One man’s plea for justice

By Jennifer Warner

Since being convicted of murder, Elwood Jones has spent more than two decades on Death Row while his legal team fights for a new trial. Photo courtesy of Elwood Jones

Elwood Jones has spent more than two decades on death row in Ohio, awaiting one of two things: his eventual execution, or a chance at exoneration.

Jones has consistently maintained his innocence after being convicted of the murder of Rhoda Nathan, a 67-year-old New Jersey woman staying at the Blue Ash Embassy Suites Hotel in Ohio, with whom Jones was employed at the time.

Though Nathan was murdered in 1994, Jones was not arrested and charged until 1997 after what Jones’ assistant federal public defender, Erin Gallagher Barnhart, describes as an investigative process teeming with omissions, inaccuracies, and racial discrimination.

With Barnhart as his legal counsel, Jones filed a motion for a new trial and in a rare occurrence, the courts have recently granted him a hearing.

As per his legal team, these new filings contain hundreds of pages of evidence that would have resulted in a different outcome for Jones and could prove his innocence. 

According to Jones’ website, save-innocents.com, the circumstantial case originally brought against him at trial was fundamentally based on evidence that could have applied to any number of hotel staff, hotel guests, and community members.

There were also pieces of forensic evidence brought forward by the State that Jones’ legal team has deemed “junk science” through extensive research.

The State argued that Jones contracted a bacterial infection in his hand as a result of allegedly punching Nathan in the mouth and knocking out two of her teeth.

In response, Jones’ legal team argues that this was a result of a hand injury sustained at work, and, most importantly, that the victim was never tested to determine whether that same bacteria was present in her mouth, proving no correlation between their injuries.

Additionally, the jury was never informed by the original defense at trial that the victim suffered from the highly contagious Hepatitis B, for which Jones never tested positive.

The State previously argued that a unique pendant said to be owned by Nathan was found in Jones’ toolbox in his car.

Jones’ legal team negates this with a testimony from the mechanic who had thoroughly inventoried the contents of Jones’ car the day after the murder. This mechanic claimed he had not seen the pendant in the toolbox, nor did he find the presence of fingerprints or blood.

Another key argument in Jones case is the timely confession of Linda Reed to her jail cellmate. Reed shared that her abusive husband, Earl Reed, had confessed to murdering a woman at the Embassy Suites and framing a black man for it.

This tip was dismissed and never disclosed to the defense. Instead, the prosecution pushed on resulting in Jones’ death sentence.

Jones is one of 2,500 people facing execution in the United States, despite his legal team’s best effort to try and overturn his conviction by citing the need for DNA testing, among other things.

The proper use of DNA in an investigation is crucial in a potential exoneration case. According to Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization “committed to exonerating individuals who it claims have been wrongly convicted, through the use of DNA testing…”, there have been 375 DNA Exonerations to date in this country, with the first exoneration ever taking place in 1989.

Of these 375 exonerees, 21 of them served time on Death Row.

The Innocence Project also shares that the average time served for these falsely convicted individuals is 14 years, which is almost 10 years less than Jones’ current time served. Notably, 43% of these exoneration cases involved the “misapplication of forensic science.”

Racial discrimination remains another key factor in the outcome of many death penalty cases. African American defendants, like Jones, accused of killing a white female victim are the most likely of all defendants to be sentenced to death.

In a study completed on race and wrongful convictions in 2017, The National Registry of Exonerations found that “innocent black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people.”

Racial discrimination affects defendants in varying degrees, with outcomes historically hinged on jury selection. Studies have proven that all-white juries are more prone to convict black defendants, to sentence them severely, and to make lower-quality decisions.

Capital punishment researchers William J. Bowers, Marla Sandys, and Thomas W. Brewer took a closer look at racial bias in capital sentencing in their law review article published by DePaul University.

In their extensive research of a large assortment of death penalty cases, they found that “the dominance of white males on the jury was strongly associated with the imposition of a death sentence. Death sentences were more than twice as common in cases with five or more, as compared to those with four or fewer, white male jurors.”

Additionally, the report states, “Many of the convictions of African American murder exonerees were affected by a wide range of types of racial discrimination, from unconscious bias and institutional discrimination to explicit racism.”

As it so happens, Jones was convicted by an all-white jury.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director for the Equal Justice Initiative, has dedicated his life to obtaining justice for those like Jones. In 2010, the EJI conducted a comprehensive study of racial bias in jury selection.

“The underrepresentation and exclusion of people of color from juries has seriously undermined the credibility and reliability of the criminal justice system, and there is an urgent need to end this practice,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson also authored the award-winning book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption in which he shares his experiences defending the underprivileged, the imprisoned, and the wrongfully convicted, many of whom served time on Death Row.

“Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison,” Stevenson wrote. “We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row.”

According to an article published by Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Hamilton County, where Jones’ was convicted, remains in the top 2% of counties yielding the majority of the nation’s executions.

Despite being the go-to sentence for some counties, the death penalty has not proven to be an effective deterrent on murder rates.

According to their website, The Death Penalty Information Center conducted a study in which 30 years of FBI Uniform Crime Report homicide data was analyzed.

The study found that the South possesses both the highest murder rates, and the most executions. Additionally, 88% of surveyed experts rejected the belief that a death sentence acts as future homicide prevention.

Today, Jones is fighting to become one of the 170 plus individuals who have been released from death row since 1973 after evidence later proved their innocence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center  and a staff report by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil & Constitutional Rights.

To that end, Jones’ legal team is preparing to defend the nearly 500 pages of arguments and supporting evidence they filed in their motion for a new trial. 

“Taking all of these factors together––the junk science, the suppressed evidence of another’s confession, the lack of other legitimate evidence of guilt, the poor investigation, the leads and alternate suspects that were not explored, and a black man convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman, by an all-white jury, in Hamilton County, Ohio––you have a recipe for a wrongful conviction,”

Erin Gallagher Barnhart

Jones’ hearing is set to take place in December and will decide whether or not he has a legal right to a new trial just months before his scheduled execution in April of 2021.

In an email written from Chillicothe Correctional Institution, Jones pleaded for public support.

“I am asking everyone to please help me from keeping this case from being swept under the rug by placing all of this upon social media,”  Jones wrote. “Ask various news agencies to take this information and use it to ask questions and uncover the truth. I thank you for all of your time and consideration in my fight for justice and freedom.”

For more information on Elwood Jones’ case, visit http://www.save-innocents.com/save-elwood-jones.html.

Email The Communitarian at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu

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