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Before Julius Jones’ execution was commuted, Utah Jazz assistant Irv Roland spent years fighting for his friend’s life

“I have a hard time believing that God would bring us this far ... just to have him executed anyway,” Roland says.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jazz assistant coach Irv Roland works with Miye Oni, during practice at the Zions Bank Practice Center, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

UPDATE: On Thursday morning, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted Julius Jones’ sentence to life in prison. After years of pleading his case, he is no longer facing execution.

Irv Roland has known Julius Jones since they were 8 and 9 years old, respectively. They weren’t best friends, but they both grew up in Oklahoma City and were well-acquainted from the local AAU basketball circuit.

Today, the 40-year-old Roland is an assistant coach for the Utah Jazz. And the 41-year-old Jones is on death row in McAlester, Okla., awaiting execution this Thursday at 4 p.m. CT for the first-degree murder of Paul Howell in 1999.

In spite of their long-since-divergent circumstances, they are closer now than they ever were as kids.

Two years ago, their lives came to intersect once again, when the coach and personal trainer got involved in the other’s case and became one of the most staunch advocates of Jones’ innocence.

“I never believed that he did it,” Roland told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday morning.

Now, they are in a race against time, hoping that before Jones’ execution is carried out, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt will be swayed by a growing chorus of voices — including from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board — suggesting there is enough doubt about Jones’ guilt to warrant commuting his sentence.

There is a website (justiceforjuliusjones.com) and multiple docuseries (one from actress Viola Davis, another from ABC’s 20/20 program) which spell out the questionable components surrounding Jones’ case: How the sole eyewitness’ description of the perpetrator more closely resembles Christopher Jordan, the alleged getaway driver who testified that Jones was the gunman in exchange for a lenient sentence; how Jones was repeatedly let down by his overworked and under-experienced team of public defenders, who acknowledge mistakenly denying him the chance to present his alibi at trial; how racism in then-nearly-all-white Edmond, Okla., played out in both the police investigation (Jones alleges one of the arresting officers called him the N-word and dared him to try and run, so that the officer could shoot him in the back) and in the trial itself (one of the jurors claims a fellow juror remarked that “this trial is a waste of time; they should just take this [N-word], shoot him, and bury him under the jail,” and how the judge deemed the revelation irrelevant).

Along the way, every appeal filed by Jones’ new lawyers has been denied. There are no more appeals remaining now. Still, a groundswell of national support has emerged, pleading for intervention.

The clock is ticking toward zero. Stitt has yet to announce his decision. But Roland is holding out hope for his friend.

“I have a hard time believing that God would bring us this far and give us this much momentum, this much worldwide awareness to Julius Jones’s case, just to have him executed anyway,” he said. “I have a hard time believing that.”

‘I have to do more’

Roland first heard of the case as a high school senior. While he concedes he was not savvy enough then to understand all the layers to the case, he still had trouble squaring the media depictions of the apparent perpetrators — Jones, transformed from an engineering student at the University of Oklahoma (and an admitted shoplifter and small-time thief) into a brazen carjacker who murdered a man in front of his two young children just to steal his Suburban SUV; and Jordan, the acquaintance with a bad reputation and a history of gang activity who this time merely happened to get dragged into an unexpectedly bad situation.

Jones got the blame, and the death sentence. Jordan got a 30-year sentence, and was released after only 15. Roland, like those on Jones’ new legal team, believes there is a pretty straightforward explanation for what really happened the fateful night of July 28, 1999.

“Julius just didn’t break those ties,” he said. “Even though he was in school and had a bright future ahead of him, he didn’t break those ties. And so, unfortunately, because he was wrapped up with those guys, they were able to manipulate the situation and frame him for the murder.”

FILE - This Feb. 5, 2018, file photo provided by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections shows Julius Jones. Kim Kardashian West on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, asked Oklahoma officials to consider a clemency petition for Jones, who's on death row for a murder conviction in the July 1999 killing of Paul Howell. Jones, who's black, says his 2002 trial was tainted when a juror used a racist term to describe him. (Oklahoma Department of Corrections via AP, File)

While Roland maintained a passive interest in the case as years went by and as updates happened to appear in the news, he concedes that he wasn’t really paying too much attention until his own circumstances changed.

For years, he had worked either on an NBA team’s coaching staff or as a personal skills trainer for players, in particular gaining such notoriety for his work with James Harden that he got hired as a player development coach by the Rockets during the guard’s time in Houston. Such gigs, he notes, severely limited his time to do much else: “Most people that don’t work in the NBA, they don’t understand that this is a seven-day-a-week job.”

However, once a spat between Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and then-head coach Mike D’Antoni led to a purge of the coaching staff in early May 2019, Roland suddenly found himself with enough time to get involved with things that spoke to him.

And the coming year would provide plenty of opportunities.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. Floyd’s family was from Houston, where Roland was still located, so he reached out to their family to see how he could help. Then, he reached out to the family of Breonna Taylor, killed that March in a police raid gone wrong. Soon enough, Roland was making the first of seven trips to Taylor’s hometown of Louisville.

“When I left the Rockets, it gave me more time to be available for things that I’m passionate about. Social justice is something that I’m more passionate about than basketball, to be honest,” Roland said. “I love basketball, but being able to help people that don’t really have a voice is something that I care more deeply about.”

