Barry Jones is back in Tucson to build a new life after decades on death row

By Matthew Casey
Published: Thursday, December 21, 2023 - 4:46am
Updated: Thursday, December 21, 2023 - 7:54am

Audio icon Download mp3 (6.83 MB)

Barry Jones
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Barry Jones works on building a front patio at a home in Green Valley months after leaving death row after nearly 30 years.

One of the first things some people notice about Barry Lee Jones is his touch of a southern drawl.

“My mama, about halfway through the trial, she said, ‘Barry, get ready cause you’re going to death row.’ I said, ‘Well, alright.”

The trial ended in 1995 after a jury said that Jones abused, sexually assaulted and killed a 4-year-old girl. Per his mother’s prediction, Jones spent more than 10,000 days waiting to die and telling people he didn’t do those crimes.

Now in his 60s, Jones is free and on a job site in time to see the sun rise.

The crew Jones is part of works for his son, James, who was about 7 years old when Jones got a death sentence.

Together they planned the layout of a front patio for a home in Green Valley.

Interacting one-on-one is a huge change from when they could only communicate by letter.

Change has been the theme of Jones’ life since he left death row in June.

“I was scared to death. Where am I going to stay? What am I going to do?” Jones said.

To get out one day had almost always felt hopeless. The convictions were thrown out, but then reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Then evidence showing Jones did not cause the internal injury that killed Rachel Gray finally won out.

When Arizona set Jones free in June, it made big news.

It happened because Jones took a deal in which he admitted to second-degree murder for having not gotten the child medical care when it was clear she was ill.

Time served was the sentence from a Pima County Superior Court judge.

Jones said it’s a fact that he didn’t seek treatment.

“I didn’t kill nobody. But I didn’t save nobody. I could do that [deal]. And I did. It was either that or spend another 10 years on death row fighting and proving my innocence. It’s just 10 years that I can spend with my family,” Jones said.

Jones well understands why time is priceless after having spent nearly half of his life on death row.

He noticed when a former detective on his case spoke out against his release on local TV.

But Jones also has a clear perspective on what he can and cannot control. 

“My anger coming out of prison, my aggravation, wouldn’t have done me a bit of good. It would have soured everything that I have right now. So I just left all that behind. And I try to not get angry about much if anything,” Jones said.

Matthew Casey/KJZZ
James Jones (left) helps his father, Barry, with a smartphone he uses to email with people in prison who were his friends for decades.

Family made returning to Tucson an obvious choice for Jones, who admits only treating himself to ice cream.

It’s been hard to look up old friends now that phone books no longer exist.

A big reason why he got a smartphone was to make it easier to email friends back in prison.  

“I keep telling my son, ‘This is not my world.’ It just ain’t. It’s like I was in suspended animation for 30 years and then they woke me up, and boom here I am," he said. 

At first, friends took turns making Jones summer caretaker of their homes.

Then he went on a big road trip to the Pacific Northwest.

Now the land occupied by a trailer home where Jones lives, and the way he earns money have been provided by son James, who was so young he hardly remembers when Jones went to death row.

“Everything kind of fell on my mom. And then that fell apart. And it’s been a life. Now I’m trying to do the right thing. I own my own company,” James said.

James did prison time, too. Mail over the years, to and from his dad, was fastest when he was held in a facility next to death row.

Of course James learned why Jones was sent there. 

“I honestly asked him about it. And he told me he didn’t do it. And that’s where I left it at. But we were younger too so we don’t realize the facts of everything. But once I got older, that’s when I asked him more. I believed him,” James said.

The men agree it now feels like Jones was never gone. Sure, they felt some anxiety in the lead up to when Jones left death row.

Jones said it disappeared when they reunited.

“Son walks up to me, throws his arms around me [and] says ‘Love you dad.’ [It] wasn’t awkward at all. Just like we never missed a beat.”

Jones spent decades clinging to a few memories of James. So the ones they make now mean the most to him.

James said the family grew sort of like the Brady Bunch while his dad was gone, and they’ll all be together this year for the holidays.

More stories from KJZZ

Arizona PrisonsLaw Enforcement