Thursday November 16, 2017

'We should be proud': Louisiana man's rape conviction overturned after 45 years in prison

Family members of Wilbert Jones, flanked by attorneys from Innocence Project New Orleans, speak on the steps of state district court in Baton Rouge, La.

Family members of Wilbert Jones, flanked by attorneys from Innocence Project New Orleans, speak on the steps of state district court in Baton Rouge, La. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

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After 45 years of nothing but prison cafeteria food, Wilbert Jones dined on homemade gumbo Wednesday surrounded by his family.

"He ate so much of it I think we were all slightly worried he was going to go into a diabetic coma," Emily Maw, the Louisiana man's lawyer from Innocence Project New Orleans, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"It was a really good day for Wilbert Jones. Obviously, probably the best day in 45 years, 10 months and one day."

That is how long Jones, now 65 years old, spent behind bars for a crime he maintains he did not commit until a judge overturned his rape conviction this week.

Old Rape Case

Wilbert Jones talks to media with his brother Plem Jones, right, after leaving prison for the first time in 45 years. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

Jones was 19 when he was arrested 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.

State District Judge Richard Anderson called the case against Jones "weak at best" and said authorities withheld evidence that could have exonerated him decades ago.

He was convicted of aggravated rape at a 1974 retrial that rested on the nurse's testimony and her identification of Jones as her assailant.

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 she wasn't 100 per cent certain it was him, saying 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, just 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.

The judge said the evidence shows police knew of the similarities between that man and the nurse's description of her attacker.

Old Rape Case

Emily Maw, staff attorney for Innocence Project New Orleans, says 'we should be proud' of the legal system for overturning Jones' verdict. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

"I think it's a real warning for when we just default to an eye-witness identification and don't do more critical followup in a serious crime investigation," Maw said.

Prosecutors denied that authorities withheld any relevant evidence about other Baton Rouge rapists.

"The state was not obligated to document for the defence of every rape or abduction that occurred in Baton Rouge from 1971 to 1974," prosecutors wrote in February.

Jones' attorneys also said that a prosecutor who secured his conviction had a track record of withholding evidence favourable to defendants.

A 1974 opinion by a state Supreme Court justice said the prosecutor was responsible for 11 reversed convictions the preceding year — "an incredible statistic for a single prosecutor."

'Race plays a role in this case to the extent that he has gone unheard for 45 years and it has been very easy for people to ignore him because of who he is.' - Emily Maw, Innocence Project New Orleans

Race also played a role in the trial.

According to the Advocate, the victim was a very light-skinned black woman who testified at trial that her rapist refused to believe she wasn't white and told her he was acting partly out of a desire to exact revenge against white people.

"Wilbert Jones was a 19-year-old poor illiterate black man when he was arrested, and he was unable to understand what was happening to him or really get the protection of the courts and our legal system that we would all want if we were we arrested for a crime we didn't commit," Maw said.

"Race plays a role in this case to the extent that he has gone unheard for 45 years and it has been very easy for people to ignore him because of who he is." 

APTOPIX Old Rape Case

Wilbert Jones hugs William Aquino, attorney for Innocence Project New Orleans, as he leaves East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

Jones isn't completely out of the woods yet.

Prosecutors have said they do not intend to retry Jones, but they do intend ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review last month's decision by the judge.

Court spokesman Robert Gunn said Wednesday morning that no such request had been filed. That means Jones has yet to be cleared; the judge set his bail at $2,000.

Still, Maw holds out hope.

"I think it is a great credit to our court system today that they were wiling go into a case this old, see that it was an injustice visited upon a particularly vulnerable person in the Louisiana of 1972 in which Wilbert Jones was convicted, and dare to rectify that," Maw said.

"I think we should be proud of that and find hope in that."

​— With files from Associated Press