Arizona Releases Man Who Spent 29 Years On Death Row

By Marco Poggio | June 15, 2023, 8:26 PM EDT ·

Headshot of white man with gray hair wearing an orange jumpsuit
Barry Jones
An Arizona man who spent 29 years on death row for the murder of a little girl he said he didn't commit was freed on Thursday after the state admitted that he was never given a fair trial.

Judge Kyle Bryson of the Superior Court of Arizona vacated Barry Jones' conviction and death sentence, and resentenced him to time served after he took a guilty plea as part of a deal with the state.

"After almost 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, Barry Jones is finally coming home," Assistant Federal Defender Cary Sandman, who represented Jones in federal court proceedings years after he was sentenced, said in a statement. "Mr. Jones spent nearly three decades on Arizona's death row despite compelling evidence that he was innocent."

In 1995, Jones was found guilty of first-degree murder, sexual assault and three counts of child abuse in the death of his girlfriend's daughter, Rachel Gray, who was 4 years old. He continued to profess his innocence ever since and argued that his court-appointed lawyers failed to provide him with constitutionally minimum legal assistance.

A federal judge agreed with Jones in July 2018, but Arizona fought back, and the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled last year in Shinn v. Ramirez that Jones couldn't bring up his innocence claims in a federal court because he was barred by federal law.

Jones' prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of a medical examiner who said Rachel died of an infection of the abdominal organs caused by blunt-force trauma and gave a timeframe for the crime that placed the girl in Jones' care. A judge sentenced Jones to death in light of the victim's age, an aggravating factor.

But as it turned out years later, after Federal Public Defender's Office took up Jones' case during habeas corpus proceedings, there were significant flaws in the way both police and prosecutors conducted their investigations. Police detectives and the lead prosecutor in the case, Sonia Pesqueira, had failed to pursue other leads, such as the possibility that Rachel could have been hit by another child at the trailer park where she lived with her family.

During a seven-day evidentiary hearing in federal court in 2017, it also became apparent that the court-appointed lawyers who represented Jones at trial and in state post-conviction proceedings did not perform up to constitutional standards.

His trial lawyer, Sean Bruner, failed to investigate and challenge the state's theory. Bruner admitted to his deficiency at the evidentiary hearing and told Law360 in an interview that he "messed up" in failing to cross-examine the medical examiner on the timeline of Rachel's death.

James W. Hazel Jr., the attorney who represented Jones in the post-conviction phase, failed to bring up a claim that Bruner's assistance was constitutionally ineffective.

At the evidentiary hearing, the medical examiner who testified in Jones' prosecution, Dr. John D. Howard, backtracked from the testimony he gave more than two decades earlier, saying Rachel's injuries could have been caused days before her death. His change in opinion thrust Jones' conviction into doubt.

"The flawed evidence supporting Barry's convictions and death sentence resulted from a combination of shoddy and constitutionally deficient defense lawyering, junk science and myopic police work," Sandman said in the statement.

In July 2018, U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess granted a writ of habeas corpus, vacated Jones' conviction and ordered Arizona to either retry him or release him. Under the leadership of the state attorney general at the time, Mark Brnovich, a Republican, Arizona argued on appeal that a law enacted in 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act prevented Jones' from bringing up his ineffective counsel claim in federal court because he had failed to do so during his state proceedings.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which heard Jones' case jointly with that of David Martinez Ramirez, another Arizona death row inmate presenting a similar legal issue, ruled in favor of Jones. But the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling, effectively exhausting Jones' ability to seek release through the process of habeas corpus, which gives state prisoners a path to challenge their convictions on the basis of constitutional violations.

"In Shinn, the court gutted its own precedents and rendered federal courts powerless to even consider the very evidence proving Barry had been wrongfully convicted and denied a constitutionally just trial," Sandman said, noting that two federal courts had found Jones' claims compelling.

Once federal courts became off-limits for Jones following the high court's ruling, his innocence claims came back to haunt state officials.

After reviewing Jones' case, the office of the current state attorney general, Kristin Kay Mayes, a Democrat, found that his conviction could not stand. Her office joined Jones in asking the Pima County Superior Court to vacate his convictions and death sentence.

The Office of the Arizona Attorney General did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Jones' attorneys were unavailable for interviews Thursday afternoon.

As part of a deal with prosecutors, Jones pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for failing to take Rachel to the hospital despite knowing she was sick from her injuries. At the end of his six-page order, Judge Bryson sentenced Jones to 25 years in prison with credit for time served and ordered him released.

"We are profoundly grateful to the Arizona attorney general and the Pima County attorney for taking a fresh look at Mr. Jones' case and acknowledging he had never received a fair trial, just as the federal district court and the Ninth Circuit had previously found," Sandman said. "We hope that Barry can enjoy the rest of his life in peace surrounded by his family and friends."

--Editing by Rich Mills.

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