An Orleans Parish judge set bail at $36,500 Tuesday for Robert Jones, whose conviction and life sentence in a French Quarter kidnapping and rape 23 years ago were vacated last year based on the failure by former District Attorney Harry Connick’s office to disclose key evidence.
Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter dismissed a call from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office to hold Jones, 42, on $2.25 million bail pending a retrial in a case fraught with trouble, including lost case files, missing DNA evidence and allegations of gross misconduct by prosecutors.
Family members and Jones’ attorneys said they expected him to go free within a few days.
During a three-hour hearing, Jones’ attorneys with the Innocence Project New Orleans argued once again that his conviction was based on faulty witness identifications and that evidence implicated another man, Lester Jones, in that crime and others around the same time.
Among them was the killing of English tourist Julie Stott, for which Lester Jones was convicted of murder and is now serving a life prison sentence.
The two Joneses are not related.
Robert Jones would later plead guilty to manslaughter in Stott’s killing, in what his attorneys describe as a desperate act by an innocent man deflated after a jury convicted him in the kidnapping and rape, handing him a mandatory life sentence.
Hunter said he was persuaded by testimony from Jones’ family members and a former New Orleans police homicide detective, James Stewart, who insisted that Lester Jones alone killed Stott. Stewart, later an FBI special agent, said he learned only within the past two years that Robert Jones had pleaded guilty in Stott’s killing, and he expressed shock.
“He never had anything to do with the murder,” Stewart said. “We cleared him. We locked onto Lester, because he was the suspect that committed the murder based on all the evidence.”
A connection between the two men was central to the state’s case in the kidnapping and rape, a crime that started with armed robbery on Rampart Street and ended with rape in the Desire housing project.
That’s because Lester Jones’ car was used in the crime, and Lester Jones was found with a Jesus medallion stolen from one of the rape victim’s friends. Prosecutors convinced the jury that Robert Jones had borrowed Lester’s car and turned over the jewelry to him after the crime.
Later, as Robert Jones fought for years to overturn his conviction in the kidnapping and rape case, the DA’s Office scoffed at testimony from Lester Jones that he didn’t know Robert Jones and had told prosecutors as much more than two decades ago.
Yet an internal memo — which Cannizzaro’s office revealed in September — written by a prosecutor in 1996 said Lester Jones had recanted an earlier statement implicating Robert Jones in the Stott murder, and that there was no evidence linking Robert Jones to Stott’s killing. Still, prosecutors allowed Robert Jones to plead guilty to manslaughter.
Assistant District Attorney David Pipes said Tuesday that Cannizzaro’s office is ready to retry Robert Jones for the kidnapping and rape, although it was revealed at Tuesday’s hearing that prosecutors last month offered to set him free if he agreed to plead guilty — to what was unclear.
“They stated no particular preference to the nature of the charge they wanted him to plead to,” IPNO Director Emily Maw said following the hearing.
Jones rejected the offer, insisting on clearing his name.
His conviction is among the most recent to crumble from allegations of failures by prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence during Connick’s three-decade tenure as DA. Jones’ case involved some of the same players, both police and prosecutors, whose methods have spawned allegations of misconduct in other cases from that era.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 spared Cannizzaro’s office from a $14 million judgment when it ruled, 5-4, that the DA’s Office could not be held liable, based on a single case, for failing to train prosecutors under Connick’s watch to turn over evidence. The high court found that freed death row inmate John Thompson failed to prove a pattern.
The court did not spell out what it meant by a pattern.
In setting the low bail for Jones, Hunter cited the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal’s reversal of his conviction in the kidnapping and rape case, as well as “revealing and seriously troubling” testimony from Stewart. Hunter also cited the “weight of the evidence” against Jones, plus his family support.
Hunter ordered Jones placed on an electronic monitor with a nightly curfew if he makes bail as expected.
Maw called Hunter’s decision “the beginning of an end to a long nightmare for Robert Jones,” though he still awaits a retrial. “A judge finally saw fit to review the evidence of injustice perpetrated on Robert Jones and put a stop to it now.”
Jones’ daughter, Robresha Anderson, was still in the womb when he last saw freedom. She described herself as “speechless, excited, bracing for what the future holds” as she anticipated seeing him for the first time on the outside.
“I just want him to pick me up,” she said.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.