After 29 Years on Death Row, Barry Jones Was Dumped at a Bus Station. But He Was Finally Free.

The Supreme Court said his innocence didn’t matter. Jones was released thanks to a plea deal between his lawyers and Arizona.

Barry Jones sits in a conference room at his lawyers’ offices in Tucson, Arizona on June 15, 2023, shortly after he was released following 29 years on Death Row. Jones was wrongfully convicted of murdering 4 year old Rachel Gray in 1994. Credit: Molly Peters for The Intercept
Barry Jones sits in a conference room at his lawyers’ offices in Tucson, Ariz., on June 15, 2023. Photo: Molly Peters for The Intercept

Barry Jones rarely dared to imagine his release from death row. Sometimes, when he was feeling low, his paralegal, whom he called Ms. Jennifer, tried to buoy his spirits by promising that one day his legal team would drive up in the “habeas van” to the desert prison in Florence, Arizona, honking and celebrating, ready to take him home. It was never going to be like that, of course. But neither could they have predicted where Jones would find himself on June 15, in his first moments of freedom after 29 years: alone at a Del Taco near the bus station, being told he could not use the phone.

The previous 24 hours had gone mostly according to plan. He’d spent Wednesday giving away most of his things to friends and neighbors on death row. The next morning, around 4:30 a.m., Jones ate some instant oatmeal for breakfast and prepared to leave his cell for the last time. He boarded a van for the ride down to Tucson, the sprawling prison complex fading from view behind him. By 9:30 he’d arrived at Pima County Superior Court, where a judge would sanction his release at a hearing later that morning. Jones had hoped to walk out there and then. Instead, he was driven around by officers with the Arizona Department of Corrections who didn’t seem to know what to do with him. They eventually arrived at a probation office, where he was finally uncuffed and given a change of clothes. Then they dumped him at the Greyhound station downtown.

With no money, no cellphone, and no experience navigating the city in decades, Jones looked for a pay phone to make a collect call but found none. “Even at the bus station — this is a bus station,” he later said with disbelief. “Wow.” So he started walking toward the one downtown address he knew: the office of the Arizona Federal Public Defender.

In a blue T-shirt, dark jeans, and white sneakers, Jones made his way west. He carried a trash bag with a few belongings and an envelope with his release documents inside. It was a typically bright, hot Arizona day. But he was struck by how green Tucson looked compared to Florence, where there was nothing but brown desert as far as the eye could see. “You know, this ain’t so bad,” he thought. If he didn’t find anyone at the office, he could try to find his son’s house. He could even sleep under a bridge if he had to. What mattered was that he was no longer in prison. “I can do whatever I want.”

What Jones didn’t know was that people were frantically looking for him. His daughter, Brandie, had gone with her family to the Pima County Jail, where she’d originally been told Jones would be held until his paperwork cleared. At the federal defender’s office, Jones’s longtime attorney, Cary Sandman, grew increasingly agitated as he made calls and sent emails looking for his client. When Sandman finally got word that Jones had been left at the bus station, retired investigator Andrew Sowards rushed out to pick him up. But when he got there, Jones was gone.

A search party ensued. Members of the legal team and staff from the Arizona Justice Project split up to look for Jones. Finally, around 2 p.m., a voice came through on speakerphone at the office: “We found him.” Jones was just a block away. He had walked more than a mile. A few minutes later, Jones came through the door, sweaty, smiling, and wearing a can you believe this? expression. Jennifer Schneider, the paralegal, gave him a T-shirt she had been saving for that day. It read “Free Bird.”

The first wave of family filed into the office a little while later. In a large conference room with panoramic windows, Jones reunited with his kids, Brandie, Andrew, and James, along with their children and extended relatives, some of whom he was meeting for the first time. His niece recounted the rush to drive to Tucson earlier that day: “I did 80 and 90 all the way down,” she said. Jones didn’t miss a beat, “I don’t wanna hear nothing about breaking the law.”

Before long, the stress from earlier had melted away. Sowards, one of Jones’s biggest supporters, was amazed as he watched Jones joke and laugh surrounded by people. Jones had never liked crowds in prison; Sowards was nervous he might feel overwhelmed. “But it was the exact opposite,” he said. He saw a side of Jones that was lost in the decades he spent on death row. Jones had been a social guy before his wrongful conviction. “He loves people and loves these people in particular. I think he’s always wanted to be the friendly guy that he was way back then.”

