Wilbert Jones is back in a world he hasn't known since he was 19 years old.
A refrigerator is still an ice box. Escalators are foreign machines. Frozen dinners taste "amazing." Swiping a plastic card for payment takes practice.
But with the support of his family, Jones, 65, is slowly figuring out 21st-century Baton Rouge after almost 46 years in prison for a conviction that has since been overturned.
"It's a whole new journey, a new experience for me," Jones said. "It's been almost 50 years, everything's so different."
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Jones was convicted of aggravated rape in 1974 and sentenced to life in prison, but in November, a state district judge ruled that "highly favorable" evidence was withheld from Jones' defense. That evidence, the judge said, had a "reasonable probability" of changing the original outcome in the case. Prosecutors have appealed that decision — a move opposed by Jones' lawyers from Innocence Project New Orleans, a nonprofit that provides legal services for those they believe could be wrongly imprisoned. Jones, however, has been out on bail since Nov. 15.
"Right now it’s really just like surreal because it’s been so many years. But since I remember from day one, my dad and uncle … always had the faith," said Wadeejah Jones, Wilbert Jones' niece. "They always knew someday he was coming home."
Upon his release, Wilbert Jones moved into his brother and sister-in-law's home, just down the street from his niece and her children in Baton Rouge's Fairfields neighborhood. Throughout his decades-long imprisonment at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, both at least a 30-minute drive one-way from their home, Jones’ brother visited him at least weekly. Plem Jones can remember missing only two opportunities to visit his brother.
In Wilbert Jones' first six weeks of freedom, the brothers have spent almost all of their time together — whether it's been in doctors' waiting rooms, next to each other at church on Sundays or in restaurants eating some much-missed seafood.
Wilbert Jones walked through the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison gate around noon Wednesday and into the arms of his brother, sister-in-law and…
"I’ve got so much joy for him," said Plem Jones, who never doubted his brother's innocence. "I really wanted him out of there so bad."
Wadeejah Jones said she's taken her uncle shopping at the Mall of Louisiana, where she held his hand going up the escalator — a first-time experience for him — and together they went to see "Murder on the Orient Express" at Movie Tavern. Next on the list, both at Wilbert Jones’ request, will be a professional basketball game, and, hopefully, a trip to Canada.
The whole family continues to introduce him to different foods he’s either never had or are long forgotten — most recently shrimp-and-corn soup, which he loved, she said.
But the best part for them all has been having their family reunited; introducing Wilbert to great-nieces and great-nephews he’s never met, and rekindling relationships with cousins, uncles, aunts and neighbors.
"It’s been like a missing (piece in the) puzzle, and I’m putting it together," Wilbert Jones said.
But Plem Jones said he's also seen his brother struggle as he adjusts to free society after being institutionalized for so long.
"All the stuff he missed by not being out in the world with free people, a lot of stuff he don’t understand. … He don’t know what to do in certain situations," Plem Jones said. "It did something to him."
Plem Jones said he's had to help his brother with little things, like making a bed or lighting the stove. And often, he said, he catches his brother stopped, seemingly in space, as though he wasn’t just in the middle of something.
"He's in awe of being home," Wadeejah Jones said. "We’re here for him, teaching him everything he needs to know … and he’s catching on pretty good.”
And Wilbert Jones exudes gratitude toward his family, always quick to thank them, but also his lawyers, and most importantly, God.
“I have to take it a day at a time; it’s a challenge for me," Wilbert Jones said. "My family helps me a lot, and my attorneys — they’re like family — they help me a lot.”
‘He showed us’
Jones was found guilty in 1974 in the Oct. 2, 1971, rape of a young Baton Rouge General Medical Center nurse who was abducted from the hospital parking lot.
However, state district Judge Richard Anderson ruled in November that prosecutors at the time failed to turn over pertinent information about a second young woman who was kidnapped Oct. 29, 1971, from the parking lot of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical and raped — evidence that Jones’ lawyers argued implicate another man.
The judge, in his decision to overturn Jones’ conviction, said the "strong similarities" between the two rapes are "almost too numerous to list.” He also agreed that the Baton Rouge General nurse's physical description of her attacker is "an almost identical match" to Arnold Ray O'Conner, who was convicted of armed robbery in a September 1973 home-invasion rape near Baton Rouge General.
Jones’ original link to the case rested entirely on the nurse’s testimony as well as her identification of her attacker, which came more than three months after her rape. The victim "admittedly was not certain about her identification of Jones, and she even expressed doubts to officers regarding the identification," Anderson said.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III has filed a request that Louisiana’s Supreme Court reverse Anderson’s decision and reinstate Jones’ conviction. The victim in the rape has since died, making the case practically impossible to retry, Moore has said.
Prosecutors argue that two different juries found Jones guilty — the first conviction was thrown out because of statements a prosecutor made to the jury — and their decisions were the proper way to find justice in the case, not “the trial court on remand forty-six years after the crime took place,” prosecutors wrote in their appeal.
