignore.

"You're not given a fair chance, you're not given a fair shake at life in that trial, that's what I mean," he said. Growing up a minority in a predominantly white state is not easy. I don't think it would be different if he were white, but there is a chance.

Police searched his family's home before he was arrested. The siding was torn off. The windows were broken. The blinds were torn down. Rooms were trashed. Clothes were removed from drawers. The Mattresses were cut and flipped. Picture frames were damaged.

Jones' brother said in the documentary that it wasn't just, "We're doing our job." They were sending a message. It was hate.

Jones was arrested the next day and taken to the police department, but before he got there, the arresting officer told him to get out. Jones noted in his clemency report that Fike said to run and took his handcuffs off.

Jones said that if he moved, he would be shot and killed.

The allegation was denied by the police department.

It's disturbing to hear that a juror used the N-word when referring to Julius, yet remained on the jury. Russell wrote a letter to Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt.

A claim of a racist juror being involved in Jones' trial was rejected by the Supreme Court. The alleged comments were made by another juror, who sent a message to Jones' legal team saying that juror Jerry Brown had said that the trial was a waste of time and that they should shoot him.

Jones said in his clemency report that he was tried by a jury that included at least one racist. I never had a chance.

She went to the judge with the information the next day.

"Beyond the obvious flaws of the trial, another issue that continues to weigh on me is the obvious racial bias that permeated Julius' arrest, prosecution, and conviction," wrote former Oklahoma and current Cleveland Browns quarterback, Baker Mayfield in his letter.

He said that every American should be guaranteed a fair and impartial trial. It is not possible to conclude that Julius received fair and impartial treatment when he was called the N-word by the arresting officer and a juror called him the N-word.

The trial record does not contain a racial slur. The judge asked the jury that included only one black member to remain impartial, and the trial continued.

"To hear that a juror referred to Julius as a 'n-word' while on the jury is disturbing to me," the letter said.

Chris "Westside" Jordan was a high school teammate of Jones at John Marshall, and the two remained acquaintances after graduation.

At trial, Jordan changed his story to say he never stayed at Jones' house after the murder. In the documentary, the Jones family said that Jordan and Julius slept on the couch in the upstairs bedroom.

Police zeroed in on Jones and Jordan as suspects after three days after the murder. Jordan was in the back of a squad car when police searched the Jones' home. There was a gun, wrapped in a red bandana, found in a crawl space.

Jordan told detectives that he might have loaded the murder weapon, after seeing Howell get shot and drop to the ground. His story changed during the trial. Jordan testified that he only heard a gunshot and never saw the gun.

Young wrote that his co-defendant changed his story six times when interviewed by the police. Julius's attorneys were woefully unprepared and failed to cross-examine the co-defendant regarding his inconsistencies.

According to the transcripts, Jordan's testimony was not perfect, so the detectives asked him in one session, "We don't have this backwards, do we?"

Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester has been Julius Jones' home for 18 years.

Jordan was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 30 years after pleading guilty to first-degree murder.

Police didn't test the bandana for genetic material at the time. Jones' post-conviction team pushed for the bandana to be tested in 2018, but the results didn't help their case: Jones' DNA was found on the bandana.

Those defending the murderer spread misinformation and lied about the evidence. The results of the Oklahoma County District Attorney's race were announced in the year. The light pierces the dark lies.

According to signed affidavits from two inmates, Jordan bragged in the Oklahoma County Jail that he was the man who killed Howell. One of them was on death row. The other was sentenced to life without parole. Neither was given anything in return for the information.

Littlejohn said that Jordan bragged that he hid the gun in the attic of the Joneses' home and that he didn't do it. Jordan said he was getting out after 15 years, not 30.

Jones' attorneys didn't mention that Julius' co-defendant bragged to fellow inmates that he had committed the murder, not Julius," Young wrote.

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals denied Jones any relief after determining that neither of the witnesses would have been reliable.

