Quintin Jones’ impending execution strikes at the core of Texas’ death penalty problem

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Over the past week, Texas death row inmate Quintin Jones’ pleas for clemency have galvanized criminal justice reform advocates and once again shined a spotlight on the state’s frequent use of capital punishment. Captured in a New York Times–produced video and op-ed titled, “Quintin Jones is Not Innocent. But He Doesn’t Deserve to Die,” the 41-year-old asked Gov. Greg Abbott to step in before he’s put to death tomorrow, Wednesday May 19, at 6 p.m.

“All I’m asking you to do, Governor Abbott, is give me a second chance at life,” he said to the Republican, who is the only person with the power to stop the proceeding. 

Jones’ impending execution is just the latest death penalty case to make headlines across the country. But unlike the majority of recent cases to have dominated the national dialogue in recent years — including Kim Kardashian’s public defense of Rodney Reed — this isn’t an instance where innocence is on the table. Rather, it’s centered around the concept of redemption and forgiveness. Even more, it’s indictment on the entire practice of capital punishment. 

As acclaimed journalist and author Suleika Jaouad laid out in the aforementioned Times piece, Quintin Jones is guilty of killing his great-aunt in 1999. There’s no denying that. But in the years she’s gotten to know him, Jaouad said that it’s obvious that Jones is “the epitome of a prison success story.” He hasn’t just battled through the addictions that drove him to commit the offenses that landed him in this position, she wrote: He’s reconciled with his family, been forgiven by those closest to his great-aunt, and found his faith. 

To that point, Jones’ great-aunt Mattie Long — the victim’s sister — has said advocated for his life to be spared. “I love him very much,” Long told CBS News. “I think the governor should spare him because he has changed and he’s a different person than he used to be.” 

There are larger, more nuanced aspects to this situation, too. Jones reportedly endured an incredibly challenging childhood in which he experienced a traumatic blend of violence, neglect, abuse, poverty, and addiction. And though he told Jaouad that he doesn’t blame his early circumstances for the acts he committed, a burgeoning field of death penalty legal defense known as mitigation has consistently found that defendants’ life experiences (including mental health issues, significant impoverishment, and traumatic family backgrounds) play critical roles in their early congenital, emotional, and cognitive development. 

Furthermore, there’s the fact that Jones, who is Black, received unequal treatment based on his race. While the 41-year-old was sentenced to die for committing one murder, Riky “Red” Roosa, the white man 18 years Jones’ senior who lead the gang he joined, received life with the possibility of parole after killing two people. This isn’t an anomaly, of course: According to a 2020 report by the Death Penalty Information Center, 52 percent of 2019 death row inmates in the U.S. were Black—a staggering figure considering Black people made up less than 14 percent of the American population that same year

At its core, Jones’ case embodies how inequities in the legal system and society at large make it far more likely for some people to face the death penalty than others. Perhaps just as importantly, though, his potential execution would underscore just how out of step Texas is with the rest of the country. In the past several decades, support for capital punishment has plummeted due to shifting opinions about the practice’s barbaric nature and astonishingly costly nature. (Case in point: A Texas death penalty costs an average of $2.3 million, nearly three times as expensive as incarcrating someone at the highest security level for four decades) In fact, a mere 36 percent of Americans said they supported sentencing defendants to capital punishment instead of life without parole.

But as The Marshall Project’s Maurice Chammah laid out in his recent book, Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty, Texas has cemented its legacy as the epicenter of U.S. capital punishment by packaging it as Wild West–inspired frontier justice, rather than the practice of lynching Black men that it’s actually based in. “There’s this story that gets told about how lynchings were what we did in the Wild West. Hanging cattle thieves from the nearest tree,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s propelled Texas to lean into its most punitive, revenge-oriented policies when it comes to criminal justice.” To that point, the state has carried out 570 executions over the past 50 years—more than a third of the total number of people put to death in America. 

Thus far, Gov. Abbott, who has only granted clemency to one inmate in his entire tenure, has shown no signs of stepping in. That’s despite all of the arguments that Jones has acknowledged his wrongdoing, has worked to forge relationships with those he hurt, and by all accounts, has grown immensely in his two-plus decades at Texas’ death row unit in Huntsville. That’s despite the fact that barely a third of Americans support capital punishment. And that’s despite the fact that killing prisoners is a fiscally irresponsible process based in outdated, vindictive reasoning. 

As of Tuesday evening, more than 160,000 people had signed a Change.org petition demanding that Quintin Jones be granted clemency. Regardless of what happens to him tomorrow evening, his story must continue to be told as a reminder that the death penalty cannot remain as a part of our society. 

Photo: Greg Smith/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

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