Moore argues the second rape was then common knowledge in Baton Rouge and says prosecutors did not "hide evidence" from the defense. The District Attorney’s Office insists there were many differences in the two rapes and says prosecutors would not have “reasonably thought” the same perpetrator was responsible for both crimes.
East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors urged the Louisiana Supreme Court on Friday to reinstate Wilbert Jones' 1974 conviction in the abduction a…
Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys filed a response to the prosecutor’s appeal days later, calling it “not in the interest of basic human decency.”
“Louisiana’s courts have — finally — delivered this broken old man home to what remains of his family to live out his days in the company of those who have loved him every day since he was taken,” Jones’ lawyers wrote in their response. “The State’s efforts to reinstate a grossly unjust and inaccurate conviction … should be promptly denied.”
And until the Supreme Court rules on the appeal — which could take months — Innocence Project New Orleans executive director Emily Maw said all they can all do is wait.
“It’s a shame because his life is on hold, but obviously it’s better that it is on hold where he is than in prison," Maw said.
Maw and her team of lawyers began looking into Jones’ case in 2003, after another inmate who’d come to know Jones reached out on his behalf.
"Wilbert always said he didn't do it," Maw said. Originally, the attorneys hoped they could solve the case through DNA, but after many unsuccessful years trying to track down evidence in storage or in detective files, they began looking into other gaps with the case.
“For years we’ve been plugging away and fighting and fighting and fighting in hopes that one day (Jones) will be exactly where he is right now,” said Kia Hayes, an attorney with Innocence Project New Orleans who worked on the case. “We kept appealing, and kept prefacing it with, 'We will probably lose,’ … but (most recently Jones) said, 'We're going to win here.’ … He showed us."
Maw said the court process that led to Jones’ release, though long, stands testament that Louisiana will work to find justice all — even for Jones, who at the time was an intellectually disabled, poor, black man.
"It is a reason for all people in Louisiana to be hopeful that government is something that can work for everyone," Maw said. "(For these institutions) to hear those cries for help, even 45 years later, is a heartening statement."
While Jones and his family never gave up on the attorneys, though his brother said it wasn’t easy to know the team of lawyers had been working for more than a decade on the case, while his brother continued to sit in jail, battling cancer and other life-threatening health issues.
“That’s what I couldn’t understand: why there were so many setbacks when all the information was right there in front of them?” Plem Jones said. “That was the hardest part for me … why he wasn’t being released?
"Everyone was saying it’s a process, so I came to realize … it’s not going to be in our time; it’s going to be in God's time.”
Maw said Wilbert Jones never lost faith, despite setback after setback.
"I find his abiding faith in God and the court system astounding; to this point, unwarranted," Maw said. "Forty-six years. I don’t think anyone knows what it’s like to maintain faith that what's happened to you will be rectified for that amount of time. He was completely forgotten, no one came to help him until we did, and even then it wasn’t right away."
‘Lord I’m grateful’
On Christmas Eve morning, Wilbert Jones, his brother, sister-in-law and niece swayed along to the gospel music at The Ministry of Love church off Florida Boulevard, clapping or raising their hands in praise when the rhythm moved them.
“You brought me through this! You brought me through that!” Wilbert Jones quietly sang along. “Lord I’m grateful, to you!”
After the music slowed, Bridget Steib, the pastor, began speaking to the almost 100 members about faith and hope — calling on them to respond to her, reacting herself to her revelations with audible affirmations.
“How can you go through that? How can you handle that?” Steib asks the small but lively congregation. “The reason why you’re still standing is (God) put joy in your hope!”
Wadeejah Jones nudges her uncle when she hears that. Wilbert Jones — a man who’s known hope like few others — smiles.
“Most of the time, when I hear the word, it’s just confirmation,” Wadeejah Jones said. “His faith is amazing. He paves the way for many.”
Later on, Wilbert Jones takes out his Bible — the case inscribed with a proverb: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart" — to search for a verse Steib described. When she moves too quickly onto a different passage, Plem Jones helps his brother find the next one.
The night before, Wadeejah Jones had hosted their extended family at her house. They’d all worn their Christmas pajamas, played games, exchanged gifts and ate well.
“It was beautiful. My first Christmas with my family in 45 years,” Wilbert Jones said. “It’s been so long since I spent time with my family for the holidays.”
A state judge set a $2,000 bail Tuesday for a 64-year-old Baton Rouge man who has spent nearly 46 years in prison for a rape conviction that t…
He had also gotten out just in time for Thanksgiving, which had been another special gathering of family; the beginning of many reunions and even more introductions for Wilbert Jones among his relatives.
As the Jones family filed out of The Ministry of Love church, getting hugs from almost all their fellow members, Wilbert Jones pulled out the sheet of paper he keeps inside his Bible: the Christmas card from Innocence Project New Orleans, signed by his attorneys, featuring his photo on the front.
“I always bring this with me, to remember,” Wilbert Jones said. “I knew the God I served was going to set me free, the truth is always going to come to the light. … I’m free, but I serve the same God.”