Latest, Nov. 15 

Wilbert Jones is expected to be released from prison Wednesday. Read the latest here.


Original story

A state district court judge has overturned Wilbert Jones' 1974 conviction in the abduction and rape of a Baton Rouge nurse, saying "highly favorable" evidence was withheld from the defense.

Attorneys for Jones filed a motion in court Tuesday seeking their client's immediate and unconditional release from prison in light of Judge Richard Anderson's ruling in the decades old case. Failing that, they argued, Jones should be allowed to post a minimal bail.

The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's Office, however, said they will ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review Anderson's ruling in Jones' case.

Emily Maw, the director of Innocence Project New Orleans, which represents Jones, said in an interview that an appeal would be a waste of taxpayer money.

"This case has been an unthinkable tragedy for Wilbert Jones and his family," she said. "Nobody can undo this tragedy, but the court can and should end it right now and order his immediate release. The law permits it and morality compels it."

Jones' attorneys said the 64-year-old Baton Rouge man is frail, aging and innocent and has been wrongly imprisoned for more than 45 years. He is serving a life sentence.

"Any further incarceration of Mr. Jones is a violation of his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and his right to humane treatment," Maw and her fellow Innocence Project New Orleans lawyers — Kia Hall Hayes, Jee Park and Richard Davis — argued in a court filing Tuesday.

Jones was found guilty in the Oct. 2, 1971, rape of a young Baton Rouge General Medical Center nurse who was abducted from the hospital parking lot. Another young woman was kidnapped Oct. 29, 1971, from the parking lot of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical and raped. Both were abducted at gunpoint.

Anderson ruled the state was obligated to turn over information about the second rape to Jones' trial attorneys but failed to do so. He said "there is a reasonable probability that, had the information been disclosed to competent counsel, the result of the proceeding would have been different."

The judge added that the "strong similarities" between the two rapes are "almost too numerous to list." He also stated that the 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.

O'Conner's fingerprints were found on the car of the woman kidnapped from the Our Lady of the Lake parking lot and raped, but Anderson said he was arrested but never charged in that incident.

The nurse in the Baton Rouge General rape case died in 2008. The filing Tuesday by Jones' attorneys includes an affidavit from her husband.

"I am aware that Mr. Jones' lawyers have evidence that the crime was committed by another man. I don't know whether Mr. Jones is innocent or not. But if he is innocent I strongly support his application for release," he says in the May 5 affidavit. "It would be a tragedy if he was in prison this long for a crime that someone else did."

Jones' attorneys stated in their court filing Tuesday that it is "difficult to conceive how the State could re-prosecute Mr. Jones."

In his ruling last week, Anderson said the kidnapper-rapist in both October 1971 incidents ordered the women to drive around the surrounding neighborhood while he sat in the back seat, and eventually ordered them to stop their vehicles.

The Baton Rouge General nurse's attacker ordered her to get out of her vehicle and to put her arm around his waist while they walked to a secluded area, the judge said, while the Our Lady of the Lake victim was ordered to get out of her vehicle and hold his hand while they crossed Scenic Highway into a secluded area.

After each sexual assault, the perpetrator wiped himself clean with the victims' clothing and rummaged through their purses, taking 50 cents from the nurse and $4 from the other woman, Anderson said. The attacker left behind a pick hair comb at each scene, he added.

The judge found "equally disturbing" the fact that the nurse's assailant then drove her to 28th and Slate streets, where he fled east in the direction of the 2900 block of Slate, which was where O'Conner lived at that time.

"Based on the striking similarities between the rapes … as well as the similarities between the perpetrators of the rapes, the Court finds that the evidence withheld from the defense was highly favorable to Jones' case," Anderson wrote.

The judge also stated that the case against Jones was "weak, at best." The state's entire case rested entirely on the nurse's testimony, and questionable identification of Jones that 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.

The Supreme Court earlier this year ordered Anderson to hold a hearing in Jones' case to determine whether evidence was withheld from the defense in violation of his constitutional rights. The judge conducted the hearing Aug. 31 and Sept. 5.

East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant District Attorney Dana Cummings noted during the hearing that the Baton Rouge General nurse was raped at the then-East Baton Rouge Special Education Building, and Jones was in special education.

O'Conner, now 63, was called to testify at the hearing earlier this year but refused to answer any questions about the October 1971 abductions and rapes.

A judge's order signed the year after Jones' 1974 rape conviction gave police permission to destroy physical evidence in the case, including a pair of pantyhose, a dress and slip, and two combs.

Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.