OKLAHOMA CITY – Three men whose murder convictions and death sentences were tossed out after they were exonerated spoke out in support of Julius Jones, an Oklahoman tentatively scheduled to be executed on October 28, 2021.
They were joined by the sister of a Tulsa man, now deceased, who was also found to be innocent after being convicted of murder. The group is part of Witness to Innocence, a non-profit advocacy organization created by and for death row exonerees.
At a press conference held at the Oklahoma State Capitol on Wednesday, September 1, each speaker discussed their wrongful conviction and drew parallels to Mr. Jones’ case.
Death row exonerees share their stories
Gary Drinkard, who spent six years on Alabama’s death row, said he was at home – injured and unable to move around – during the time of the murder for which he was convicted. Drinkard said his appointed lawyers had no experience trying criminal cases, did the bare minimum to defend his case, and failed to mention witnesses who corroborated his alibi.
“When I read about Julius Jones – who says he was at home with his family when the murder occurred – I can’t help but think of my case,” said Drinkard. “Julius never got to present his alibi, he was convicted based on incentivized testimony, and his attorneys were wholly unprepared.”
Juan Melendez, who was convicted of murder in Florida and sentenced to death, was released when a transcript was discovered of the real killer confessing to the murder. It was eventually discovered that the prosecutor had systematically withheld exculpatory evidence.
“In my case no justice could be served because the real killer was still out there,” said Melendez. “This could be what has happened in Julius’ case as well, and that’s why it’s so important that we demand the truth and demand total transparency from the district attorney.”
Herman Lindsey spent three years on Florida’s death row after a wrongful conviction in 2006 for a crime which had happened in 1994.
In 2009, Herman was exonerated after the Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously that he had not received a fair trial and there wasn’t enough evidence to find him guilty of anything, much less sentence him to death.
The chief justice also stated that the prosecutor asked questions during the penalty phase of the trial “that were not only improper but were also prejudicial and made with the apparent goal of inflaming the jury.”
Exonerees plead for Oklahoma to commute Julius Jones’ death sentence
Lindsey said he believes race played a major role in Mr. Jones’ conviction. “In my case they just needed a conviction and I was an easy target to pin it on,” said Lindsey.
“Unfortunately, that happens far too often. Official misconduct is the top cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases. If Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board and Governor Stitt do not do something to stop it, Julius Jones could be another innocent Black man killed by state violence.”
Greg Wilhoit spent 5 years on Oklahoma’s death row after being wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife, Kathy, in 1985. The case against Wilhoit was based on the testimony of inexperienced “dental experts.”
Wilhoit’s lawyer appeared in court drunk, vomited in the judge’s chambers, and presented no defense. Later the nation’s top forensic odontologists examined the bite mark evidence and testified that it couldn’t have possibly come from Wilhoit and finally, in 1993, he was cleared of all charges.
He passed away in 2014 without ever having received an apology.
Wilhoit’s sister, Nancy Vollertsen, spoke at today’s press conference to remind the public that wrongful convictions happen in Oklahoma.
“My brother Greg had years of his life taken away and not only lost his wife but also lost the opportunity to raise his two daughters, his home, his livelihood, and his physical and mental health because of an overzealous prosecution and an underprepared defense,” said Vollertsen.
“He and the other 9 men exonerated from death row in Oklahoma are proof that our system in Oklahoma makes mistakes. And the only way to fix those mistakes is to own up to them. That means we need leaders like District Attorney David Prater to stop their knee-jerk attacks on anyone who challenges the system, and to instead seek the truth. In the case of Julius Jones, it means giving him a fair, unbiased hearing to present the case for his innocence. It also requires transparency on the part of the district attorney’s office, which means immediately making their case file on Mr. Jones public.”
Exonerees deliver letter to Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt
After the press conference, the group delivered a letter in support of Jones and his commutation application to the office of Governor Kevin Stitt.
The letter urged Gov. Stitt to ensure a fair clemency hearing and to grant release for Julius Jones.
“Oklahoma leads the nation in executions per capita with 113 executions since 1978. In that time, 10 people have been exonerated in Oklahoma from death row. Half of them are African American despite only 7.8% of Oklahomans being Black,” the letter read.
“Please remember what happened to us, 10 Oklahomans, and 185 Americans when you review the evidence presented by his attorneys.”