Support for Julius Jones Continues at Wednesday Evening Faith Event
Photo taken by Tyler Stark
The Oklahoman: Witness to Innocence Exonerees share their stories in support of Julius Jones
By: Carla Hinton
September 3, 2021
Several former death row inmates visited Oklahoma recently to share their personal stories as a way to raise awareness and support for Julius Jones.
The exonerees with Witness to Innocence were among the latest in a lengthy list of people supporting Oklahoma death row inmate Jones and his quest for clemency. Jones, 41, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 2002 for the 1999 killing of Edmond businessman Paul Howell.
Two of the exonerees were Herman Lindsey and Gary Drinkard, of Alabama. They were among the Witness to Innocence group that spoke a gathering on Wednesday at Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene. Another man, Juan Melendez, said he lived in Florida. Nancy Vollertsen, the lone woman and Oklahoman on the panel, spoke on behalf of her late brother Greg Wilhoit, who was exonerated after serving five years on death row.
The Witness to Innocence group said they wanted Oklahomans to hear about their struggles and their battles against a criminal justice system that is described as too often biased against people of color and individuals from from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. The nonprofit Witness to Innocence, based in Philadelphia, is dedicated to abolishing the death penalty in the U.S. The national group is made up of exonerated former death row inmates.
Vollertsen said her brother served five years on death row before he was exonerated. She said he was wrongfully convicted of the 1985 murder of his wife. Vollertsen said Wilhoit missing out on raising his two daughters was among the injustices that came with the wrongful conviction but that he enjoyed sharing his story through the Witness to Innocence organization before his death in 2014.
"For Greg, it just gave him a purpose for his life ... so that he could tell people about the problems in the death system," she said.
Drinkard said he was wrongfully convicted for killing a man, and he wanted to speak out about what happened to him "to educate the public about the atrocities of the death penalty."
"We're here to help Julius as much as we can," he said.
Jones has maintained his innocence, and a groundswell of support for him has emerged over the last several years. Faith leaders across the state and from other parts of the country, entertainers, high-profile athletes and organizations have spoken out or sent letters urging state leaders to grant him clemency.
While Jones' supporters have questioned his conviction, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater has said the campaign effort to see Jones freed is based on misinformation. Prater sent a letter to the Pardon and Parole Board where he shared details of Jones's criminal history before the murder and the evidence against him.
Mike Hunter, former attorney general, also spoke out on Jones' case while he served in office. Hunter also said the facts of the case have been obscured by misinformation, and he released a summary of the trial transcript saying that it included "overwhelming evidence" of Jones' guilt.
Meanwhile, in his August request to resume executions in Oklahoma, Attorney General John O'Connor asked that an execution date of Oct. 28 be set for Jones. The inmate's legal team is asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to disregard O'Connor's request.
'A picture of a person'
Lindsey, a Witness to Innocence board member, said he spent three years on death row for the 1994 murder of a woman. He said he shares his story because such first-hand accounts help the general public understand how people can be wrongfully convicted of a crime.
"We actually try to paint a picture of a person for people to see because sometimes when someone tells somebody something about the death penalty, it's like the attention is not so tight," he said. "But when you have the actual death row person, they seem to get a little bit more attention and their words touches them."
Minister Keith Jossell, a spiritual adviser for Julius Jones and national prayer forum director for the Justice for Julius coalition, said the recent event in Oklahoma City was among a series of activities leading up to Jones' second commutation hearing before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on Sept. 13. The exonerees' presentation was conducted both in-person and virtually.
"Thank you guys for being here and leaning into the Justice for Julius campaign," he told the Witness to Innocence speakers and members of the audience, which included Jones' mother, Madeline Davis-Jones, and his sister, Antoinette Jones.