ABC's 'The Last Defense' profiles Julius Jones' current legal battle to stay alive
Malcolm Savage, Julius Jones and Robin Bruno. Disney ABC Press.
Basic cable has come through with another compelling true-crime documentary that makes for must-watch viewing.
ABC’s The Last Defense is an anthology series of sorts focusing on death row inmates and the cases that got them there. One of the featured cases occurred in my backyard, so to speak.
There was quite a bit of buzz around my local courthouse regarding the three-part documentary involving Julius Jones. The case is not so far removed from our memories, and many of the players are still involved in the court system to one degree or another. The series ran in July. Everyone willing to watch was forced to stare back into the eyes of a flawed system we personally experience every day.
The first season of the The Last Defense focuses on the cases of Darlie Routier and Julius Jones. The seven-episode season is split into four-part (Darlie) and three-part (Julius) segments. The most recent treatment revolved around Jones, who was charged in 1999 with first-degree murder. He was tried by jury in Oklahoma County District Court, and he was convicted and sentenced to death in early 2002. Nearly 20 years have passed since the crime, and Jones’ story is now national news.
The first episode involving Jones lays out the facts in detail, so I’ll quickly summarize. At the time of the murder, Jones was a young black man accused of killing a white businessman (in a predominantly white area of the Oklahoma City metro) during an alleged carjacking. The only witness was the deceased’s sister, and she gave a very vague and generic description aside from a certain hair type and the specific recollection of a red bandana.
After a hot and heavy investigation that circled around career informants and plenty of people willing to point the proverbial finger, Julius Jones was pegged as the shooter. One of local law enforcement’s go-to snitches led them to another person with pending charges who was more than willing to put the blame on another man. After taking witness statements, the investigators latched on to Christopher Jordan as the driver in the carjacking. Christopher Jordan identified Julius Jones as the shooter, but that crucial fact was never admitted at trial.
Amanda Bass—an assistant federal public defender currently representing Jones in his petition for writ of certiorari filed before the U.S. Supreme Court—noted how integral the information was: “significantly, the following day, both Ladell King (one of the informants mentioned earlier) and Christopher Jordan were directing the police’s attention to the home of Julius Jones’ parents as a place that would have incriminating items of evidence. Chris Jordan was in the back of a police vehicle talking to detectives who were telling people inside the home where to potentially look. This makes us highly suspicious of what exactly Chris was doing in that room the night before.”
To further seal the prosecution’s case, evidence tying Jones to the murder was found in the second-story attic crawl space of Jones’ parents’ home. As Christopher Jordan sat in the back of a police car directing law enforcement where to search, investigators conveniently found the alleged murder weapon and a red bandana. Christopher Jordan admitted to police he had slept at the Jones residence the night after the shooting—prior to the discovery of the evidence—but that crucial fact was never mentioned in trial.
Jones and Jordan were charged as co-defendants. Jones was represented by the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office. I started my legal career there, and I’ve seen firsthand the overwhelming stress that these attorneys deal with. They suffer from the same epidemic as all other public defenders across the country: Their offices are understaffed, underfunded, and underappreciated. At least now, Oklahoma County’s office has some trial attorneys with experience defending capital murder charges.
That apparently wasn’t the case, though, when Jones went to trial. His lead attorney, David McKenzie, admitted he did not have any capital murder trial experience when he was assigned to try the case. Aside from that obvious issue, there were various other aspects of the defense that should have been utilized. A potential connection to the co-defendant based on eyewitness details was never fully explored. Christopher Jordan, the prosecution’s star witness, was barely impeached. A plausible alibi was never even mentioned. Facts came out after the verdict that were never disclosed to the defense.
Another member of the trial team, Robin McPhail Bruno, explained that she was green as grass when appointed to assist with the trial. According to Robin, she was still in law school when the crime was committed. Needless to say, she likely didn’t have the requisite experience for a case of that magnitude, either. She wanted to pursue some of the unexplored avenues of Jones’ defense, but she was “low man on the totem pole” when it came to the trial team.
In her own words, the system failed Jones in more ways than one: The prosecution put their A-team on the case, but “poor Julius gets stuck with us.”
