Athletes can only do so much to remedy injustice

It was the definition of bittersweet.

On Thursday, just hours before he was scheduled to be executed by the state, Julius Jones was granted clemency by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt. But Stitt, against the recommendation of the state’s pardon and parole board that had twice recommended Jones’ sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole — a board where three of the five members are his appointees — declared that Jones must remain caged for the rest of his natural life. 

One way or another, Stitt is allowing Jones to die within custody of the state. On Thursday he arguably opted for a slower, more agonizing execution.

It’s all so cruel. 

Stitt had weeks to make his decision and waited until nearly the last possible moment to render it. Thinking about the agony Madeline Davis-Jones, Julius’ mother, must have felt as the hours ticked away in recent days, and Stitt dragged his feet brings tears to the eyes. He was not killed this week, but she still can’t hug her son again, not yet, something she hasn’t been able to do for 20 years.

There have long been questions about who shot Paul Howell outside his parents’ Edmond, Oklahoma, home in 1999. Jones, who was a 19-year-old engineering student at the University of Oklahoma at the time of Howell’s death, has maintained his innocence from the day he was arrested, charged and eventually sentenced to death row, and there are myriad signs that point to him not being the killer, in addition to several issues with his trial and the horrendous record of misconduct by then-district attorney Bob Macy, who sentenced more people to death during his tenure than any other DA in the country.

Add in Oklahoma’s record of botched executions and any person with a shred of empathy would advocate for Jones and others to have their lives spared. 

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 3: Baker Mayfield (6) of the Cleveland Browns stands for the national anthem before the first quarter against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, November 3, 2019. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Baker Mayfield spoke out on former death row inmate Julius Jones. (AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Jones’ case garnered attention from many who advocated on his behalf, including NFL quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Baker Mayfield, and NBA players Trae Young, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry and Buddy Hield. Hundreds of students in Oklahoma staged a walkout this week to bring attention to the case. Millions signed online petitions. Even five Republicans in the state legislature recommended that Stitt accept the parole board’s decision to grant clemency.

And still.

This week in particular has shined a light on how unequal the justice system remains for Black Americans. 

Jones, who is Black, is one of 44 people on death row in Oklahoma. Nineteen of those 44 individuals, or 43 percent, are Black, in a state where just 7.8 percent of the general population is Black. Oklahoma isn’t the only state where that gross disparity exists, of course. In Alabama, where 26.8 percent of residents are Black, 50 percent of those on death row in the state are Black; in South Carolina, those numbers are 27 percent and 53.8 percent.

In Georgia, three white men are on trial for killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was trying to enjoy a jog in the town of Brunswick. The jury is 11 white people and just one Black person. Last week one of the defense attorneys fixed his lips to say “we don’t want any more Black pastors” sitting with Arbery’s family in the courtroom gallery. On Thursday one of the men charged, Travis McMichael, told the prosecutor that Arbery did not yell, threaten or have a weapon when he and his father chased him in their pickup truck. 

Arbery’s encounter with the McMichaels ended in his death. Black runners all over the country have stories of being profiled or attacked for simply exercising. Black people were granted abolition from slavery years ago, but they still do not have freedom of movement.

There’s a reason why “driving while Black,” “running while Black,” “shopping while Black” and even “bird watching while Black” became trending hashtags on social media in recent years. If it’s decided by a white person that a Black person minding their own business doesn’t belong where they are, it can lead to multiple negative results for that Black person, including death.

And then there’s Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the judge in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who was accused of killing two people and injuring a third, made it crystal clear that he has no interest in seeing actual justice served and might as well be sitting with Rittenhouse’s defense attorneys. He barred the prosecution from calling the shooting victims actual “victims.” 

Rittenhouse was found not guilty Friday on all five counts to the surprise of only a few.

One doesn’t have to conjure much imagination to wonder what the trial would have been like if Rittenhouse were Black. He wouldn’t even have made it to trial. A Black teenager roaming the streets with an AR-15 style rifle under the guise of “protecting a car dealership” that didn’t belong to him and “providing medical aid” that he wasn’t trained to administer would not be alive today.

It isn’t just this week that things like this are happening. We could pick just about any month from the calendar and find similar examples. 

It’s just this week the spotlight is a little brighter, a little broader. 

Shining a light in dark corners is supposed to lead to change. If only that were true in these cases.