A Baton Rouge man sentenced to serve life without parole for the 1971 abduction and rape of a young Baton Rouge General Medical Center nurse will get the chance to argue that prosecutors withheld key police reports from his defense team about two similar attacks in the 1970s that may point to another culprit.
The Louisiana Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision handed down on Friday, ordered a Baton Rouge state district judge to hold a hearing to consider evidence from Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys representing Wilbert Jones. In recent years, Jones' lawyers have obtained Baton Rouge Police reports that named another man as the suspect in two other kidnappings and rapes of young women in Baton Rouge around the time of the crime Jones was convicted of committing.
Jones has maintained his innocence in the attack, in which a 26-year-old nurse on her way to work a night shift at the hospital on Oct. 2, 1971, was forced back into her car at gunpoint and ordered to drive to what was then the East Baton Rouge Special Education Building, where she was raped twice.
Numerous appeals filed by Jones from prison over the years have been brushed aside by the courts, with Judge Richard Anderson in November denying his latest appeal without a hearing on the evidence. But several state Supreme Court justices, in concurring decisions published on Friday, ordered Anderson to hear the evidence and noted troubling aspects of the case against Jones.
Police reports on the other attacks would've allowed Jones' attorney to argue at trial that another man likely committed the crime or that police failed to follow other leads in the case, Jones' attorneys have argued. They assert prosecutors' failure to turn over copies of the reports amounted to misconduct and a violation of his rights under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 decision in Brady vs. Maryland.
Emily Maw, executive director of the Innocence Project New Orleans and one of Jones' attorneys, said they are pleased with the opportunity to lay out "the extent of the injustice that Mr. Jones has suffered, the constitutional violations that led to it and why that injustice should end as soon as possible."
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III, whose office is defending the conviction, said his prosecutors will "respect the court's order" but are confident a judge will rule after an evidentiary hearing that Jones' rights weren't violated.
Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys and researchers spent years fruitlessly searching for physical evidence from the crime gathered by police in hopes of testing it for DNA but so far have turned up only an empty envelope. 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, a slip and two combs.
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote that new DNA tests likely could've resolved the question of Jones' guilt. Johnson said she was "gravely concerned about the apparently premature destruction of evidence" in the case and urged authorities to search again for any pieces of evidence that might still survive.
The victim, who died in 2008, identified Jones as her attacker in a photo lineup and at two trials that ended in convictions for Jones. The state Supreme Court overturned the verdict of in Jones' first trial because of comments made by the prosecutor in his opening statements.
But similarities between the crime for which Jones is serving life without parole and two similar rapes in the same time period — one 27 days later, when a woman was abducted from the parking lot of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center; the other in September 1973, when an attacker barged into a woman's home near Baton Rouge General — lie at the heart of the Innocence Project New Orleans' efforts to exonerate Jones and free him from prison after more than 40 years.
Police officers linked another man — whom Jones' attorneys call a "serial rapist" — to both those crimes, the second of which occurred while Jones was in jail awaiting his second trial. The man's physical appearance and voice more closely match the description given to police by the victim in the rape for which Jones was convicted, his attorneys contend.
Both the victim in the crime for which Jones was convicted and the victim in the 1973 abduction and rape from a home near Baton Rouge General — a crime committed while Jones was incarcerated — noted a gap in their attacker's front teeth and his smooth, gentle voice. Jones had neither, according to his attorneys, while the other man does.
Police found the victim's car keys in the suspect's pocket when they arrested him shortly after the 1973 attack, according to court records. Police matched the same man's fingerprints to those left on the car driven by the victim in the 1971 Our Lady of the Lake abduction and rape, but he was never prosecuted for this incident. He was tried and convicted in the 1973 case for armed robbery but no other offenses, although prosecutors introduced evidence about a rape during that trial.
Jones' attorneys highlighted "too many similarities" between that man and the description of the attacker in the Oct. 2, 1971, abduction and rape to dismiss without a thorough hearing the possibility that the victim misidentified Jones, wrote Justice Greg Guidry.
Justice Scott Crichton, who sided with the majority, noted that one of the assistant district attorneys who prosecuted Jones, Ralph Roy, had a history of overturned convictions that may bolster Jones' claim that prosecutors intentionally withheld information. In appeals filings with the state Supreme Court, Jones' attorneys pointed to a 1974 opinion by a state Supreme Court justice that accused Roy of "systematic disregard for … the constitutional rights of the accused defendants." Roy is deceased.
Prosecutors with the East Baton Rouge District Attorney's Office, in filings arguing against overturning Jones' conviction, contended that Jones' attorneys knew about the other rapes. The transcript from Jones' second trial showed a police detective began to testify at Jones' second trial about a string of rapes around Baton Rouge General in the early 1970s before a defense attorney objected.
But Guidry, one of the Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of a hearing for Jones, said that fact — if true — would raise other troubling questions about the fairness of Jones' trial. The defense attorney who represented Jones, Guidry noted, also represented the suspect in the other attacks, putting the lawyer under a worrying conflict of interest.
Jones, 64, is in rapidly declining health, according to his attorneys. The Supreme Court cited his worsening condition in ordering a judge to hold a hearing in his case "as soon as practical." Maw, with the Innocence Project New Orleans, said Jones' ailments include the impact of years of poorly managed diabetes and indications he may have suffered a heart attack in prison in March.
Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys filed an emergency request for the courts to speed up his case in mid-March citing a deterioration of Jones' health over a matter of weeks that saw him rapidly lose weight and strength and sent him to the skilled nursing unit at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.
Maw said Jones' condition is no longer as precarious as it was in March, "but there's no question that he's in steady decline and time is of the essence if our courts want the ability to fully consider whether an injustice has occurred before he dies."
Justice James Genovese voted with his three other colleagues to order the district judge to hold a hearing. Justices Marcus Clark, Jeff Hughes III, and John Weimer all wrote that they would have denied Jones' appeal asking for the hearing.