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Arizona Prisoner Released from Death Row

by Chuck Sharman

After 29 years in prison, condemned Arizona prisoner Barry Lee Jones was freed on June 15, 2023. Callous state prison officials dropped him on a street in Phoenix. Undeterred, Jones walked in the heat to the only address he recalled: the office of Arizona Public Defenders (AFD).

Jones, 64, was convicted in 1995 of abusing and killing his ex-girlfriend’s daughter, Rachel Gray, 4. Her mother, Angela Gray, served 11 years in prison for reckless child abuse because she failed to get her child life-saving medical treatment.

Years later, now-retired AFD investigator Andrew Sowards discovered discrepancies in the testimony the medical examiner gave at the two trials. He also found unexamined tissue samples from the child’s corpse that showed scarring, indicating her injuries were sustained before the day Jones allegedly abused her.

AFD attorneys filed a habeas corpus petition for Jones, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) at his trial. The federal court for the District of Arizona agreed and tossed his conviction in 2018, a decision affirmed the following year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. But in May 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision, saying federal courts cannot hear an IAC claim that wasn’t first raised in state court – a baffling ruling; was trial counsel supposed to report his own ineffectiveness? [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.44.]

Fortunately for Jones, state Attorney General Kris Mayes (D) asked Pima County District Attorney Laura Conover (D) to re-open the case. Under the same rationale applied to his former girlfriend, Jones was charged with second-degree murder, which carries a 25-year maximum prison term – four years less than he had served. He pleaded guilty and was freed.

Jones is the 12th condemned prisoner exonerated and released from Arizona’s death row since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Sources: Death Penalty Information Center, The Intercept, KPHO/KTVK, Washington Post