Wilbert Jones has spent more than 45 years behind bars for a rape the Baton Rouge man and his attorneys contend he didn't commit, but the man they point the finger at refused Thursday to answer questions during a court-ordered hearing in Jones' case.
The 64-year-old Jones, who is seeking a new trial, is serving a life sentence without parole after being convicted in 1974 of abducting a young nurse from the Baton Rouge General Medical Center parking lot on Oct. 2, 1971, and raping her twice. She died in 2008.
Twenty-seven days after that October 1971 incident, a woman visiting Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center was kidnapped from that parking lot and raped. Then, in September 1973, a man barged into a woman's Baton Rouge home near Baton Rouge General, raped her and stole her car.
Arnold Ray O'Conner, now 63, of Baton Rouge, was convicted of armed robbery in the 1973 incident. His fingerprints also were found on the victim's car in the Our Lady of the Lake attack, but he was never prosecuted in that case.
Jones' lawyers with the Innocence Project New Orleans argued Thursday to state District Judge Richard Anderson that Jones deserves a new trial because East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors failed to share with Jones' trial attorneys the police reports about the Our Lady of the Lake abduction and rape and the 1973 incident.
"It would have made a difference to the jury," Innocence Project lawyer Jee Park told the judge, arguing that Jones did not receive a fair trial.
Prosecutors said the Our Lady of the Lake abduction and the 1973 incident were common knowledge in Baton Rouge.
Prosecutors on Wednesday filed their reply to the Innocence Project New Orleans' efforts to …
Emily Maw, executive director of the Innocence Project, called O'Conner to the witness stand Thursday, but he invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
"How long has Wilbert Jones been in prison for one of your rapes?" Maw asked O'Conner, whose attorney, Ron Johnson, was sitting in the jury box next to him. Jones sat with his lawyers at the defense table. Johnson objected to Maw's question, and the judge struck the question.
O'Conner, who said he was convicted of armed robbery in 1974 and released from prison in 1996, then told Maw he would not answer any questions regarding the abduction and rapes that occurred on Oct. 2, 1971, and Oct. 29, 1971.
He also declined to answer whether he had a gap in his teeth in 1971 and what he looked like back then.
Jones' attorneys say O'Conner's physical appearance and voice more closely match the description given to police by the victim in the rape for which Jones was found guilty. That victim and the victim in the 1973 incident noted a gap in their attacker's front teeth and his smooth, gentle voice.
"Wilbert Jones was wrongfully convicted and is innocent," Park told Anderson at the start of Thursday's hearing in Jones' aggravated rape case. "Wilbert Jones has maintained his innocence for 45½ years."
East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant District Attorney Dana Cummings immediately objected to Hayes' opening remarks, telling the judge the sole issue to be considered during the hearing is whether prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense in violation of Jones' constitutional rights. Cummings argued they did not.
"We are not here to try that case again," she said. "We cannot do that. Our victim is dead. We cannot retry this case."
Anderson stressed that he understood what the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered him to do in June. The judge said he had no intention of retrying the case this week.
A Baton Rouge man sentenced to serve life without parole for the 1971 abduction and rape of …
Anderson will hear closing arguments from both sides Sept. 5.
In the attack for which Jones was convicted and sentenced to life, a 26-year-old nurse was abducted from the Baton Rouge General parking lot as she was coming to work about 10:45 p.m. She was then raped in a secluded area near the then-East Baton Rouge Special Education Building.
In the Our Lady of the Lake incident later that month, a 24-year-old woman visiting that hospital was kidnapped from the parking lot as she left the hospital about 8 p.m. She also was raped elsewhere.
The victim in the Baton Rouge General parking lot abduction identified Jones as her attacker in a photo lineup and at two trials that resulted in convictions for Jones. The state Supreme Court overturned the verdict in Jones' first trial because of comments one of the prosecutors made in his opening statements to the jury.
A judge's order signed the year after Jones' 1974 conviction gave the Baton Rouge Police Department permission to destroy physical evidence in the case, including a pair of pantyhose, a dress and slip, and two combs.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Innocence Project attorney. The lawyer is Jee Park, not Kia Hayes. The Advocate regrets the error.