By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – A new documentary series, titled “The Last Defense,” executive produced by actress Viola Davis and Julius Tennon, will begin airing on Tuesday, June 12 on the ABC Television Network at 9 p.m. Central Standard Time (CST).
The program takes an in-depth look at the cases of Julius Darius Jones, serving time on Oklahoma’s death row and Darlie Routier on Texas’ death row.
The docu-series features seven one-hour episodes spotlighting the serious flaws in the American justice system and the high rate of exonerated death row inmates.
In 2012, Davis and her husband Julius founded JuVee Productions in order to “give a voice to the voiceless through strong, impactful and culturally relevant narratives.” The couple have partnered with XCON Productions and Lincoln Square Productions for this project.
The world premiere of The Last Defense was held at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27.
Reporter Rachel Lipkin covered the screening, which included the first hour of the Julius Jones case followed by a panel discussion with executive producers Davis, Tennon, Christine Connor (XCON Productions), and Jones’ attorney Dale Baich.
“Participating on the panel was an opportunity to continue to talk about Julius and his wrongful conviction,” Baich said. “The first hour of the Julius Jones story in the docu-series takes a look at Julius’s background, the crime, and how Julius became a suspect and how he was taken into custody.
“I am told the second and third hours will explore police and prosecutorial misconduct in the case, racism in the criminal justice system as well as during Julius’s criminal proceedings, and raises serious questions about whether Julius was wrongfully convicted”
In 2001, Jones, a 21-year-old African-American college student with an academic scholarship, was sentenced to death for the murder of a white father of two, in Edmond, Oklahoma. Now 37 and having exhausted his appeals, Jones still maintains his innocence.
Jones’ attorneys believe that race and the juror’s pre-conceived notions of him, were leading factors in the results of his trial.
“On April 25, 2017, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission issued a report that detailed the numerous systemic flaws within Oklahoma’s system of capital punishment,” Amanda Bass, as assistant federal public defender working on the Jones team of lawyers, said in a statement sent to The City Sentinel. “Appended to the report was a novel study about racially disparate capital sentencing outcomes in Oklahoma.
“This new study demonstrates the troubling fact that Julius was among those who, between 1990 and 2012, were statistically more likely to be sentenced to death in Oklahoma based on the race of their alleged victim alone,” said Bass. “In this way, Julius’s death sentence is unlawful under the Oklahoma and federal constitutions.”
As reported by Patrick B. McGuigan, publisher of The City Sentinel, the referenced new study now published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology – “Race and Death Sentencing for Oklahoma Homicides Committed Between 1990 and 2012” – documents patterns and practices in state death penalty cases that violate federal judicial precedents, specifically binding on lower courts, regarding constitutionally impermissible impact on black defendants.
Authors of the study are Michael L. Radelet (University of Colorado-Boulder), Susan Sharp (University of Oklahoma), and Glenn Pierce (Northeastern University).
Based on this report, Jones asked the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA) on September 22, 2017, to consider whether or not his death sentence violated his rights under the Oklahoma and federal constitutions, but was refused.
“The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals refused his request on the basis of a procedural technicality–yet another example of how that court puts form over substance even in cases where a human life hangs in the balance,” Bass said. “Mr. Jones is now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review that decision and to direct the OCCA to give his constitutional claims full and fair consideration before sanctioning his execution.”
In a supplement to a September 22 filing for Jones, one author of the study emphasized the information is both new (previously unavailable) and relevant to the Jones case. These points are made anew in the writ of certiorari filing at the U.S. Supreme Court.
According to Bass, the Julius’ case has now been reconferenced, or deferred until a later date, in the Supreme Court for the seventh time.
156 individuals have been exonerated from death row in the United States since 1973.
Vanessa Potkin of Lincoln Square Productions and attorney at the Innocence Project said, “We know through the exonerations cases that many types of evidence that are used in courts today, and to send people to death row, are unreliable.’
“When you’re facing an execution, and that execution is carried out, and we later find out that you’re innocent… there’s no undoing that wrongful conviction,” Potkin added.
Davis said The Last Defense hopes to shine a light on these case discrepancies for viewers and potential jurors.
“It’s not a new light. It’s just a light,” said Davis, an Academy-Award winning actor. “A light where things have always been eschewed, it’s just when we choose to see it.”
Tennon added, “We’re giving a voice to those who may not have a voice so we as a general public can look and say ‘wow, that could be me too.”
Executive producer Aida Leisenring of Lincoln Square Productions said, “The more we’re able to educate them about the DNA evidence and about informant testimony and how it has its flaws, the more their ears will perk up when they’re listening to those kinds of witnesses. And so, we hope to help on a mass level, as opposed to one person at a time.”
Potkin said she hopes that viewers will “understand that just because you’re convicted does not mean that you’re guilty.
The first four episodes of the Last Defense will examine the case of Darlie Routier, who is on death row in Texas for the 1996 murder of her two young sons, a crime she insists she did not commit. Forensic experts have disputed the results of the state’s case.
For updates, visit The Last Defense Twitter page.