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In response to statewide and national organizing efforts to commute the sentence of Oklahoma death-row inmate Julius Jones, the state Attorney General Mike Hunter told local media that calling attention to Jones’ case brings only pain to the Howell family. By asking the defendant’s family and community to be silent, he’s asking Julius Jones to die quietly.
For decades, former University of Oklahoma student Julius Jones, now 39-years-old, has continually claimed his innocence in the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell. Telling multiple media outlets that the “pain of their loss is revisited with each misguided public appeal on Mr. Jones’ behalf,” A.G. Hunter double-downed on his position that Julius Jones is guilty and that anyone speaking out in support of him is causing pain to the Howell family.
As the state’s top prosecutor, Hunter has accused Jones supporters of manipulating the facts in order to mislead the public to gain support for his commutation and ultimate release. What an ironic point to make, considering attorneys, police officers and other State actors have used their discretion to manipulate facts around Black suspects for centuries, leading the public into supporting arrests, convictions and state-sanctioned lynchings.
Julius Jones’ story is eerily similar to the story of Walter McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx in the Blockbuster movie “Just Mercy.” Like the claims from Jones supporters, McMillian’s capital murder conviction was tainted with racial bias and an ineffective counsel. The Equal Justice Initiative, birthed out of the McMillian case in Alabama, has extensively researched and documented how the death penalty is disproportionately applied to Black Americans.
Scenes from the motion picture film “Just Mercy” featuring Jamie Fox as Walter McMillian and Michael B Jordan as Bryan Stevenson
In Oklahoma, state prosecutors are more likely to call for the death penalty in a crime where the victim is White and less likely to call for it in when the victim is an ethnic minority, according to a 2017 report from the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.
Titled “Race and Death Sentencing for Oklahoma Homicides Committed Between 1990 and 2012,” the report analyzed more than 4,600 homicide cases and found that cases with a White female, White male, or minority female victim are more likely to involve the death penalty than cases with a minority male victim.
For A.G. Hunter to proceed with sentencing another Black man to death in a state known for police killings and mass incarceration is bad enough. But for him to ask Jones’ family to stop speaking is eerily reminiscent of the Minneapolis cops choking the life out of George Floyd, expecting him to suffer in silence.
It’s like the days of Hurricane Katrina, when Black bodies floated through Louisiana streets on national television while the White House did nothing. Or the infamous syphilis study, when Black men were unknowingly exposed to a deadly disease for the curiosity of White scientists.
It’s like the days after the Tulsa Race Massacre when White Tulsans refused to acknowledge or provide insurance for the horrible damage caused to the prosperous Black community of Greenwood. Or the years after, when the city refused to publicize what happened. Or the days of Jim Crow and slavery before that, systems designed to maintain white supremacy in all aspects of society.
It isn’t the prosecutor’s job to find evidence supporting the defendant’s innocence, even if the prosecutor knows that evidence may exist. And in the case of Julius Jones, the Attorney General seems much more interested in closing a case file rather than exploring all the necessary evidence. But when closing a case results in state-sanctioned murder of an allegedly innocent Black man, justice isn’t served. When the law isn’t applied equally to Black people, the only order maintained is that of white supremacy.
The blinders are coming off of the system under which we are policed, revealing the racial and economic biases at its core. In a case such as Julius Jones, riddled with holes, an inadequate defense, and a vocally racist juror, the opinions of Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter aren’t the words of God. He wields the weight of his office as if sainted by the Pope or a direct descendant of Christ’s disciples. But just like anyone else, he’s susceptible to racial biases.
To say that Julius Jones and his supporters should remain silent until the day of his execution is to say that his life isn’t worth looking at all of the evidence, including never-before-heard family testimony confirming he was in fact at home at the night of the murder.
It’s clear by his words that Attorney General Mike Hunter doesn’t believe the life of Julius Jones matters. It’s doubtful whether he believes Black lives matter at all.
Hopefully, Governor Kevin Stitt feels differently. Stitt and Hunter have not always agreed on every issue. But Stitt has the power to immediately commute the sentence of Julius Jones. Doing so would provide the Jones family an opportunity to finally share their side of the story and prove that Oklahoma does believe a Black man’s life matters enough to at least review his case.