In 2018, I was a mom and teaching pastor newly relocated to Oklahoma. That’s when I heard of Julius Jones, who was then on death row following a 2002 conviction for murder.
I stumbled upon his story one night while watching The Last Defense, an ABC docuseries about people facing execution with strong innocence claims. To say I was devastated by the issues in his case can’t capture how much his story affected me. Here was a young, smart, Black man who seemed to have so much going for him, suddenly caught in the grips of the criminal legal system and sentenced to death right in Oklahoma.
I didn’t know anything about the justice system at the time. All I knew was that God was calling me to do something about Julius Jones—to help lead the effort to stop his execution. I convinced several friends from my church and other leaders in the community to join the cause.
For two years, we shared Julius’s story with fellow Oklahomans by showing the docuseries, holding panel discussions, and building social media platforms. Through strategic prayer and a daily grind of connecting with community leaders as well as national influencers and organizations, the Justice for Julius campaign officially launched in 2020. The timing—around the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—wasn’t ideal but couldn’t be avoided: An execution date for Julius was to be announced at any moment.
When I describe the campaign to save Julius’s life, I always talk about it as a human chain, like how strangers on a beach link arms to pull someone from a rip tide. People from every demographic—rich, poor, young, old, progressive, conservative, white, indigenous, Black, and more—came together to stop his execution. We built an unlikely coalition during a time of immense political division because we believed that Julius Jones’s life matters.
Thousands of letters were sent and phone calls were made to the office of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt. Millions signed an online petition, and thousands rallied across the country. And after all that work, we thought we had failed. With no response from the governor, I went to McAlester, Oklahoma, in November of 2021, where I’d been “invited” by the state to witness Julius’s execution.
Then, we got the call: The governor had commuted Julius’s sentence from death to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Yes, we worked hard. But we didn’t work more than we prayed. I believe Julius is alive today because of the power of prayer, the doors God opened for us, the unlikely partners he allowed to come together, and a sincere and unified effort to protect the image of God—especially on death row. We prayed at 5 a.m. for three years and added a 7 p.m. national prayer call that ran for 18 months. We saw God intervene miraculously many times. And we can testify: Prayer moves the hand that moves the world.
We are humbled that death didn’t win in Oklahoma that day and grateful that the Jones family is able to visit Julius every week. But our work here is not done. When you believe in the grace, power, and authority of the Most High, you can’t rest with persistent injustice. It gnaws at the spirit.
If you or a loved one have ever experienced prison in America, you know it is a place of torment and despair that does nothing to heal, rehabilitate, or prepare its occupants to return to society well. It is certainly not a place for an innocent person like Julius Jones to be for the rest of his life.
So the work must continue. This second phase, too, should begin with sharing Julius’s story, here in his own words.
I wake up daily thinking of the terrible events that led up to my wrongful incarceration. The same night that I would be accused of murder, I was standing in my parents’ kitchen telling my mom that my brother and sister had eaten all the rest of my 19th birthday cookie. Little did I know that a cookie would become the least of my worries. Since then, the state of Oklahoma has taken over 24 years of my life. Every year, every day, and every moment of my existence keeps disappearing like the crumbs of that cookie.
A little over two years ago, I came within three hours of being murdered by the state for a man’s life that I did not take. Instead, I was blessed when the Most High moved millions of people all around the world to stand up to preserve my life. After witnessing my lack of a legal defense at trial, learning of the deals with multiple longtime confidential informants that were never disclosed to the court, as well as the ambiguity of DNA “evidence,” the Justice for Julius campaign fought hard for me because they believed in my innocence! Through the love I received from so many, the Most High reminded me that though I had forgotten myself, he had not forgotten me.
My life was spared, but my freedom was not restored. I am still in prison for a crime I did not commit. I wasn’t prepared for life in prison. I thought I was going home, or else going home to God. Because of the love of my family and those who continue to advocate for my freedom, I try my best to hold on to hope every day, but it’s been hard. Sometimes it feels like it is getting harder.
And since my execution was stopped, ten other people have been executed in Oklahoma, despite three of them having clemency recommendations similar to mine from the pardon and parole board. How can we stand for this? Is the death penalty a machine that takes no interest in nuance or new evidence? Just death? We must keep working toward a criminal justice system that is truly just.
Cece Jones-Davis works at the intersections of faith, art, and social justice as an award-winning faith leader, facilitator, and public speaker. She is known most recently for her work in creating the Justice for Julius campaign.
Julius Jones survived Oklahoma’s death row for over 23 years until his commutation on November 18, 2021. He is the founder of the Julius Jones Institute and author of JuWels of Life and JuWels from Death Row.