AFTER THE VERDICT
Christopher Jordan took a plea deal to testify against Jones. He was not only spared the death penalty, but he is also no longer in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Jones still sits in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary awaiting death. It may come sooner than later if Oklahoma stays true to its decision to begin killing inmates with nitrogen gas ASAP. According to the BBC, Oklahoma would become the first U.S. state to mandate death by nitrogen-induced hypoxia.
Even though Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has said the process “will be effective, simple to administer, easy to obtain and requires no complex medical procedures,” others have noted that “the American Veterinary Medical Association deemed the process inappropriate for euthanizing mammals” as “it would take more than seven minutes to bring about the death of a 70-pound (32-kg) pig.” However, ask a death row inmate, and he might tell you the process is preferred to the old regime of lethal injection—it’s “better than having some idiot trying to find a vein.”
I found it odd that Jones was not featured on film in any way, shape, or form. However, according to the producers: “Under Oklahoma law, death row inmates have the right to do television interviews. Nonetheless, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has denied our request to film Julius.” No explanation was given for the denial.
The impending death penalty and Jones’ thoughts and feelings in that regard were not discussed much in the documentary. It may have been by design, as the creative team focused more on the hope that one of Jones’ collateral challenges to his sentence might eventually succeed.
The series explains in detail how Jones is now at the end of the appellate process. In essence, he has exhausted every avenue aside from post-conviction relief applications that can only be filed in specific circumstances. To date, all of Jones’ appeals and post-conviction applications have been denied by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. In fact, his most recent capital post-conviction application, alleging racial prejudice, was denied Sept. 28.
Interestingly, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on the same day issued an opinion calling into question the fact that Jones’ current federal public defenders were working in association with a licensed Oklahoma attorney without first seeking admission to practice in Oklahoma pro hac vice. The order was unpublished, but it is available for download here. It’s interesting. Give it a read.
Regardless, there is still one issue that may become extremely relevant on the state court level. David Prater, the Oklahoma County District Attorney, agreed to submit the red bandana—the one used to tie Julius Jones to the murder—for DNA testing. That matter is still pending before the Oklahoma County District Court. In fact, the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office recently filed a “Motion for Court Order Directing Labcorp to Communicate with the State Re: Previously Ordered DNA Testing and to Preserve Evidence” in Jones’ death penalty case.
Only time will tell what may come from the DNA testing. We will have to wait and see whether the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals entertains any subsequent post-conviction applications based on any such new evidence. If they do entertain additional filings, it will be interesting to observe how they dispose of the issues.
Jones and his legal team still have some fight, but they are entering the final rounds.
THE PRODUCTION PROCESS
The Last Defense does an admirable job of intertwining a 20-year old murder case with the present day. I’ve critiqued other programs in this genre for their failure to simultaneously educate and entertain. It’s a hard balance to strike, but the series succeeds. That’s perhaps my favorite aspect of the documentary as a whole.
The editing is very well-done. The series touches not only on the emotional impact of the case and the fallout of the conviction by using present-day interviews, but it also employs footage from the actual trial and investigation. That real-time footage is tastefully supplemented with re-creations of the events and key moments. Unlike many other titles in the genre, The Last Defense also focuses on the law and procedure in play.
As I mentioned earlier, Robin McPhail Bruno was one of the attorneys who represented Julius at trial. She still has a friendly relationship with him, and he contacts her from time to time (he even wrote her a poem when he learned that her mother had passed away). She was kind enough to take some time out of her schedule and speak with me regarding the series.
I’ve been writing this column for well over a year now, and I’ve covered various instances of law in pop culture. One of the things I consistently question is the authenticity of those involved. I often wonder how much autonomy is allowed regarding the commentary that creates your typical true-crime documentary. I’ve known Robin for a decade, and she has always been a straight shooter. I knew that if anyone would tell it like it is, she would.
According to Robin, she was initially contacted by the people working on the documentary. She explained to me that “certain things from that case will be burned on [her] brain for a lifetime,” but she did review some of the appeal file before her interview. However, no one from production attempted to prep her or give any direction as to suggested or desired answers. She went into the interview process cold without any direction.
