Louisiana man to be freed af­ter judge tosses ’71 rape case

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - NATION - BY MICHAEL KUNZELMAN

BA­TON ROUGE, La. — A Louisiana man who has spent nearly 50 years in prison is ex­pected to be re­leased today, about two weeks af­ter a judge over­turned his con­vic­tion in the kid­nap­ping and rape of a nurse.

Wil­bert Jones didn’t show any vis­i­ble re­ac­tion when State District Court Judge Richard An­der­son set his bail Tues­day at a mere $2,000. The judge pre­vi­ously said the case against Jones was “weak, at best” and that au­thor­i­ties with­held ev­i­dence that could have ex­on­er­ated Jones decades ago.

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, now 65, 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 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 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’ at­tor­ney, Emily Maw, choked up while talk­ing about the case.

“It takes a long time some­times for courts to rec­og­nize a wrong,” she said.

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