As he immersed himself in those situations, though, he kept having a nagging feeling:

“I did so much for them, and these are people that I never even knew. And so for me, it was like, I have to do more for Julius Jones.”

True to his word, much of Irv Roland’s life these past two years has revolved around Jones.

“Julius and I talk — we talk about every other day,” Roland said. “He calls me — I have to put money in an account — and he can call me any time of day. I’ve tried to do as much as I can with my little platform that I have to raise awareness.”

That’s entailed leveraging his relationships with athletes to involve themselves on Jones’ behalf — former OU stars Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Buddy Hield, and Baker Mayfield have become prominent Jones advocates, as has former Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. Then, Roland’s relationship with Harden, who dated Khloé Kardashian for a time, led to Kim Kardashian’s interest and involvement in the case.

“Obviously, her platform is far greater than than than mine, or even any of these NBA players’,” Roland noted. “And so Kim has been a huge resource.”

Beyond that, he helped organize and participated in a march from downtown OKC to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester — a 131-mile trek which began this past New Year’s Eve and took the group four days, but which also provided a much-needed reminder of why they were doing what they were.

“When we went on that march, 131 miles, we’re walking in the snow and we’re complaining about our knees and our joints, and [Julius] calls and he’s laughing and joking,” Roland said. “And it’s like, ‘All right, we need to suck it up. That’s some perspective.’”

‘Pretty crazy and pretty eye-opening’

Fortuitously for Roland’s social-justice endeavors but also his continuing NBA career, perspective has been abundant within the Jazz organization.

After joining the team in early September, he was preparing to travel from his base of operations in Los Angeles to Salt Lake City for the first day of organized team activities on Sept. 13. However, upon learning that day was also Jones’ commutation hearing before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board — realistically, one of his last chances to avoid execution — coach Quin Snyder told Roland to change his travel plans.

“Quin called me and said, ‘I want you to go to Oklahoma instead of coming to Salt Lake. Be present for that, because it’s obviously more important than basketball,’” Roland said. “Which is one of the reasons that I love my situation here in Utah, because I’ve never even had a coach that knew what I was doing outside of basketball, let alone cared.”

The board voted 3-1 that day to recommend Stitt commute Jones’ sentence to life with the possibility of parole.

“When they finally voted, I mean, everybody was crying,” Roland recounted. “A lot of joy, but we still knew we had an uphill battle.”

And indeed, Stitt said he would take no action until after the results of Jones’ clemency hearing, before the same group, which would take place Nov. 1.

After the Jazz wrapped a three-game road trip in Milwaukee on Oct. 31, most of the team flew back to Salt Lake City. Snyder once again told Roland to go to OKC. And once again, the board voted 3-1 to ask Stitt to commute Jones’ death sentence to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.

That Stitt still has yet to issue a ruling with the execution scheduled for Thursday understandably has nerves frayed — as does the idea that he could ultimately go against the board’s recommendation.

“I’m all over the place emotionally,” Roland said. “To know that 22 years of his life have been taken away from him, to know that the governor has appointed these people on the Pardon and Parole Board to look at these cases, and they’ve looked at all the facts and decided, ‘We think that he should be free or [have his sentence commuted to] life in prison if nothing else,’ and [the governor is] like, ‘Nah, I’m not even going to look at this, even though I had you all look at it twice, and you thought the same thing twice, and I’m just going to go ahead and kill him,’ that’s very troubling. That’s very troubling.”

Of course, at this point, with his involvement in the Jones and Floyd and Taylor situations, Roland is well-acquainted with the notion of “troubling.”

He acknowledges that not everyone believes Jones’ pleas of innocence. He is cognizant that “sometimes people don’t want to hear it from me.”

But he doesn’t apologize for loudly spreading the message that there is something fundamentally wrong with the American justice system — something as simple as black and white — whether people want to hear it or believe it or not.

“You know, there’s two different Americas. People always talk about the system being broken; it was designed this way, so it’s working perfectly [in a sense]. This is exactly how it was meant to be. And so that’s the disheartening part,” Roland said. “I spend a lot of time, and I have a lot of friends who spend a lot more time involving themselves in these issues, and then to just continuously come up with losses, it’s just very disheartening.”

Roland admitted that the heaviness sometimes weighs on him.

And in those moments, he tries to remind himself to channel the bad energy he’s feeling into something good.

(Eric Walden | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz assistant coach Irv Roland shows off his "Justice for Julius" wristband, just days ahead of the death row convict's scheduled execution in Oklahoma.

“I wish that everyone could talk to Julius,” Roland said. “For me, I’m coming to work and I’m in a bad mood about the Utah Jazz’s effort against the Miami Heat, and here Julius is in a cell for 23 hours a day by himself with only letters to read, and he calls me, and he’s still upbeat and positive, and [there’s] nothing in his voice or in his tone that leads you to believe that he’s scheduled to be executed, or that he spent the last 22 years of his adult life in a cell. It’s pretty crazy and it’s pretty eye-opening.”

And so, in the end, he figures that if Julius Jones can remain hopeful, so can he.

“Even though there’s been a delay, that doesn’t mean there’s going to be a denial in this resolution,” he said. “… I don’t believe that Julius will be executed on Thursday.”

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