Louisiana man freed after judge tosses 1971 rape case

  • Wilbert Jones has spent nearly 50 years in prison but will be freed 
  • 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 
  • Judge overturned the Louisiana man's conviction for kidnap and rape
  • State District Court Judge Richard Anderson set Wilbert Jones' bail at $2,000 
  • Lawyers expect him to be released as soon as Wednesday
  • Jones' conviction was thrown out in October after it was found authorities withheld evidence that could have exonerated him decades ago
  • Prosecutors said they will ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the judge's decision, but they do not intend to retry Jones 

By Associated Press

Published: 03:25 EST, 14 November 2017 | Updated: 23:24 EST, 14 November 2017

A Louisiana man who has spent nearly 50 years in prison is expected to be released Wednesday, 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.

Wilbert Jones could be freed on Wednesday after his conviction was overturned Tuesday
Wilbert Jones could be freed on Wednesday after his conviction was overturned Tuesday

Wilbert Jones could be freed on Wednesday after his conviction was overturned Tuesday

Wajeedah Jones, niece of Wilbert Jones, reaches to wipe away tears from Wilbert's sister-in-law, Wilda, as family members speak on the steps of state district court in Baton Rouge
Wajeedah Jones, niece of Wilbert Jones, reaches to wipe away tears from Wilbert's sister-in-law, Wilda, as family members speak on the steps of state district court in Baton Rouge

Wajeedah Jones, niece of Wilbert Jones, reaches to wipe away tears from Wilbert's sister-in-law, Wilda, as family members speak on the steps of state district court in Baton Rouge

Plem Jones, center, brother of Wilbert Jones, reacts with his wife Wilda Jones, right, and Wajeedah Jones, left. A judge overturned his conviction in the kidnapping and rape of a nurse
Plem Jones, center, brother of Wilbert Jones, reacts with his wife Wilda Jones, right, and Wajeedah Jones, left. A judge overturned his conviction in the kidnapping and rape of a nurse

Plem Jones, center, brother of Wilbert Jones, reacts with his wife Wilda Jones, right, and Wajeedah Jones, left. A judge overturned his conviction in the kidnapping and rape of a nurse

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 October 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.

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

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

Judge Richard Anderson set Wilbert Jones' bail at $2,000 after hearing arguments from defense attorneys and prosecutors in a Baton Rouge courtroom
Judge Richard Anderson set Wilbert Jones' bail at $2,000 after hearing arguments from defense attorneys and prosecutors in a Baton Rouge courtroom

Judge Richard Anderson set Wilbert Jones' bail at $2,000 after hearing arguments from defense attorneys and prosecutors in a Baton Rouge courtroom

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.

Emily Maw, staff attorney for Innocence Project New Orleans, speaks with family members. Judge Anderson threw out Jones' conviction saying authorities withheld evidence that could have exonerated Jones decades ago
Emily Maw, staff attorney for Innocence Project New Orleans, speaks with family members. Judge Anderson threw out Jones' conviction saying authorities withheld evidence that could have exonerated Jones decades ago

Emily Maw, staff attorney for Innocence Project New Orleans, speaks with family members. Judge Anderson threw out Jones' conviction saying authorities withheld evidence that could have exonerated Jones decades ago

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.

Wilda Jones, sister-in-law of Wilbert Jones, wipes away tears of joy knowing her brother-in-law will soon be a free man
Wilda Jones, sister-in-law of Wilbert Jones, wipes away tears of joy knowing her brother-in-law will soon be a free man

Wilda Jones, sister-in-law of Wilbert Jones, wipes away tears of joy knowing her brother-in-law will soon be a free man

'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.


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