Quarterback Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys walks off the field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on January 12, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevork Djansezian—Getty Images
August 6, 2020 11:55 AM EDT

“As a black man in this country right now,” Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott writes in a letter to Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt and the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, “I experience injustices firsthand day in and day out, even as an athlete with ‘celebrity status.'”

The letter, which was sent to the governor’s office and parole board on August 6 and obtained exclusively by TIME, advocates for the release of Julius Jones, a Black death row inmate in Oklahoma who was sentenced to death for the 1999 murder of Paul Howell, a white businessman from Edmond, an Oklahoma City suburb, during a carjacking.

“Current events are shining a much-needed light on deep-seated prejudices and systemic mistreatment of black people, and it is my sincere hope that the cultural movements of today will lead to significant social changes that will create a better tomorrow,” writes Prescott, 27, who is entering his fifth NFL season. “To that end, you all are in the unique position of being able to make a direct impact by addressing a specific miscarriage of justice.”

In this moment of national reckoning on racial injustice that has gripped the United States following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many others, athletes have played a leading role in keeping hard conversations on race at the forefront of the national dialogue. Athletes have hit the streets to lead rallies against racial injustice. “Black Lives Matter” is inscribed on the NBA’s court during the season restart in Orlando; players have knelt, in unison, during the National Anthem to call attention to systemic racism. (Predictably, U.S. President Donald Trump on August 5 called the NBA’s kneeling “disgraceful.”) Athletes have even put careers on hold to fight for social justice—WNBA star Maya Moore, for example, stepped away from basketball, in her prime, to work on the case of Jonathan Irons, who was sentenced to 50 years in prison when he was 18 for allegedly murdering a white man in suburban St. Louis in 1997. The conviction was vacated in March; in early July, Irons walked out of a Jefferson City, Mo. prison, at 40-years-old, after being incarcerated for 23 years. Moore was there to greet him.

The Julius Jones case has received widespread attention. A Viola Davis-produced docu-series that aired on ABC in 2018, The Last Defense, covered it in-depth, while the Julius Jones Coalition has helped draw more than 6 million signatures to a Change.org petition calling for Jones, who earned an academic scholarship to Oklahoma University before his conviction, to be freed. High-profile athletes with ties to Oklahoma, like former OU basketball stars Blake Griffin of the Detroit Pistons and Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks, as well as Buddy Hield of the Sacramento Kings, ex-Oklahoma City Thunder standout Russell Westbrook, and Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield have written letters to state officials on Jones’ behalf.

Prescott’s involvement stands to raise the case’s profile even higher. Quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, long known as “America’s Team” and the world’s most valuable sports franchise, is one of the most high-profile athletic positions on the planet. (Prescott’s a talented two-time Pro Bowler; his long-term contract status with the Cowboys will be a major storyline of the upcoming NFL season.) “It’s important for Oklahomans to know that people outside of the state are paying attention to Julius’ case and concerned about the injustices that occurred,” says Dale Baich, Jones’ defense attorney.

Not long ago, the front-facing player of one of America’s iconic sports teams would be advised to steer clear of a capital murder case, which inflames passions on all sides—from criminal justice advocates who believe a racist system is stacked against Julius Jones, and those who believe that family of Paul Howell, who was gunned down in front of his home in the presence of sister and two young daughters, also deserves justice.

The old athlete’s playbook was clear: stay in your lane, don’t offend anyone, and collect fat corporate endorsement checks. But in 2020, that strategy seems woefully dated, and athletes are stepping out like never before.

“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,” Prescott wrote in his letter. “I implore you to right this wrong. Please don’t let another innocent black man die from the systemic mistreatment that has plagued our nation for far too long.”

‘I Don’t Think He Received A Fair Trial.’

According to Jones and his family, Julius, then 19, could not have killed Howell on the night of July 28, 1999, since he was home at the time of the murder, giving his younger sister and older brother flack for eating a cookie he received for his birthday a few days earlier, and playing Monopoly with his family. “I ended up giving either my Boardwalk or my Park Place to Julius,” says Jones’ sister, Antoinette.

Jones, who was between his freshman and sophomore years at Oklahoma at the time, had played high school basketball. “He might be a superhero in my heart, athletics-wise,” says his mother, Madeline. “But he couldn’t be two places at one time.”

Neither Jones or his family testified about his whereabouts at the trial, however, as the defense rested after the prosecution called its witnesses. In The Last Defense, Jones’ original trial lawyer admitted he was inexperienced in capital cases and overwhelmed by his public defender caseload.

Jones’ advocates say there were other problems with the case, too. For example, in his October 2019 commutation application, Jones refers to two inmates who allegedly said they had overheard an associate of Jones, Christopher Jordan, brag about framing Jones as the shooter (Jordan was in jail for his role in the Howell murder.) This information also failed to come out at trial. Jordan, who initially offered inconsistent statements about the incident to police, testified against Jones and received a 30 year-to-life sentence, but served 15 years and was released in 2014.