People repeatedly asked Jones what he wanted to eat, but he didn’t have an answer — somehow, he wasn’t hungry. But he did say he’d like to grill burgers that weekend. There was a park he liked to go to back in the day. They could have a cookout for Father’s Day. Brandie said it would be hot; maybe they could plan something indoors. But Jones said he’d rather be outside. “I’ve spent enough time inside.”

Barry Jones poses for a photo with members his legal team in a conference room at his lawyers’ offices in Tucson, Arizona on June 15, 2023, shortly after he was released following 29 years on Death Row. Jones was wrongfully convicted of murdering 4 year old Rachel Gray in 1994. left to right: Leticia Marquez, Cary Sandman, Barry Jones, Jennifer Schneider, Karen Smith Credit: Molly Peters for The Intercept

Barry Jones poses for a photo with members of his legal team at the office of the Arizona Federal Public Defender in Tucson, Ariz., on June 15, 2023.

Photo: Molly Peters for The Intercept

“Innocence Isn’t Enough”

Jones’s release was the culmination of a harrowing saga that started almost 30 years earlier. After being sentenced to death in 1995 for a crime he swore he didn’t commit, Jones thought his nightmare might be ending in 2018, when a federal judge overturned his conviction. Instead, his case became an emblem of Arizona’s dysfunctional death penalty, the U.S. Supreme Court’s radical rightward shift, and the cruelty of a legal system that prioritizes finality over fairness — even if it means executing an innocent person.

Jones was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter, Rachel Gray. The child had died from a sharp blow to her abdomen, which led to a fatal case of peritonitis. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department singled out Jones as the sole suspect before an autopsy had even identified Rachel’s cause of death. Prosecutors based their case on a narrow window of time during which Jones had been seen with Rachel before she died.

But no one investigated the medical evidence: not the lead detective, Sonia Pesqueira, and not Jones’s own court-appointed attorneys, who left the state’s theory unchallenged at trial. It was only when Jones’s federal defenders took his case years later that they discovered the state’s timeline was medically impossible.

Barry Jones and his legal team appear at the Pima County Superior Courthouse in Tucson, Arizona on June 15, 2023, where the Honorable Kyle Bryson accepted a plea deal, releasing Jones from Death Row and re-sentencing him to time served. Jones was wrongfully convicted of murdering 4 year old Rachel Gray in 1994. 

Credit: Molly Peters for The Intercept

Assistant Federal Public Defender Cary Sandman, representing Barry Jones, appears before Judge Kyle Bryson at the Pima County Superior Courthouse in Tucson, Ariz., on June 15, 2023.

Photo: Molly Peters for The Intercept

The odds of Barry Jones getting this evidence into a courtroom were slim. Ideally, Jones’s state post-conviction lawyer would have challenged the trial lawyers’ failure to investigate the medical evidence, arguing that Jones received ineffective assistance of counsel — a violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. Instead, his state post-conviction attorney compounded the trial lawyers’ mistakes.

Under the burdensome rules dictating federal habeas appeals, if a defendant failed to challenge their trial lawyers’ performance in state court, they would be barred from doing so in federal court. But in 2012, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Martinez v. Ryan carved out a rare path to relief for people like Jones: If the failure to bring such a claim was due to the post-conviction attorney’s own ineffectiveness, the petitioner should have another shot at relief.

The ruling got Jones back into federal court. In 2017, U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess presided over a seven-day evidentiary hearing in Tucson, where Sandman and his colleagues presented evidence that had never made it to trial. The testimony dismantled the state’s case against Jones, revealing not only the failings of his attorneys, but also law enforcement officials’ rush to judgment.

Burgess seemed disturbed by Pesqueira, who conceded that she never considered other suspects apart from Jones. And he seemed especially fed up with former Pima County medical examiner John Howard, whose testimony was critical to sending Jones to death row. Howard had previously estimated that Rachel’s abdominal injury was “most consistent” with occurring 24 hours or more before she died. But at Jones’s trial, he shortened the time frame to just 12 hours, which neatly fit the state’s theory of the crime.

