“An innocent man is on death row,” a crowd of Cornell students and Ithaca residents chanted as they walked from Ho Plaza to the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, advocating to stop the execution of Julius Jones, who is in prison in Oklahoma.
The rally, organized by the Cornell People’s Organizing Collective, was intended to raise awareness of Jones’s case and oppose the death penalty in general. Many protesters said that they hoped that they could be part of a national effort attempting to sway Gov. Kevin Stitt (R-Ok) to stop the execution.
Jones was convicted of the 1999 murder of Paul Howell in 2002 and sentenced to death. However, he appealed the decision, claiming that he did not receive a fair trial and was racially discriminated against, and he has maintained his innocence since.
Speakers included Danielle Smith ’24 and Samantha Ivey ’24 from the People’s Organizing Collective — an organization intended to help students fight injustice at Cornell and outside it — Ute Ritz-Deutch and Wayles Browne from the Ithaca chapter of Amnesty International leadership and Associate Director at the Center on Death Penalty Worldwide Chelsea Halstead. Some, including Ivey, who has advocated for racial justice since middle school, felt a personal connection to Jones’s story.
“Julius was convicted of this crime when he was 19 years old. I have Black brothers, a Black father, Black cousins,” Ivey told the Sun. “Any time that I see someone in a situation like Julius’s, I feel that could have been someone I knew.”
Many protestors’ reasons for opposing the death penalty ranged from religious conviction to racial justice concerns. The Cornell protesters are not alone in their support for Jones’s release. Over 6.4 million people have signed a petition calling for justice for Jones, and letters of support have been written by people including Director of the Equal Justice Initiative Attorney Bryan Stevenson, Oklahoma State Senator George Young and the Oklahoma American Civil Liberties Union.
“When will the [criminal justice] system finally consider the trauma that it places on Black families?” protest organizer Smith asked the crowd. “Julius Jones is not your scapegoat to prove that the state’s cracking down on crime. Julius Jones is a living breathing man who has been sitting on death row for half of his life despite his innocence and his life matters.”
Smith first learned about Julius Jones’s incarceration in the summer of 2020 through social media and began to write letters to him. When Smith learned that Jones’s execution was scheduled for this November, she quickly began organizing a protest and reaching out to Jones’s family members, to advocate on behalf of Jones and to increase awareness of the death penalty among students.
Josiah Rutledge, grad, was at the protest because he wants people to be more aware of how often those who are sentenced to death are exonerated — for every nine people executed in the United States, one is exonerated. He sees this statistic as an indication that courts struggle to accurately determine guilt.
Wayles Browne, the treasurer of the Ithaca chapter of Amnesty International, an international human rights focused nonprofit, was at the protest because he sees the death penalty as a violation of the United Declaration of Human Rights’ guarantee to life. However, he is hopeful looking forward because of student involvement in the event.
Some protestors — including John Coffey ’23, part of the Cornell Catholic Community’s Spirituality Committee, and Laurie Konwinski, coordinator of Justice and Peace Ministry for Catholic Charities of Tompkins and Tioga County — oppose the death penalty in part because of their Catholic faith.
“I believe that life is a gift from God, and it is sacred. Every single human life, no matter the condition, is great, and we are all made in the image of God,” Konwinski said. “We don’t have the right to take that gift away from anybody. It’s not our right.”
Konwinski plans both to advocate for Jones as well as to encourage others in the local Catholic community to do the same, especially if they have family members or friends in Oklahoma.
Halstead believes that death penalty abolition is an important step in criminal justice reform. According to Halstead, who encouraged students to become involved in anti-death penalty advocacy, public pressure can make an impact on death sentence cases.
“Petitions, engaging on social media and sharing press are really effective ways to get people to take a second look at folks who are sentenced to death,” Halstead said.
Ivey sees the fight for Jones’s freedom as both essential in its own right and as part of a wider fight for racial equity.
“An innocent man is about to die for a crime he did not commit, and that is not justice,” she said. “Our fights will not end until he is off of death row, and is alive, healthy and safe.”