Robert Jones stood outside an Orleans Parish criminal courtroom one day last month in a dark suit and an ID badge as he huddled with the family of a 26-year-old man who was headed to a place Jones knows well.
A judge had just handed the man a five-year prison sentence under a plea deal on illegal gun charges, among other felony counts. The man also was directed to participate in inmate rehabilitation programs.
In a dim corner of the cavernous hallway, Jones sought to temper the blow.
"I was explaining to them how good those programs are," he said. "I shared my story, and they were shocked. However, it gave them some hope."
For Jones, hope was in short supply as he rose in the same courthouse 21 years ago to hear a jury find him guilty in a heinous French Quarter armed robbery, kidnapping and rape — a verdict that meant an automatic life sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Hope had vanished altogether by the time he stood three weeks later to plead guilty — mistakenly, he has long maintained — to manslaughter for the 1992 killing of an English tourist, Julie Stott.
The experience would be enough to send many freed lifers running from the rough-and-tumble Criminal District Court building at Tulane Avenue and South Broad Street, never to return.
But Jones, 44, is now a regular presence there, less than a year after District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office cut him loose. Prosecutors agreed to vacate his guilty pleas and drop a bid to retry Jones for the kidnapping and rape.
An appeals court had earlier tossed out the guilty verdicts, finding the state had failed to turn over key evidence in the case.
Jones had been free on bail since late 2015, working as a finisher for a local millworks. He said he was growing weary of it when he applied in September for an opening as a client advocate with the Orleans Public Defenders.
Now he meets with arrestees, tracks down services for them and makes sure those who make bail get to court. Beyond that, he often delivers blunt appraisals to defendants weighing plea offers for years in prison against the risk of trial, while offering learned advice on how best to do the time.
While at Angola for two decades, Jones became a jailhouse lawyer, helping himself and other inmates try to get out.
Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said Jones' story gives him "instant credibility" with defendants leery of, or downright antagonistic to, advice from their free lawyers.
"He can speak to clients and their families with authority in ways that many of our lawyers and advocates can't," Bunton said.
He cited a recent example, saying Jones helped convince a reluctant defendant who faced a potential life prison sentence as a habitual offender to accept a deal for six years.
"He can tell them, when the dust settles, these are the facts: You have a chance to get out, or you're going to die in jail," Bunton said. "That right there has probably saved more time and lives than some of the lawyers in many cases. He says that with a force that others can't."
Haunted by mistakes
Jones said he has plenty of experience to draw upon from Angola — mistakes that come back to haunt.
"We have guys stuck in prison who have died, guys who also told me, 'I wish I took the deal, man. I (was offered) 25 years, and I'm in my 26th,' " he said.
In other cases, Jones helps manage the frustrations of inmates fighting cases that can take months or years to reach a resolution. "Sometimes, guys get angry, but it's very seldom. I understand it. I tell them, I understand 24 years of it," he said.
"I got a real story for every situation," he said.
Some of those experiences appear in a book that Jones and two other freed lifers, Daniel Rideau and Jerome Morgan, penned recently. In the book, "Unbreakable Resolve: Triumphant Stories of 3 True Gentlemen," each offers a blunt account of a troubled youth, hubris, legal entanglement, prison turmoil and perseverance.
The title alludes to a vision they share as youth mentors through the nonprofit Free-Dem Foundation, which they formed last year.
"We want to seal those cracks, get those youngsters showing the love that we do, the real love that wants to see a person do good for themselves. That kind of love," Morgan said.
"It was about our obligations to the youth to direct them into real adulthood — through our experience, especially being treated very harshly. We weren't monsters, people who were un-redeemable. Not that we were angels. We were regular, ordinary people."
In the book, Jones recounts his youth as the eldest of six siblings. He sold drugs to help himself and a mother who sold candies and junk food out of the back of her home in the Desire housing development. He became a teenage high roller before police barreled in, guns drawn, to arrest him in April 1992.
He also describes his shock at the guilty verdict four years later.
"I was numb," he writes. "That day I experienced death on another level, while still alive."
Early in his prison term, Jones said, his brother was killed selling drugs to help pay a lawyer for his appeal.
"I just feel what happened to me compelled his death," he said. "I was like, 'I ain't going to have no support.' I realized I'm going to have to run this ship by myself."
No political agenda
Jones began studying the law. Later, he got help from the Innocence Project New Orleans, which first explored his case in 2004 and then took it up in earnest in 2009.
IPNO ultimately helped win his release, finding myriad problems with evidence in the kidnapping and rape case while undermining his guilty plea in the tourist murder case, arguing that it was rooted in a bad witness identification.
IPNO Director Emily Maw said that, beyond other clients the organization has helped free, Jones emerged from Angola with a high level of "emotional and social intelligence," and without a roiling political agenda.
That makes him unique in his ability to work a day job at Tulane and Broad "while honestly processing the effect of having been wrongly taken by that building and the people in it," Maw said. "He isn't there to take down the system. He's there to help people who are in it."
Jones said he read one self-help book every day for seven years while in prison. He returned to Angola for the first time on Dec. 14, as a visitor there to see two clients.
"That was huge, going back, as opposed to sitting waiting for Emily to come see me there," he said. "I used to tell guys, 'One of these days, you're going to see me come in through these gates with a suit and a tie.' "
Danny Engelberg, chief of trials in the Orleans Public Defenders office, gushed over Jones' impact in his first months on the job — particularly his ability to convey a future to young defendants facing stiff sentences.
"What it shows is a real fundamental grace to him, and the fact he can be still working to improve clients' lives and assist clients through the process after his nightmare," Engelberg said. "If it were me, I would want nowhere near this place."
Even in agreeing to drop the cases against Jones, Cannizzaro's office refused to back his claim of innocence, instead saying that the passage of two decades forced its hand.
"The office, unfortunately, has concluded that it cannot at this time retry a complex case such as this," spokesman Christopher Bowman said at the time.
These days, Jones admits a certain gratification in walking with his badge past security at the courthouse's front entrance, rather than in shackles at the rear. Even working amid some of the same prosecutors who tried to keep him locked up doesn't faze him, he said.
"Sometimes, I remember, and it makes me — I wouldn't say bitter — it makes me more disgusted with the criminal justice system, some of the things they do," he said.
"It's more, 'How do you like me now?' "