ABC's 'The Last Defense,' Monday morning quarterbacks and the practice of law
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Every attorney has faced the proverbial Monday morning quarterback at some point. If you’ve never heard the term before, it usually indicates a person who critiques an event, situation or decision after the fact.
Although the catchphrase comes from sports, it is applicable to the law as well. When it happens, you hope those questioning your choices are merely looking out for the best interests of all involved. They care, and they want to see justice served—whatever their definition might be.
Sometimes that Monday morning quarterback comes in the form of a prosecutor trying to call question on how you are handling your client’s defense and what negotiations are fair and realistic. Sometimes it’s a client’s family member berating you for what you should or shouldn’t be doing. Sometimes it’s the clients themselves telling you the law and how it should apply to their facts.
However, sometimes—as rare as it may be—those Monday morning quarterbacks are actual professional quarterbacks. Look no further than the ongoing saga of Julius Jones for a perfect example.
The case of Julius Jones
Back in 2018, the ABC docuseries The Last Defense profiled Jones’ Oklahoma County death penalty case. Oklahoma charged Jones with first-degree murder in 1999, and he was sentenced to death in 2002.
At the time of the allegations, Jones was a young Black man charged with killing a white businessman in a predominantly white suburb of Oklahoma City. The businessman was killed during an alleged carjacking, but the deceased’s sister survived and became an eyewitness against Jones. Although her description was somewhat vague, she was able to distinctly recall a red bandana she associated with the culprit.
Local law enforcement investigated the incident and spoke with many informants who eventually led them to Christopher Jordan, whom they suspected to be the driver of the carjackers’ vehicle. Jordan named Jones as the shooter. Upon further investigation, law enforcement found the suspected murder weapon and a red bandana at Jones’ parents’ home. The state charged Jordan and Jones as co-defendants.
Jordan negotiated a plea deal that kept him from receiving the death penalty in exchange for his testimony against Jones at trial. However, as The Last Defense shows, there were arguable errors committed at trial, along with pertinent facts—such as Jordan admitting to police (before the discovery of the gun and bandana) he had slept at the Jones residence the night after the shooting—that were never put before the jury.
Subsequent to his death sentence, Jones has faced roadblock after roadblock on his journey to overturn his conviction. All of his state-level appeals and post-conviction applications have been exhausted. The U.S. Supreme Court denied Jones’ petition for writ of certiorari. As of now, Jones’ only hope is for the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to make a recommendation to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt for a commutation of Jones’ death sentence.
Monday morning quarterbacks
On May 28, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield sent a letter to Stitt. In the letter, he noted that “based on my personal review, the errors and shortcomings in Julius’ trial have been well-documented and are too numerous to be listed in this letter.” He then lists a few issues he may have gathered from The Last Defense; after all, the potential errors are all aspects that I (and many others) have previously discussed while analyzing the series.
Then on Aug. 6, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott sent his own letter to Stitt regarding Jones’ commutation. Much like Mayfield, Prescott wrote that “after reviewing the facts of the Julius Jones case, I firmly believe the wrong person is being punished for this terrible crime; furthermore, an evaluation of the process that led to Mr. Jones’ conviction raises serious legal and ethical concerns.”
I’m in no way an “expert” on Jones’ case. Honestly, though, I’m likely more educated regarding the ins and outs than your average attorney uninvolved in the litigation. Every week, I practice law in the courthouse where Jones was convicted. I’ve worked alongside the defense attorneys who represented him. I’ve tried cases against one of the prosecutors who prosecuted him.
Still, my familiarity goes further than just knowing the players. I’ve researched the case. In fact, back in October 2018, I wrote an in-depth column about Jones’ trial. I discussed developments in the case through a follow-up column in April 2019. I’ve corresponded with Amani Martin, the director of The Last Defense episodes detailing Jones’ trial. I haven’t read all of the appellate filings, but I have read some.
Consequently, I feel adequately informed to the point where I’m comfortable giving my opinion, and it should mean something to someone. It at least carries the weight of an attorney who has spent more than a decade dedicating his life to criminal defense, who has actually looked into the minutia of the case and the people involved.
I don’t believe that is the case for Mayfield or Prescott.
I agree with their sentiment. I, too, think Jones’ sentence should be commuted from death. But I have two very valid reasons for that: I don’t believe in or support the death penalty; and in my mind, there are arguable issues with some of the evidence, and that—compounded with potential racist jurors—casts doubt on a jury verdict. But again, that’s my mind. Other legal practitioners will have varying opinions.
What constitutes a ‘review’?
Now, I don’t want to be cast in the wrong light here. I’m an alumnus of the University of Oklahoma and a Mayfield fan. The same thing goes for Prescott: I’m a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan, and I think Prescott’s one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL. Hell, I have multiple Dak Prescott jerseys in my closet. I applaud both men every week during the football season. I applaud them outside of football season when I hear or read about the good things they do for their community or charitable organizations.
And I applaud them now for using their platform to try and bring light to a cause very much worth fighting for. I’m not of the school that athletes should “stick to sports.” Still, it strikes me wrong when both of these individuals—with no legal education or experience—make appeals for a man’s life based on their “review” of a case that has been litigated through the lower court and appellate systems for over two decades.
I worry that their review consists of nothing more than watching The Last Defense or some other televised account of the case. Remember: In order to tell a compelling story of innocence, you have to leave out the compelling evidence of guilt. That is in no way an indictment of Jones; it’s simply the reality of the way these docuseries are often presented.
Mayfield and Prescott aren’t the only professional athletes who have sent letters to Stitt on Jones’ behalf. NBA stars with ties to Oklahoma, such as Blake Griffin (Detroit Pistons), Trae Young (Atlanta Falcons), Buddy Hield (Sacramento Kings) and Russell Westbrook (Houston Rockets), have written to the governor as well. Likewise, I applaud these men for their activism. Some might say a letter isn’t enough, but this late in the process, it might be the only option.
Regardless, the court of public opinion must be careful with what they review as it applies to a criminal case. As I’ve mentioned many times before in this column, the true-crime genre can be both beneficial and detrimental to the public’s perception of the law. The product definitely has its place and purpose, but it should never act as a substitute for actual investigation into all the facts and real learned legal analysis.
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.