BATON ROUGE, La. — The Latest on the expected release of a Louisiana man whose conviction was overturned after nearly 50 years in prison (all times local):
A Louisiana man who has spent nearly 50 years in prison was freed Wednesday after a judge overturned his conviction in the kidnapping and rape of a nurse.
Wilbert Jones thanked God for the freedom and his loyal family, who never gave up hope. He also hugged his legal team at the Innocence Project New Orleans.
State District Court Judge Richard Anderson agreed Tuesday to release Jones after hearing arguments from defense attorneys and prosecutors. He threw out Jones’ conviction and life sentence last month, saying evidence withheld decades ago could have exonerated him.
Jones, now 65, was 19 when police arrested him on suspicion of raping the nurse in 1971. Anderson said authorities concealed “highly favorable” evidence that the crime was committed by another man linked to two similar attacks.
Wilbert Jones has just arrived at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, where he’s expected to be released Wednesday after nearly 50 years in prison for a rape his lawyer says he didn’t commit.
A small group of family members and representatives of the Innocence Project New Orleans waved at Jones as his inmate transport vehicle with heavily tinted windows passed through the prison gates. Jones has been serving his life sentence recently at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana. Before that, he did time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola.
Jones was arrested at 19 and sentenced to life in prison for a rape that his lawyer, Emily Maw, says he didn’t commit. Now he’s 65. A judge overturned the conviction last month, saying prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. Maw says he spent 16,000 days in prison for something he didn’t do.
A lawyer for Wilbert Jones says it’s a great credit to our courts, that they’re willing to confront pain and rectify a past injustice, in this case freeing a man she says was wrongly convicted nearly 50 years ago for a rape he didn’t commit.
Attorney Emily Maw spoke outside the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison while she waited for the release of her client.
She says Jones has spent more than 16,000 days in prison for something he didn’t do. But she says Jones will come out with faith in God and humanity, and will live with his brother and sister-in-law, who have faithfully supported him for decades.
The East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s office said it would ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the decision overturning his conviction. Maw says prosecutors have yet to file such a motion, which she says would be a waste of time and taxpayers’ money.
She says that doing so would be legally incorrect and morally problematic, since it would be asserting that a poor black teenager arrested in 1972 did not deserve the rights that people deserve today.
The D.A.’s office did not immediately return a request Wednesday for comment on the case.
After 50 years in prison for a rape conviction that has now been overturned, Wilbert Jones is being transferred from the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. That’s where he’s expected to pass through the gates as a free man on Wednesday.
State District Court Judge Richard Anderson overturned Jones’s rape conviction last month, saying the case against him was “weak at best” and that authorities withheld evidence that could have exonerated him decades ago.
Jones, now 65 years old, was 19 when he was arrested for the rape of a Baton Rouge nurse. The victim told police her rapist was taller and had a “much rougher” voice than Jones had, but picked him out of a line up three months after the attack. Jones’ lawyers say her description matches a different man who was arrested but never charged in two other rapes.
Prosecutors said they will ask for a state Supreme Court review but do not intend to put Jones on trial again.
It has been nearly 50 years since a Louisiana man was sentenced to life in prison in the kidnapping and rape of a nurse, but after a judge overturned his conviction, he is expected to walk out of prison Wednesday morning a free man.
State District Court Judge Richard Anderson previously said the case against Wilbert Jones, 65, was “weak at best” and that authorities withheld evidence that could have exonerated Jones decades ago.
Jones didn’t show any visible reaction when Anderson set his bail Tuesday at a mere $2,000.
Jones’ family members embraced one another and fought back tears outside the courtroom. Jones’ niece Wajeedah Jones said she already knew what her uncle’s first request would be.
“We will have the gumbo ready for him when he gets out,” she said.
Prosecutors said they will ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the judge’s decision, but they do not intend to retry Jones.
Jones was 19 when police arrested him on suspicion of abducting a nurse at gunpoint from a Baton Rouge hospital’s parking lot and raping her behind a building on the night of Oct. 2, 1971. Jones was convicted of aggravated rape at a 1974 retrial and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“The community has changed so much since he was locked up,” said prison warden Timothy Hooper, who testified in favor of Jones’ release because he said he was a model inmate.
The state’s case against Jones “rested entirely” on the nurse’s testimony and her “questionable identification” of Jones as her assailant, the judge has said. The nurse, who died in 2008, picked Jones out of a police lineup more than three months after the rape. But she also told police that the man who raped her was taller and had a “much rougher” voice than Jones had.
Jones’ lawyers claim the nurse’s description matches a man who was arrested but never charged in the rape of a woman abducted from the parking lot of another Baton Rouge hospital, 27 days after the nurse’s attack. The same man also was arrested on suspicion of raping yet another woman in 1973, but was only charged and convicted of armed robbery in that case.
Anderson said the evidence shows police knew of the similarities between that man and the nurse’s description of her attacker.
“Nevertheless, the state failed to provide this information to the defense,” he wrote.
Prosecutors denied that authorities withheld any relevant evidence about other Baton Rouge rapists.
“The state was not obligated to document for the defense every rape or abduction that occurred in Baton Rouge from 1971 to 1974,” prosecutors wrote in February.
Jones’ attorneys from Innocence Project New Orleans describe him as a “highly trusted prisoner and a frail, aging man” who doesn’t pose a danger to the community. The late nurse’s husband isn’t opposed to his release, they wrote in a court filing.
“He feels that Mr. Jones has been in prison long enough and that he should be able to get out and spend his remaining years with his family,” the lawyers wrote.
Jones’ attorneys also said that a prosecutor who secured his conviction had a track record of withholding evidence favorable to defendants. A 1974 opinion by a state Supreme Court justice said the prosecutor was responsible for 11 reversed convictions over the preceding year — “an incredible statistic for a single prosecutor,” the justices noted.
Jones’ attorney Emily Maw choked up while talking about the case, which the Innocence Project started working on about 15 years ago.
“It takes a long time sometimes for courts to recognize a wrong,” she said.