Man is freed after nearly 28 years on death row in Arizona

Andrew Sowards photo
Barry Lee Jones, front, was freed from Arizona’s death row on June 15, 2023, after a judge tossed his 1994 murder conviction and Jones pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was released on time served.

For the first time in nearly three decades, Barry Lee Jones will spend Father’s Day with his family, and as a free man. It is a day Jones, 64, and his supporters feared he might not live to see.

Jones, who denied guilt for the nearly 28 years he was on Arizona’s death row, was freed Thursday after a judge tossed out his 1994 conviction on charges that he sexually assaulted and murdered his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter, Rachel Yvonne Gray.

As Jones sported a blue “Free Bird” shirt and was surrounded by family, his release from death row comes just over a year after the Supreme Court issued a polarizing decision that would have allowed Arizona to execute him despite strong evidence to support his innocence claims.

Federal public defenders have said he was wrongfully convicted due to the ineffectiveness of his court- and state-appointed lawyers in his 1994 criminal trial and appeal. His murder conviction and death sentence were tossed as part of an agreement with prosecutors to have him plead guilty to a lesser charge, second-degree murder, for not taking Gray to the hospital the night before she died. He was resentenced on the lesser charge and released on time served.

Cary Sandman, a federal public defender whose office has argued Jones’s case for more than 20 years, praised his release as a win for justice. “After almost 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, Barry Jones is finally coming home,” Sandman said in a statement. “Mr. Jones spent nearly three decades on Arizona’s death row despite compelling evidence that he was innocent of charges that he had fatally assaulted Rachel Gray.”

Sandman called the evidence that supported Jones’s convictions “flawed” and said his death sentence was the result of “shoddy and constitutionally deficient defense lawyering, junk science and myopic police work.” Among the flaws in the prosecution’s case against Jones was a medically implausible timeline and heavy reliance on circumstantial evidence, Sandman’s office argued.

Sandman also thanked Pima County Attorney Laura Conover (D) and Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes (D), whose offices agreed to review Jones’s case. Conover’s office in a statement said a review of the medical evidence in the case did not support proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Jones had caused Gray’s fatal injury. Her office did find that Jones should have reasonably seen that the girl was injured and sought medical help, a lapse that supported the charge of second-degree murder.

“These are some of the most difficult decisions we face as prosecutors, trying to balance the rule of the law and in this case holding someone accountable for the death of an innocent 4-year-old child,” Conover said in a statement. “What’s also important is having the courage to re-evaluate these cases thoroughly, while staying true to our responsibility of charging them accordingly with what is right in the eyes of the law. To that end Mr. Jones has been held more than accountable.”

In May 1994, Angela Rene Gray found her daughter unresponsive in bed and took her to the hospital, where doctors determined she had been dead on arrival. Jones, a mechanic who lived with the elder Gray and four children, was later questioned for five hours and charged in the girl’s death. He was convicted that year and sentenced to death in July 1995.

When Jones’s case eventually reached federal public defenders years later, they found evidence from the medical examiner that Gray’s fatal injuries could not have been sustained in the narrow time frame prosecutors said Jones was alone with the child. They also found that detectives and Jones’s previous lawyers failed to investigate other suspects.

A 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision not directly related to Jones’s case opened a path for him in 2017 to have his claim of ineffective counsel heard in federal court. Two federal court rulings, in 2018 and 2019, determined that Jones’s murder conviction should be tossed and that he should get a new trial. The state of Arizona appealed those rulings, which sent Jones’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The possibility for Jones’s execution or freedom hinged on the Supreme Court’s decision, which came in 2022. The 6-3 ruling fell along ideological lines and effectively gutted a long-standing safeguard for criminal defendants who argue that ineffective counsel at their state-level trials led to their wrongful conviction. The decision meant that while defendants can still raise a claim of ineffective counsel, they could not introduce supporting evidence if it had not been already introduced at the state level – a decision Justice Sonia Sotomayor called in her dissent “perverse” and “illogical.”

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling severely limiting Jones’s path to a new trial, the decision did not prevent the Arizona Attorney General’s Office from independently reviewing the case, a move that ultimately led to the agreement that secured Jones’s release.

“We as an organization are thrilled that Barry is getting another chance at life,” said Kat Jutras of Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona, a group that advocated for Jones’s release. “He’s been locked up since he was 34 years old, and he is now 64.” Jones is the 12th prisoner since the 1970s to be exonerated from death row in Arizona, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.