One of the producers contacted her to see if he could ask some questions regarding Jones’ case while he was in Oklahoma City. She said she initially spoke with him about the case and the culture in Oklahoma County for about an hour. The creative team had already started the preproduction part of the documentary, and they were already familiar with a lot of the facts regarding the case.
After the initial meeting, she received a few texts and emails. They eventually arranged an interview. For the interview, the creative team showed up with two box trucks of equipment and 15 people in the crew. The interview took place in her office at the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office. It was an all-day process. They completed the on-camera portion in one day, but they came back several months later to do voice-over work.
After that, there wasn’t much contact for months until she reached out to them after a friend informed her that the documentary had premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.
IS THE FINAL PRODUCT A FAIR DEPICTION?
I watched the series with my wife. She doesn’t know Robin, and she mentioned one portion in particular that left her confused. There is a segment in the second episode related to Jones where Robin discusses the notoriously well-known former Oklahoma County District Attorney “Cowboy” Bob Macy. She notes that “Bob Macy wouldn’t seek the death penalty if [Jones] didn’t deserve it.” This comment was placed next to accounts of Macy’s astronomical number of death penalty convictions (and reversals).
My wife wondered why Jones’ defense attorney would say that in light of the surrounding facts. As I said before, I’ve known Robin for a while. I could detect the sarcasm in her voice. I know she knows his regime sought the death penalty against damn near any person with an aggravating circumstance back in the day.
However, due to the quick cuts and the way the producers edited the statement into the overall narrative, it seemed that the creative team was trying to cast her statement as if it was a straight answer with no sarcasm intended. The instance made me wonder again just how much editing can affect the end product.
Robin confirmed her comment was indeed sarcastic. She also explained she had no say whatsoever in the editing process. She was not allowed to see anything before it aired, and she was required to sign a release regarding the use of her footage.
Regardless of the restrictions, Robin reiterated that everything came out pretty true to form. Obviously, she can’t speak for any of the other participants, but she felt that the creative team cast her in a positive light. And really, why would they not?
Anyone who has watched the series can tell she is a very genuine person. She was more than willing to admit fault when it was merited, and she came across as honestly sympathetic to Jones’ situation. She felt that the documentary was a fair depiction of her interview and her emotions. She still has hard feelings, and this case specifically is the reason she won’t do death penalty work anymore.
When I asked Robin if there was anything she wished the documentary would have focused on more, her comments centered around Chris Jordan. She wished the creative team would have shed more light on the interactions between law enforcement and Chris Jordan while he was in the police vehicle outside of Julius’s family’s home. It is not uncommon for witnesses to tell law enforcement where evidence may be found, but it is always suspicious when the information comes from a co-defendant. Consequently, I was surprised as well that the production team failed to explore this angle in more detail.
Regardless, it’s apparent The Last Defense strives to achieve more than just entertainment. The series spends a fair amount of time discussing the appellate and post-conviction process while also providing the audience with additional arguments and evidence as to how and why the conviction might be false. Many other true crime shows I’ve examined, such as Marcia Clark Investigates The First 48, don’t offer that same experience.
My biggest critique of the Marcia Clark Investigates revolved around the series’ focus on cases that resulted in acquittals as opposed to convictions. I noted that “it would be much more satisfying to see her ‘investigate’ cases where she has the potential to uncover new evidence which could assist someone who is wrongfully convicted.” The Last Defense takes this approach, and it was refreshing to see some industry dollars spent in furtherance of that goal.
Overall, I thought this was a great documentary. It came together well on many different levels. The narrative casts another light on many of our criminal justice system’s issues. I don’t always get the chance to report on the back-end of the programs I profile in this column, so I want to give a big “thank you” to Robin McPhail Bruno. For someone who writes about the genre, it’s informative to speak with an attorney profiled in a true crime documentary.
The Last Defense is currently steaming on the ABC app, so give it a watch. The series is well worth your time. It gives yet another account of how a potentially innocent man can be sentenced to death. Perhaps the pending DNA testing of the red bandana will continue that discussion.
Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney at the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white collar crimes.
The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.