The lone eyewitness to the murder, Howell’s sister Megan Tobey, testified that the shooter had a half-inch of hair sticking out from underneath a stocking cap. “That could not have been me,” Jones wrote in his commutation application. “A photo of me taken just days before the crime on July 19, 1999 (which was never shown to the jury) shows that I had short, closely cropped hair not long enough to match the eyewitness’s description of the shooter.”

Jones has argued that racism plagued his case. In the application, he wrote that “while being transferred from an Oklahoma City police car to an Edmond police car, an officer removed my handcuffs and said; ‘Run n—-r. I dare you, run.'” A nearly all-white jury convicted him. In a June 2019 sworn affidavit, one of the jurors said that she told someone whom she believed to be a bailiff that she overheard another juror say, during a break, “something to the effect of, ‘They just need to take this n—-r and shoot him, and take him and bury him underneath the jail.” She said that after telling the bailiff about the comment, she paraphrased it for the judge.

“I was surprised that the juror was allowed to stay on the jury and that the trial continued normally,” she wrote in the affidavit. “I felt that there was racism on the jury that convicted Mr. Jones and sentenced him to death.” The juror said she still believes that Jones is guilty of shooting and killing Howell. “However,” she wrote, “I don’t think that he received a fair trial.”

In July, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter released a document, entitled “Overwhelming Evidence of Guilt,” that purports to refute these and other arguments for Jones’ innocence. Hunter writes that two of Jones’ former lawyers have said that Jones was “unequivocal that he was not at home with his parents, as his parents had described, with regard to the evening that Mr. Howell was murdered.” He dismisses the credibility of the two prison witnesses. As for the implication that Jordan received a secret deal with prosecutors to testify against Jones, Hunter writes that Jordan “was released due to prison credits, a matter over which District Attorneys’ Offices have no control.” At the time of the murder, Jordan wore his hair in a braided style, or cornrows; Hunter also notes that at trial, Tobey testified that “no, I could not see braids” on the shooter. On the matter of jury racism, Hunter says that at the time of the trial, the juror who signed the 2019 affidavit, when questioned by the judge about what she overheard, never directly told the judge that another juror used a racial epithet.

Tobey testified that she saw a red bandana on the shooter’s face. Hunter’s document says a “partial DNA profile was obtained from the bandana” during a 2018 test. “The major component of the DNA profile matched Jones.” A defense expert’s review of the DNA results takes issue with the characterization as a “match,” and the defense team also argues that the DNA profiles of three or more individuals who could not be identified were also on the bandana. Advocates for Jones also note that tests found no saliva on the bandana: if the shooter had worn it over his face, saliva would presumably show up. In his Overwhelming Evidence of Guilt document, Hunt includes a note from the lab: “Of course, one explanation for the presumptive negative result is that there is no saliva on the item. Additionally, any saliva present may have broken down over time or the saliva could have been diluted below the sensitivity of our test.”

Jordan slept at Jones’ house the night after the murder; Jones suspects that’s when Jordan could have hidden the bandana and gun in his bedroom. His DNA, his advocates say, could have wound up on the bandana if it came in contact with objects in his room, perhaps during evidence collection or otherwise.

At this point, Hunter isn’t buying any alternative theories. “The standard is beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hunter tells TIME in an interview about the case. “I just want to reiterate, you always have to allow for the possibility that you’ve missed something or you’re wrong about decisions or conclusions that you’ve made, whether you’re an attorney general or a member of Congress or a governor. We’re all made of the same clay here, nobody is immaculate. And I have listened. And we have had reviews of the record. There are a few attorneys in here that know more about this case than I do, but I guarantee you I know more about this case than those who are advocating on Mr. Jones’ behalf.”

So does Hunter believe Jones deserves to be executed? “I do.”

According to recent study in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Review, the overall execution rate for defendants convicted of killing a white victim is seventeen times greater than the execution rate of defendants convicted of killing a Black victim. A 2017 study in the Northwestern University School of Law’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that in Oklahoma, non-whites suspected of killing white victims were three times more likely to receive a death sentence than those who killed non-white victims. A pair of mishandled executions in Oklahoma in 2014 and 2015 put the death penalty in the state on hold, but Oklahoma plans to resume executions pending a federal court’s review of new safety protocols.

The Jones case is particularly acute in Oklahoma, given the state’s fraught racial history. “Oklahoma is just coming to terms with the fact that the Tulsa Massacre is an egregious, egregious event that has not been taught in public schools in Oklahoma over the years,” says CeCe Jones-Davis, the founder of the Julius Jones Coalition (no relation to the defendant). “What’s at stake is Oklahoma repeating another racial atrocity.”

