Voices: The surprising lessons I learned covering the Julius Jones death sentence for The Independent

For the last month-and-a-half, The Independent has been focused on extensively covering the death penalty. As a newsroom, we have made a commitment to expose the injustices of capital punishment, in the hopes that one day the US ends executions forever. As our reporting has shown, the American death penalty regularly singles out Black people for cruel and unusual punishment and condemns the innocent — all for a process that even families who have gone through the worst hate crimes and terror attacks say hasn’t brought them closure.

The story of Julius Jones underscores all of this. The controversial inmate was on death row for two decades for a 1999 murder he says he didn’t commit, before Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt commuted his sentence to life in prison last week. Jones’s captivating story inspired a nationwide innocence movement, and it taught me that some of the most complicated questions about the death penalty can be found between the headlines.

Journalists can’t resist a good story. As a result, the people we write about in The Independent have usually lived sensational lives. Nathson Fields spent 40 years fighting a wrongful death sentence, exposing a heinous torture ring among Chicago detectives in the process. Julius Jones was a 19-year-old honours student, the center of a feverish small-town manhunt accused of major ethical lapses and racist undertones. But these striking stories have a dangerous appeal.

They can distract us from the equally outrageous story that is the entire criminal justice system. Julius Jones’s story doesn’t just matter because he personally seemed like a decent kid who got into (and was convicted of causing) life-destroying trauma, or because he personally encountered swashbuckling prosecutors eager to notch another execution. No, Oklahoma itself is the real story.

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Oklahoma has nearly the highest Black incarceration rate in the US, and has executed the most people per capita in modern US history. Killers of white people are disproportionately likely to be executed in Oklahoma, while Black people on Oklahoma’s death row are disproportionately likely to be exonerated because they were wrongly convicted.

Liz Bruenig of The Atlantic has argued that innocence cases are an “ethical red herring” that divert resources, both moral and literal, from the “clearer and more comprehensive arguments against the larger problem.” Indeed, the same scourges of racism, crooked policing, junk science, and poverty that impact those in our death penalty coverage impact thousands of other anonymous incarcerated people everyday — problems no less important even if people don’t have a gripping story to tell, or even a shred of doubt about their guilt. Everyone deserves the best shot at justice, even those accused of the worst.

On the flip side, one must never let a comprehensive perspective obscure the fact that the death penalty devastates individual families: those who lost loved ones to violent crime, and those who lost loved ones to lifetime imprisonment or execution.

Every time I spoke with Antoinette or Madeline Jones, Julius Jones’s sister and mother, I could hear the soul-deep exhaustion in their voice. They had had to become international media spokespeople for the worth of Julius’s life. My sympathy extends equally to the Howells, who have had to relive the worst day of their life for two decades, watching as a movement to free a man they still sincerely believe murdered a dear family member becomes a cause célèbre that Kim Kardashian tweets about.

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Both camps feel the current legal-media feedback loop hasn’t heard them in a real way. The Howells have described the social media movement to free Jones as “David versus Goliath,” even though Julius may still never get out of prison. Julius Jones wasn’t able to testify in a court setting for 20 straight years. As one Justice for Julius activist told me, he wasn’t “human again” until he was able to reclaimed that right at a November clemency hearing, after spending more than half his life in prison.

Journalists pop up for the big court hearings, for the execution date, but we don’t have to live an unwanted life in the spotlight. We don’t sit in silence on long drives to prison for visits speaking through a glass barrier, where the Jones family hasn’t been able to touch Julius since he got convicted. We don’t field calls from reporters who want to ask you about watching your dad Paul Howell get shot in the head during a carjacking when you were nine years old in the driveway of your grandparents’ house.

I will leave you readers with a challenge: Don’t let these stories become mere entertainment. If you want a great crime drama for the rush and horror alone, go watch Law and Order.

By now, you’ve learned about the individual lives turned upside down. You’ve learned about the families struggling to carry on. You’ve learned about the broken systems weighing life and death on biased scales. So what are you going to do about it?

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