A line of tank cars sat idle on the Gentilly rails one morning last week, blocking the eastern view as the latest prisoner with a life sentence to leave the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola stepped outside his new digs.
Robert Jones wore a thick black monitor strapped around his left ankle and a grin across his face.
“I always knew I had a shot. I always knew the truth would eventually get out. Once the truth get out, all lies fall,” Jones said, standing beside his fiancée, Gwen Roberson. “It’s something I always kind of prayed for, like a dream. It’s hard to grasp reality. Just waking up, going to the icebox to get something, that’s a major blessing. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. It’s not in prison.”
Jones flashed the same gold teeth that a woman failed to mention 23 years ago when she first described her rapist to police, before picking Jones out of a police lineup.
That omission, among other evidence that might have helped him, never reached his attorney or the jury that convicted him in 1996 of a crime that began with the armed robbery of three people in the French Quarter and ended with a rape in the Desire housing project.
The failures prompted an appeals court last year to toss out his conviction and life sentence.
Prosecutors also withheld evidence that the crime was part of an armed robbery spree during the same time period in 1992 for which detectives had focused on another man, Lester Jones, who is no relation.
Lester Jones was found with a piece of jewelry from one of Robert Jones’ purported victims, and it was Lester Jones’ burgundy Oldsmobile that was used in the kidnapping and rape that sent Robert Jones away for life. Prosecutors told the jury the two Joneses had ties, though former NOPD detectives have since testified they had determined no such link existed.
It was a series of bogus claims and withheld evidence by Orleans Parish prosecutors over many years, his lawyers say, that left Robert Jones fighting more than half his life before his Nov. 20 release on bond, pending a possible retrial.
Jones spent Thanksgiving reconnecting with his family in Gentilly, carving a 12-pound turkey and toying with his new cellphone, he said.
His innocence claim stands in legal limbo while District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro considers whether to retry him.
“I understand my situation is still a fight, for the most part,” Jones said 10 days after settling into his aunt’s house. “I’m still fighting to be exonerated. I’m just letting everything roll as it go.”
A Cannizzaro spokesman declined to comment on the open case.
Attempts to reach the victim of the 1992 kidnapping and rape were unsuccessful.
Jones ambled into jail as a 19-year-old Carver High School dropout and walked out a 42-year-old grandfather of five with a plan to get a job on his way to building a real estate investment firm.
In between, he cut traffic signs from sheet metal, led an inmate team that carved a golf course into the Angola landscape and became an inmate legal counsel while pressing his own case from behind prison walls.
Almost from the start, Jones pushed for DNA testing to prove his innocence while requesting records from the district attorney. The physical evidence, along with many of the paper records, has gone missing.
Convicted at 23, Jones maintained that his prosecution stemmed from a Crimestoppers tip — which police early on deemed bogus — pegging him for another crime that happened within a week of the robbery and rape: the high-profile French Quarter killing of English tourist Julie Stott.
Lester Jones ultimately was convicted of murder in that case and now is serving a life sentence at Angola. But Robert Jones, shortly after his conviction in the robbery and rape case, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Stott’s killing while also copping to another robbery he says he didn’t do.
Sitting through another trial for a crime he didn’t commit while already facing a life sentence, he said, would have been too much to bear.
“I was scared, actually,” he said. “I kind of felt I had no other choice. I didn’t understand any of those prosecutions. Even though I pled guilty, I’m innocent of those crimes.”
Two months ago, Cannizzaro’s office turned over an internal memo from 1996 indicating that prosecutors under then-District Attorney Harry Connick let Robert Jones plead guilty in Stott’s killing despite having no case against him. The memo describes Lester Jones denying an earlier statement claiming Robert Jones was involved.
To Robert Jones’ lawyers with the Innocence Project New Orleans, the memo validated what the District Attorney’s Office for years had dismissed: claims by Lester Jones that he had told prosecutors long ago that he never knew Robert Jones. Now they’re pressing to bar Cannizzaro’s office from retrying Robert Jones.
“I was like, it just don’t stop, it just keeps going,” Robert Jones said of the memo.
At Angola, he said, he never ran across Lester Jones and never really tried.
At a hearing last month, Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter set bail at $36,500 for Robert Jones pending a retrial, dismissing a prosecutor’s plea for $2.25 million bail. While he waits, Jones must wear an ankle monitor, adhere to a nightly curfew and meet with a parole agent.
Before his release, he rejected an invitation from Cannizzaro’s office to plead guilty to a lesser crime and walk free.
“He didn’t take a plea because he’s innocent, and he’s going to clear his name. He’s singularly focused on doing that,” said Innocence Project Director Emily Maw, miffed at what she describes as decades of prosecutorial misconduct in the case.
Maw said her group was drawn to adopt Jones’ case because of his doggedness and equanimity while fighting for his release.
Roberson, 56, who met Jones a dozen years ago while doing work for a prisoner support group, said Jones “has always said he didn’t feel incarcerated. His body was, but his mind wasn’t.”
For his part, Jones called it “a hell of a feeling” leaving what he came to know as a family of fellow inmates, some of whom he helped press their own legal challenges.
“I wouldn’t say I’m lucky. I’d say blessed but persistent,” he said, as the rail cars remained stalled across the street.
“I’m free, but I got to remind myself I still got a fight ahead of me.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.