Recently, by filing a petition for certiorari in the Supreme Court of the United States, Julius Jones, a black man condemned to death in Oklahoma, threw the legal equivalent of a Hail Mary pass in football: one last desperate, prayerful attempt imploring our legal system to give him a chance – before he’s executed – to present evidence that a juror on his nearly all-white jury said the trial was “a waste of time,” and “they should just take the ni**er out and shoot him behind the jail.”
Poor, black, and behind bars fighting for his life, if the Court doesn’t grant his petition, Jones will, barring clemency, be strapped to a gurney and executed.
That’s what’s already in store for Keith Tharpe, a black man condemned by a Georgia jury that included a racist bigot who called Tharpe a “ni**er” in a sworn affidavit and asserted that “after studying the Bible” he “wondered if black people even have souls.” Tharpe’s petition for certiorari was denied by the Supreme Court on March 18, so Georgia can and undoubtedly will set a new execution date for him soon. Coldly, the Court decided Tharpe’s 21st-century-style lynching can, notwithstanding the merits of his anti-black racism claim, go forward.
Before the Court’s unseemly and unjust denial of cert in Tharpe’s case, I had urged for much, much more. Because “in talking and thinking about Tharpe’s case, and any death penalty case [but particularly ones like Tharpe’s and Julius Jones’s] going forward, we can and should also reflect, much more than we currently do, on the death penalty’s racist roots in America.” (As British death-penalty scholar Dr. Bharat Malkani observed in his 2018 book “Slavery and the Death Penalty: A Study in Abolition,” it’s “widely recognized that capital punishment in the United States of America continues to be imbued with the legacy of slavery.”)
It is no less imperative, no different than it was for Tharpe, for leaders from all walks of life, indeed, for all justice-loving Americans, to raise their voices in protest over Jones’s case. Doing so, and doing so loudly, is the only way to ensure our Supreme Court Justices, as reclusive as they are, are nevertheless aware of the public’s collective outrage over this case.
Likewise, in a May 2018 letter in the New York Times commenting on Jones’s “racially charged trial based on dubious informant testimony – the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases,” Vanessa Potkin, Director of The Innocence Project’s Post-Conviction Litigation, urged: “When the government refuses to reopen these cases, national attention can be the only hope.” Together with Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis and others, Potkin produced a seven-episode docu-series called “The Last Defense” on ABC featuring Jones’s case, the tenuous evidence against him, and the numerous troubling questions about his prosecution.
Discussing the documentary, Jones’s lawyer Dale Baich said: “What ‘The Last Defense’ did was bring the issue of racism in the criminal justice system to the forefront and also this case to national attention, and I think that people are paying attention to that.”
Baich’s hypothesis is about to be tested as the Supreme Court is scheduled to consider Julius Jones’s petition soon. Time has run out in his case. Jones’s Hail Mary, upon which his life and the legitimacy of our rule of law depend, is arching high in the air right now, wobbling precariously after the Court’s fumbled ruling recently in the Keith Tharpe case.
Before Jones’s Hail Mary lands, we as citizens of conscience, no matter what’s happening with Trump, the Mueller report, and all other “viral” news threatening to swallow all available time and energy, must speak out – in newspaper articles, in blogs, on social media, in conversations in the street, and more – we must implore the Supreme Court to act on Julius Jones’s case. Now!