Baton Rouge, Louisiana : Nearly 50 years after he was arrested in the abducting and rape of a nurse, Wilbert Jones walked out of prison on Wednesday – into the arms of his brother, sister-in-law and niece- after his life sentence and conviction overturned by State District Judge Richard Anderson who said the case against him was “weak at best.”
Wilbert Jones was wrongfully convited of rape in 1974 and sentenced to life. Authorities withheld evidence decades ago that could have exonerated Wilbert Jones, now 65, the Judge said.
Jones was arrested on suspicion of abducting a nurse at gunpoint from a Baton Rouge hospital’s parking lot and molesting her behind a building on the night of Oct. 2, 1971. Convicted of aggravated rape at a 1974 retrial, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
On Oct. 31, 19th Judicial District Judge Richard Anderson tossed out Jones’ 1974 rape conviction, ruling that East Baton Rouge prosecutors withheld “highly favorable” evidence from the defense. That evidence, the judge said, probably would have resulted in a different outcome at his trial.
The state’s case against Jones “rested entirely” on the nurse’s testimony and her “questionable identification” of Jones as her assailant, the judge 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 molested 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 molesting 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.
Innocence Project New Orleans Director Emily Maw, whose legal team represented Jones and worked the case since 2003, said she has been so humbled by Jones’ patience, strength and unwavering faith throughout the entire process.
“(Jones spent) over 16,000 days in prison for something he didn’t do, and came out with faith in God and humanity,” Maw said. She said she’s in awe of “his ability to carry on in spite of being denied and ignored.
Wilbert Jones said Wednesday he doesn’t hold any grievances against those who arrested, accused and convicted him.
“I forgave,” Jones said.
“I just want to be free,” the 64-year-old Jones said, with a smile on his face and family embracing him. “I thank God for my family, I thank God for my legal team and I thank God for God.”
Jones thanked God for the freedom, and his loyal family for never giving up hope. He also hugged his legal team at the Innocence Project New Orleans as tears flowed outside the gates of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.
Jones’ lawyer, Emily Maw, praised “the extraordinary strength” of a man “who has spent over 16,000 days in prison for something he didn’t do,” and would nevertheless “come out with a faith in God and in humanity.”
Wajeedah Jones said she already knew what her uncle’s first request would be after the judge set his bail Tuesday at a mere $2,000.
“We will have the gumbo ready for him when he gets out,” she said.
His brother Plem Jones gave him a long hug, later wiping tears from his eyes.
“I never gave up on him, I knew that he didn’t do it,” Plem Jones said Wednesday. “It was nothing but a matter of time, I knew he was going to be free one day.”
Plem Jones said in the almost 46 years his brother was incarcerated, he can only remember missing two opportunities to visit him. He traveled two weekends a month up to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, and additionally on a month’s rare fifth weekend, to talk, to cry with his brother, he said. In his earlier years, he brought his daughter with him, and more recently, he brought his grandchildren.
“My dad and Wilbert, they never, ever gave up hope,” Wajeedah Jones, Wilbert Jones’ niece, said Wednesday.
Wilbert Jones plans to move in with his brother and sister-in-law to their Baton Rouge home, where his family said seafood gumbo and potato salad — his requests — were awaiting him. With his new freedome, Jones said hopes to do some traveling, maybe to Canada and Colorado, and also find ways to reach out to the youth in Baton Rouge.
Prosecutors are appealing Anderson’s decision to overturn the conviction, but have said they won’t retry the case, which would have been difficult because the victim is dead.