An Orleans Parish judge on Wednesday removed herself from a legal controversy over whether she should be barred from presiding over a retrial in a 1992 robbery, kidnapping and rape case that has drawn national scrutiny because of failures by Orleans prosecutors to turn over key evidence.
Attorneys for Robert Jones, 52, argued that Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson should be removed from the case because she served as acting district attorney in 2007 and 2008.
During that time, Jones was pressing to have his convictions tossed out based on allegations of earlier misconduct by the DA’s Office, as well as a claim of innocence.
All the while, the DA’s Office was in possession of an internal memo from 1996 that supported a claim by Jones’ attorneys that prosecutors for years had dismissed as bogus — namely, that a man prosecutors linked to Jones at his trial had long ago denied having any ties with him.
Prosecutors who secured Jones’ conviction and life prison sentence had insisted to the jury that the two men were criminal associates. They said that explained how Robert Jones committed the crime using the other man’s car, and how that other man, Lester Jones, turned up with a piece of jewelry from one of the rape victim’s friends.
The two Joneses are not related.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office turned over the 19-year-old memo this month, prompting Jones’ attorneys with the Innocence Project New Orleans to call on the DA to drop the case entirely.
The state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal last year granted Robert Jones a new trial on different claims. His attorneys say the memo shows that the DA’s Office can’t be trusted to try Jones again.
Cannizzaro’s office is fighting the motion to remove Landrum-Johnson from the case, dismissing a claim that the judge could be called as a witness.
“Out of an abundance of caution,” Landrum-Johnson ordered another, as-yet-unnamed judge to rule on the issue.
Cannizzaro has not yet said whether his office will proceed with a retrial for a crime that began with an armed robbery on Rampart Street and ended with a woman raped in the Desire public housing complex.
Cannizzaro has acknowledged that the files of both police and prosecutors have disappeared in the case. Also missing is evidence from a rape exam kit that might prove Robert Jones’ guilt or innocence through DNA testing.
Following his conviction, Jones pleaded guilty to a pair of other charges, including manslaughter in the high-profile 1992 killing of English tourist Julie Stott.
Robert Jones’ attorneys claim Lester Jones, who is now serving a life prison sentence for Stott’s slaying, was responsible for a series of five attacks around the same time that included the robbery and rape.
Emily Maw, IPNO’s director, said Robert Jones entered the guilty pleas falsely, feeling defeated because of an impending life prison term. The newly discovered memo indicates that prosecutors let Jones plead guilty to manslaughter in Stott’s killing despite having no evidence against him.
Maw said she would soon seek to have Jones’ bail reduced pending a retrial.
Jones appeared in orange jail scrubs for Wednesday’s brief hearing.