‘Miscarriage of Justice African American Men Like Myself Live In Fear Of’

Earlier this year, Jason Flom, a music executive who has worked in criminal justice reform for more than 20 years, and Kim Kardashian West, whose criminal justice reform advocacy has recently grown in scope, told Hollywood producer Scott Budnick about Jones’ case (Budnick is the executive producer of Just Mercy, the 2019 biographical drama about Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, whose organization works on overturning wrongful death row convictions). Budnick was floored by the details, and wanted to get Prescott involved in Jones’ case; he was impressed by Prescott’s past philanthropic efforts and thought he could use his platform to raise awareness of the case. (Budnick says he later learned that a member of the Oklahoma Parole and Review board went to Mississippi State University, where Prescott starred in college, which he calls a “glorious coincidence.”)

Budnick is friends with Shannon Rotenberg, executive director of Prescott’s Faith Fight Finish foundation; the group was able to connect on a Zoom call around early May of this year. Kardashian West, who tweeted about Jones’ clemency application back in October 2019, drawing even more attention to the case, joined the call. Prescott asked questions about elements of racial bias in the case and said he’d conduct further research on his own.

In late 2019, Budnick had screened Just Mercy for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and attended a home game. “It was very clear to me that the cultural influencers for the folks of Oklahoma are those folks of color that are playing on the court or throwing a football on the field,” says Budnick. “Cultural influencers are able to have a conversation without pointing fingers. I do believe athletes in those towns have enormous sway.”

Hunter, the Oklahoma attorney general, says he’s not challenging the “heart, conscience, or motivation” of any of the celebrity athletes involved. He acknowledges cheering for a number of them. “I haven’t ignored any of the thoughtful submissions I’ve received,” says Hunter. “But my position is, none of these folks have taken the time to sit down with me or my team and go over the record, go over what directly refutes some of the assertions that are being made by Mr. Jones’ advocates. And that’s not a criticism of them. It’s just a statement of fact.”

Despite the state’s hard line, the backing of an athlete like Prescott can still provide hope for a death row inmate. During a prison visit last week, Baich informed Jones about Prescott’s endorsement, and Jones gave him a look of joyous surprise. “I’m just in awe that he would take the time to support Julius,” says Jones’ mother, Madeline. “It’s really touching and renews my faith.”

Jones’ lawyers have exhausted all appeals; the case is highly unlikely to return to court. So Jones’ fate is in the hands of the Pardon and Parole Board, which can recommend commutation to the governor, who must then sign off. Prescott is aware of the tough battle ahead; his side may lose. But for the American athletes of this moment, such fights for their beliefs are still worthwhile.

“The treatment of Julius Jones is the kind of miscarriage of justice African American men like myself live in fear of, and that is why I feel compelled to use the influence that God has blessed me with to speak up for what I believe is right and to give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves,” Prescott writes at the conclusion of his letter. “My prayer is that he is able to salvage what remains of his life and that, through the righting of a decades-old wrong, he will be restored to his family soon.”

Read Prescott’s letter in full below:

Dear Governor Stitt and Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board Members,

I am writing to express my wholehearted support of Julius Jones’ commutation application.

As a black man in this country right now, I experience injustices firsthand day in and day out, even as an athlete with “celebrity status.” Current events are shining a much-needed light on deep-seated prejudices and systemic mistreatment of black people, and it is my sincere hope that the cultural movements of today will lead to significant social changes that will create a better tomorrow. To that end, you all are in the unique position of being able to make a direct impact by addressing a specific miscarriage of justice.

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 implore you to right this wrong. Please don’t let another innocent black man die from the systemic mistreatment that has plagued our nation for far too long.

It is my firm belief that Julius Jones’ conviction and death sentence is an egregious injustice. Mr. Jones has been on death row for 20 years, despite written affidavits from his trial lawyers describing the ways they failed him in court. Mr. Jones’ attorneys never presented the photo taken 9 days prior to the crime that could have provided clarity about the shooter’s description. They were appointed without having any experience in death penalty cases, and did not even present Mr. Jones’ alibi at trial. In addition, a member of the jury (comprised of 11 white members out of 12) has confirmed that the jury acted with racial animus – admitting that inappropriate and biased statements were made by other jurors during the trial, including the use of racial slurs.

The treatment of Julius Jones is the kind of miscarriage of justice African American men like myself live in fear of, and that is why I feel compelled to use the influence that God has blessed me with to speak up for what I believe is right and to give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. Julius Jones’ case is a clear example of what can happen to a person who cannot afford legal representation, and what can happen to a black person at any time in this country – which is exactly why so many are protesting for the changes we so desperately need. I ask for you to please do your part to help bring about this change by giving thoughtful and sincere consideration to your review of Julius Jones’ commutation application. My prayer is that he is able to salvage what remains of his life and that, through the righting of a decades-old wrong, he will be restored to his family soon.

Sincerely,

Rayne Dakota “Dak” Prescott
Dallas Cowboys

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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