In 2018, Burgess vacated Jones’s conviction. If not for the failures of his trial attorneys, the judge wrote, jurors likely “would not have convicted him of any of the crimes with which he was charged and previously convicted.” Burgess ordered the state to retry Jones or release him.


Supreme Court Guts Its Own Precedent to Allow Arizona to Kill Barry Jones

Instead, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich appealed, first to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the core of Burgess’s findings, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court. The state’s lawyers insisted that under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Jones should never have been allowed to present the evidence that persuaded Burgess to vacate his conviction. The argument seemed far-fetched: It would mean gutting the Supreme Court’s own ruling in Martinez v. Ryan. But to the dismay of Jones’s legal team, the court took the case.

During oral argument, the attorney general’s office said that it didn’t matter if the evidence showed Jones was not responsible for the crime that sent him to death row. “Innocence isn’t enough,” the state’s lawyer, Brunn Wall Roysden III, said. In May 2022, the justices agreed, reinstating Jones’s death sentence and destroying a lifeline for incarcerated people whose lawyers failed them at trial.

Barry Jones greets his family for the first time at his lawyers’ offices in Tucson, Arizona on June 15, 2023, shortly after he was released following 29 years on Death Row. Jones was wrongfully convicted of murdering 4 year old Rachel Gray in 1994.

Credit: Molly Peters for The Intercept

Barry Jones greets his family after his release following 29 years on Arizona’s death row.

Photo: Molly Peters for The Intercept

“Some Measure of Justice”

I first wrote about Barry Jones in 2017, in advance of the federal evidentiary hearing in Tucson. One of the first people I met was a juror from his trial, who was haunted by her role in the case. As she recalled it, the evidence against Jones was weak — so weak, she thought surely his conviction had already been overturned. She was distressed to learn that he still faced execution. Before she died in 2020, she expressed hope that Jones would be exonerated.


Twenty-Two Years After Arizona Sent Barry Jones to Death Row, the State’s Case Has Fallen Apart

Over time, I came to learn just how many people believed in Jones’s innocence, including current and former members of his legal team. They worried about Jones’s mental health, which had been ravaged by his time on death row. Before his conviction was overturned, Jones saw 34 neighbors taken to the death chamber. After executions were placed on hold in Arizona following a series of botched lethal injections, Brnovich pushed to resume them last year. In the months after the Supreme Court’s decision in Jones’s case, known as Shinn v. Ramirez, three more men were executed.

In the meantime, however, some critical shifts began to take place. At a hearing in September, Burgess urged lawyers on both sides to consider settling Jones’s case through mediation. “I do think it would be in everybody’s best interest, including society’s best interest, if we can resolve this case,” he said. A judge was assigned to oversee the process.

Two months later, Arizona voters elected a new attorney general, with Democratic candidate Kris Mayes defeating her Republican opponent by just a few hundred votes — one of the closest margins in state history. For Arizona’s death row, the result was literally the difference between life and death. In January, Mayes announced that she was putting executions on hold.

Throughout it all, Jones tried not to get his hopes up. He was encouraged by the judge overseeing the mediation; at their first meeting in December, she had spoken to him for an hour and seemed genuinely committed to a just result. But after almost three decades of wrongful incarceration, he knew better than to pin his hopes on any legal process.

As the months passed, Sandman tried to visit Jones in Florence once a week. In April, he told Jones that there was a tentative agreement that could allow him to walk free, but it would require him to plead guilty to failing to take Rachel to the hospital the night before she died.

The Supreme Court decision left Barry Jones with “a series of bad choices.”

Jones never wished to plead guilty to any part of his case. But as Sandman told Burgess at the hearing last fall, the Shinn decision left them with “a series of bad choices.” At 64, Jones did not have time to litigate for another decade — and even if he did, there was little reason to trust the courts. “The only way to get some measure of justice for him was to compromise,” Sandman said. Jones’s close family friend, Debbie Wheeler, urged him to agree to the deal. “I said, ‘Barry, just sign whatever you have to do to get out.’”

On April 19, Burgess approved the settlement agreement between Jones’s attorneys and the state. Two weeks later, Sandman filed a petition with the Pima County Superior Court requesting that Jones’s conviction be overturned. The state would agree to the request on the condition that Jones plead guilty to the agreed-upon charge. He would then be sentenced to 25 years with credit for time served.

