Prosecutors on Wednesday filed their reply to the Innocence Project New Orleans' efforts to win a new trial for a man convicted of abducting a young nurse from the parking lot of the Baton Rouge General Medical Center in 1971 and raping her.
Attorneys for Wilbert Jones, who's serving a life sentence for the crime, have argued that prosecutors caught the wrong man and withheld key police reports from Jones' defense about two other similar crimes committed by another man in the early 1970s.
But the East Baton Rouge District Attorney's Office said in a court filing Wednesday that the evidence pulled together by Jones' defense attorneys doesn't conclusively prove his innocence and that procedural rules should block the state Supreme Court from throwing out his conviction.
Forty-two years ago, an East Baton Rouge Parish jury convicted Wilbert Jones of kidnapping a…
The filing also highlights a 1975 order signed by Judge Elmo E. Lear giving the Baton Rouge Police Department permission to destroy physical evidence in the case, including a pair of pantyhose, a dress, a slip and two combs. Jones' current attorneys had unsuccessfully searched for physical evidence in his case, hoping to produce DNA evidence to confirm or refute his guilt, but turned up only an empty envelope.
The victim in the Oct. 2, 1971 crime, who died in 2008 but identified Jones as her attacker in a photo lineup and at her trial, was at the time a 26-year-old nurse on her way to work her nursing shift at Baton Rouge General when her attacker forced her back into her car at gunpoint.
"Shut up, get in and drive," Jones told her, according to court files, and sat in the back seat as he directed her around the surrounding neighborhoods. Twice during the ordeal, Jones directed her to the East Baton Rouge Special Education Building, where each time he raped her.
A jury convicted Jones of rape in the case for the second time — the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned the verdict of his first trial after taking issue with the prosecutor's opening statements — in 1974.
In the filing on Wednesday, prosecutors argue that, due to the decades that have elapsed since the crime and because of Jones' voluminous and thus far unsuccessful appeals record (he's filed at least a dozen previous motions for post-conviction relief), he's already exhausted his right to appeal and that his current motions come too late.
The District Attorney's Office also maintains that "factual innocence without DNA testing and evidence" doesn't provide a legal basis for overturning a conviction under Louisiana law, given that two juries have already reached guilty verdicts against Jones.
"The victim's testimony was sufficient to prove (Jones') guilt to two separate juries," an assistant district attorney writes in the filing.
Emily Maw, the director of the Innocence Project New Orleans and one of Jones' attorneys, said Wednesday the state's response ignores "the compelling evidence" of Jones' innocence and makes "incorrect technical arguments to distract from the human tragedy of the conviction of Wilbert Jones."
Jones' attorneys — Maw and Kia Hayes — have pointed in numerous filings to what they say are significant discrepancies between the victim's description of her attacker and Jones' appearance, including his shorter stature and the lack of a gap between his front teeth noted by the victims of all three crimes.
Another man, suspected by police in two other kidnappings and rapes of young women in Baton Rouge during the same time period — one 27 days later when a woman was abducted from the parking lot of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center; the other in September 1973 when an attacker barged into a woman's home near Baton Rouge General — matches the description far closer than Jones, his attorneys assert. They also claim prosecutors violated Jones' rights by not turning over police reports on those crimes.
The crux of Jones' latest push for a new trial is that, had his attorneys been aware of the similarities between the crime of which he stood accused and the other two attacks, they could've successfully argued his innocence and pointed to the failure by police to pursue the connections.
The District Attorney's Office, though, notes in Wednesday's filing that a police detective began to testify at Jones' second trial about a string of rapes around Baton Rouge General in the early 1970s before a defense attorney objected.
When officers arrested the suspect in the 1973 rape, he had the victim's car keys in his pants pocket, according to court records. His fingerprints were matched to prints left on the victim's car in the 1971 Our Lady of the Lake attack. He was convicted of armed robbery in the 1973 attack but never prosecuted for the other crime.
Prosecutors on Wednesday cast doubt on the Innocence Project New Orleans' conclusion that the same "serial rapist" was behind all three assaults, pointing to differences between the crimes. Chief among them: the rapist in the 1973 attack armed himself with a kitchen knife, while the attacker in the other two rapes wielded a pistol.
In a footnote to a January petition for a new trial, Jones' attorneys note that the alleged serial attacker was stopped for illegally carrying a pistol by police, who confiscated the weapon, about two weeks before the 1973 attack.