Robert Jones was so disheartened over his convictions for a 1992 armed robbery, kidnapping and rape he didn’t do that on the day he was to be sentenced to a mandatory life prison term for them, he threw in guilty pleas to other crimes as well, just to be done with all the cases against him, his lawyers argue.
Jones pleaded guilty on April 2, 1996, to robbing a man named Calvin Boutte. He also copped to manslaughter in the slaying of 27-year-old English tourist Julie Stott during a French Quarter stickup, a headline-grabbing crime that whipped Britain’s tabloid newspapers into a froth.
Jones received a 21-year sentence for that plea. By then, though, another man already had been convicted of murder in Stott’s killing, in what a key witness first described as a one-man job. In addition, that man, Lester Jones — who is no relation — had by then recanted a statement implicating Robert Jones in Stott’s murder.
That left prosecutors with no case, according to an internal District Attorney’s Office memo disclosed just last year. They let Jones, then 23, plead guilty anyway.
Now, two years after an appeals court threw out his conviction and life sentence in the kidnapping and rape case, Jones, 43, is pushing to have those other convictions tossed out as well.
He appeared in Criminal District Court last week to ask ad hoc Judge Jerome Winsberg to dismiss those long-ago guilty pleas.
An appeals court found that the state had failed to turn over key evidence in the kidnapping and rape case, violating Brady v. Maryland, the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the government must turn over all evidence favorable to a defendant.
Jones’ lawyers with the Innocence Project New Orleans argued that prosecutors’ failure to do that amounted to coercion for Jones to plead guilty in the other cases, involving crimes they say he never committed.
The lack of a case against him in Stott’s slaying, according to the previously undisclosed memo, added to the involuntary nature of his pleas, they argued.
“Offering pleas to a man just wrongly convicted by violating Brady, and about to be sentenced to life without parole, and accepting those pleas is an inherently coercive situation,” Innocence Project lawyer Emily Maw told the judge Friday.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office, however, argues that Jones’ conviction in the kidnapping and rape case was “irrelevant” to his guilty pleas three weeks later in the other cases. In any case, Jones should have raised the issue within two years of his pleas and therefore can’t do so now, Assistant District Attorney David Pipes argued.
Jones first raised the claim in 2010, but no judge heard it while the bigger issue of his trial and life sentence for the armed robbery, kidnapping and rape played out.
Pipes noted that, like all defendants who plead guilty, Jones affirmed that he was entering his pleas willingly and without duress.
“They’re separate events. They’re separate legal proceedings,” Pipes argued of Jones’ conviction and subsequent guilty pleas. “A distinction needs to be drawn between being wrongly convicted and being falsely convicted.”
Beyond that, Pipes argued, “The facts simply do not support that he was rendered hopeless and helpless based on the fact he was getting a life sentence and (therefore) was an unwilling participant in pleading guilty to those crimes.”
Establishing a link between the two Joneses, Robert and Lester, was key to the state’s theory of his guilt in the crime that sent him away for life — an armed robbery that began outside the French Quarter on Rampart Street and ended in a rape in the Desire housing project.
The appeals court found that, among other failures, prosecutors in then-District Attorney Harry Connick’s office 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 Lester Jones.
A former New Orleans Police Department detective who worked the case has since testified that he long ago concluded there was no link between the two men, and that Robert Jones played no part in Stott’s killing.
The former detective, James Stewart — who later became an FBI agent — said he was shocked to learn years later that Robert Jones had pleaded guilty to it.
“I was scared actually,” Jones said in a December interview. “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.”
Jones was released late last year on a low bail pending a decision on whether Cannizzaro’s office will retry him for the kidnapping and rape.
Shortly after the memo turned up last fall, Cannizzaro acknowledged, “We may well have a problem with that conviction,” referring to Jones’ manslaughter plea in Stott’s death.
Winsberg on Friday denied a motion to summarily dismiss Jones’ guilty pleas, setting a May 9 hearing date to hear the full arguments.
By then, though, Winsberg isn’t expected to be sitting on the bench. Prominent criminal defense attorney John Fuller, who has been appointed to take over the Section D seat until a November election, likely will decide the issue.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.