On May 22, the one-year anniversary of the Shinn decision, Pima Superior Court Judge Kyle Bryson agreed to the terms. He set a hearing for June 15. Over the next few weeks, the reality that Jones might actually be released started to sink in. “You could tell he was believing it,” Wheeler said. “But it was just so hard for him to process it.”

Just before 11 a.m. on June 15, dozens of people packed a small courtroom on the eighth floor of the courthouse in downtown Tucson. In his orange prison uniform, Jones turned and smiled at his family and friends. Brandie, his daughter, blew him a kiss and cracked a joke about his thinning hair. Her dad looked happy, she said. Everyone seemed to know it was real this time.

Still, it was impossible not to be anxious. Sandman had felt like he was walking a tightrope for months. It wasn’t until the week of the hearing that he finally felt “99.9 percent sure” the judge would sign the order. Sitting in a row behind him was Sowards, the retired investigator, whose anxiety shot up as soon as the judge started talking. When Bryson said he was taking up Jones’s “potential change in plea and sentencing,” all Sowards could hear was the word “potential” ringing in his ears.

“I can’t give him back the 30 years that was taken from him. But I hope he can make the best of his freedom.”

Before the judge signed the order, a victim’s advocate approached the podium to share a statement from Rachel’s sister Becky. She was 10 years old when Jones was accused of killing her sister and testified against him at trial. I never managed to reach Becky, but in 2022 she was contacted by producers with the true-crime podcast “Conviction,” who made a two-part series about Jones’s case based on my reporting. It was then that Becky learned of the evidence that had emerged after Jones was sent to death row. By the end of her statement, several people in the courtroom were wiping away tears, including Jones.

“Your honor, I have spent the better part of almost 30 years hating the defendant for what happened to my sister Rachel,” the statement began. Although Becky had forgiven Jones for what she thought he’d done, she was shocked to learn about the Supreme Court’s decision in his case, which came down on her birthday. She no longer believed he was a murderer. In fact, she wished he could be released with no strings attached. “I can’t give him back the 30 years that was taken from him. But I hope he can make the best of his freedom.”

Barry Jones, left, and his lead attorney, Cary Sandman pose for a portrait outside the legal offices in Tucson, Arizona on June 15, 2023, shortly after he was released following 29 years on Death Row. Jones was wrongfully convicted of murdering 4 year old Rachel Gray in 1994.

Credit: Molly Peters for The Intercept

Barry Jones, left, and his lead attorney, Cary Sandman, pose for a portrait in Tucson, Ariz., on June 15, 2023.

Photo: Molly Peters for The Intercept

Free Bird

By the end of the day, Jones was settled into a rental unit overlooking a pool near the University of Arizona. Sowards had arranged for Jones to stay there for the next two weeks, and the fridge was stocked with food: burger patties, bottles of Pepsi, and ice cream. A jar of candy sat on the counter next to a Keurig coffee pot. Jones had never seen anything like it.

Schneider, the paralegal, had gotten Jones a flip phone, filling it with contacts. They discussed email and Wi-Fi — technology that he would learn to use. But there were so many other things to take in, the kinds of things that others take for granted. At the lawyers’ office, he’d walked by a bathroom and stared for a moment. He hadn’t seen a porcelain toilet in almost 30 years.

When we first spoke in 2017, Jones told me how nervous he felt contemplating life on the outside. Now, he said, “I just wanna be your average Joe.” He was immensely grateful for his legal team, who treated him like family. Sowards had posted a GoFundMe to help with housing and other basic needs. There were plans to take him shopping, out to eat, and to get him a state ID. One of his former attorneys was even planning to stay at the apartment with him that night, just to make sure he was OK. Still, Jones admitted, “I’m worried about most everything.”

Standing by the pool as the evening wore down, Jones joked that he would have to learn the names of all his grandchildren. It was hard not to think about the horror of what he’d been accused of and how unfathomable it seemed. Since 1994, family and friends had always said Jones would never hurt a child. Now the rest of the world could see what they knew to be true. Jones smiled as his granddaughter splashed around. “It does my heart good to see that,” he said.

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