When Wilbert Jones was convicted of a 1971 abduction and rape, he was 19. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Now 65, he is tasting freedom once more after a Louisiana judge ruled the case against him was weak and found that prosecutors may have withheld key defense evidence.
Jones’s conviction was overturned and he has been released on $2,000 bail. Prosecutors don’t intend to retry him, although they have said they will ask the Louisiana Supreme court to review the judge’s ruling.
The case against Jones “rested entirely” upon an identification by the victim, a nurse who was abducted from a hospital parking lot. That ID, which took place in a police lineup, occurred more than three months after the incident. It was questionable whether she even positively identified Jones as the assailant. At the time, she told police that the assailant was taller than Jones and had a “much rougher” voice.
Even more important, the victim’s description of her assailant matched another man more closely. That man was arrested, although never charged, for the abduction and rape of another woman less than a month later. That victim, too, had been taken from a hospital parking lot. Moreover, the second man was also arrested in connection with another rape in 1973, although he was again never charged.
The judge found evidence that the police noticed that the victim’s description more closely matched the second man, but prosecutors never mentioned the second man to the defense.
This is what is called a “Brady violation” after the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case of Brady v. Maryland. In that landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors have a legal duty to turn over evidence that tends to show the charged defendant might not be guilty.
The prosecutor who tried Jones had a record of Brady violations, according to Jones’s attorneys from the Innocence Project New Orleans. According to a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling in 1974, the prosecutor had an incredible 11 convictions reversed over the course of the preceding year.
Today’s prosecutors in the jurisdiction deny that the authorities wrongfully withheld the evidence about the alternative suspect. Dismissively, they wrote in February that “the state was not obligated to document for the defense every rape or abduction that occurred in Baton Rouge from 1971 to 1974.”
The state wasn’t asked to do that, but only to turn over evidence of a plausible second suspect.
Jones has spent more than 16,000 days in prison for a crime he probably had nothing to do with. When asked how he feels now, he said, “God is good.”