Jordan was released from prison without parole. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The person who killed her brother was a young black man wearing a white shirt, a red bandana and a black skull or stocking cap. There was more than one piece of information. She said the man had a piece of hair sticking out from his cap.

Jones was stopped for reckless driving nine days before the death of Howell. Police took a booking photo. Jones had short hair. Jordan's hair was always in cornrows.

The sister of Howell was cross-examined and asked if she was sure about the hair description. She said she was.

The jury didn't see the photo of Jones.

"Julius' public defenders lacked the resources, expertise and motivation to fight for his life," wrote Westbrook in his letter. His legal team failed to present a photo of Julius taken nine days before the crime, which would have dramatically contradicted the witness description.

Russell and Trae wrote letters to join the fight to save Julius Jones.

After completing his freshman year at OU, JONES lived with his parents for the summer.

Jones' family said he was eating spaghetti and playing Monopoly with his siblings when he was murdered.

"Julius was sentenced to death in a trial rife with error and failure, putting into question the reliability of his conviction", wroteBlake Griffin. I am concerned that his original attorneys did not present an adequate defense for Julius. The jury didn't hear that the Jones family was having a game night at the time of the crime and that Julius was present.

The alibi was not believed to hold up against cross examination after the lawyers reviewed the details of the family's story.

"We had an uphill struggle," said McKenzie in the documentary. You don't have a lot of time to work in the public defender's office. I'm not sure what my caseload was, but I'm pretty sure it was more than 70 or 80.

The state rested its case on the sixth day of the trial and the defense had time to present their case. The defense rests, said McKenzie.

They didn't call witnesses.

Cece Jones-Davis watched the documentary two years ago and felt compelled to get involved. She started gathering signatures for the petition on the Justice For Julius Jones website after helping build out the Julius Jones Coalition.

The petition had more than 220,000 signatures a month ago, which was good news for Jones-Davis. She thought they were cooking with grease when they hit 150,000.

Jones-Davis and her team believed that the number of signatures could make a difference.

The letters were released. Jones' petition has over 5 million signatures.

Jones-Davis said it was a demonstration of the power and will of the people. There are people paying attention. There are people who feel the same way and hope that Oklahoma takes this seriously.

The Jones family was working behind the scenes to tell Julius' story, but they didn't get a lot of support. The Oklahoma chapter of the Innocence Project doesn't handle death row cases. The docuseries was the beginning of a movement and it has culminated at this moment with a renewed national focus on criminal justice and racial inequality.

This is it. "We've got the energy," he said. With the current environment and a focus on social injustice, it's inspired it even more.

The case is working to our advantage because everybody is screaming justice now.

James Ridley of Devoted Media and his best friend, Jimmy Lawson25, were at the OKC protest to support the movement and lift up justice for Julius.
June 12, 2020 is justice for Julius.

Jones doesn't understand the star power of the players. He knows how much their voices carry.

Jones was very honored. "And grateful," he said. I am very grateful to know that players of his stature are fighting for his freedom. He couldn't be happier. That's huge.

The impact of signatures and letters on the Pardon and Parole Board is unknown. Stitt commuted 450 sentences in November alone, making him a strong voice in criminal justice reform. 10 Oklahoma death row inmates have been cleared.

"To have someone of that magnitude like Russell Westbrook to say, 'Here's my voice, I'm fighting for Julius as well,' and then of course the Oklahoma City legend himself, is huge," he said. It's a huge blessing to have Trae Young speak on Julius' behalf.

"With those three guys stepping up, it's probably going to inspire some of the others to take a look and say, 'You know what, we're in this time of this social injustice movement'."

The letter campaign isn't the final push for the Griffins. To make the case for Jones, he is willing to fly to Oklahoma to meet people face-to-face.

"I didn't realize how much impact people could have in making sure justice is served," he said. I'm willing to do anything.

The people fighting for Julius Jones' freedom hope the governor listens to them.