Robert Jones doesn’t want a new trial, and he’s hoping a new judge will help him avoid one.
It won’t be Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson.
Another judge on Friday barred her from presiding over a possible retrial in a 1992 armed robbery, kidnapping and rape that landed Robert Jones a life prison term.
Robert Jones, 42, walked free on bond in November, a year after a state appeals court vacated his 1996 conviction and sentence, finding that prosecutors in former District Attorney Harry Connick’s office had failed to turn over key evidence in the case.
District Judge Arthur Hunter ended a prolonged hearing Friday by tossing Landrum-Johnson, his colleague, from the case. Hunter said she was likely to be called as a witness as Robert Jones seeks to show that he can’t possibly receive a fair trial after so many years and with official files and physical evidence now missing.
Robert Jones’ attorneys with the Innocence Project New Orleans argued that Landrum-Johnson, who served as Orleans Parish district attorney in 2007-08, couldn’t fairly preside over the case.
During her tenure, and earlier while Landrum-Johnson was a deputy chief prosecutor, the DA’s Office fought Robert Jones’ bid for freedom in court. Prosecutors under her watch scorned claims by a key figure in the case, Lester Jones, that he never knew Robert Jones and that he had told authorities as much around the time of the trial.
Showing a connection between the two men, who are not related, was key to the prosecution’s case against Robert Jones because stolen jewelry from one of the robbery victims turned up on Lester Jones, whose vehicle was used in the kidnapping and rape. Prosecutors told the jury that the two men were in cahoots.
In September, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office turned over a 1996 internal office memo in which a prosecutor reported that Lester Jones had recanted an earlier statement claiming that he and Robert Jones knew each other.
Innocence Project Director Emily Maw noted that the memo had failed to turn up under Landrum-Johnson’s watch as well. The result of the efforts by Landrum-Johnson’s office to defend a bad conviction, Maw argued, was eight more years behind bars for Robert Jones and a harder time now getting a fair trial
“Robert Jones did not have a constitutional trial, and Judge Landrum-Johnson defended against that,” Maw argued, adding that Landrum-Johnson “is naturally going to downplay the significance of that delay” as Robert Jones seeks to have the case tossed out.
Landrum-Johnson, who became district attorney after Eddie Jordan resigned under a dark cloud, testified last month that she didn’t involve herself in day-to-day casework as district attorney and had no memory of Robert Jones’ appeals.
“I had a lot of things to do to keep the office afloat, dealing with the financial issues of the office,” she said.
Senior prosecutor David Pipes argued that Robert Jones’ attorneys failed to show that Landrum-Johnson had any direct influence on his appeal.
Hunter focused instead on the likelihood that Landrum-Johnson would be called to testify about the case.
Afterward, Maw called it “the right result. It would be an impossible position for any judge to be in.”
Robert Jones praised Hunter. “One step at a time. We’re gonna win this battle one step at a time,” he said. “Judges like (Hunter) give you faith in the judicial system.”
The case will be randomly allotted to another of the court’s dozen judges, although Pipes said Cannizzaro’s office would appeal Hunter’s ruling.
No new trial date has been set.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.