Forty-two years ago, an East Baton Rouge Parish jury convicted Wilbert Jones of kidnapping a young nurse from the Baton Rouge General Medical Center parking lot, forcing her to drive to a secluded area near the then-East Baton Rouge Special Education Building, and raping her.
But the decades-old case, which is making its way back through the court system, has a number of lingering questions — missing physical evidence, a potential alternate suspect tied to two other similar rapes — compounded by the intervening deaths of a number of key players, including the victim.
In numerous filings over the past several years, including a petition to the state Supreme Court filed Tuesday afternoon, the Innocence Project New Orleans argues that prosecutors always had the wrong man and withheld key evidence from Jones' defense attorneys of the other possible suspect.
Three months after the Oct. 2, 1971 crime, a teen acquaintance of Jones who was suspected in an unrelated sexual assault identified Jones as the rapist in the Baton Rouge General attack. Police arrested Jones after the victim picked him out of a five-person lineup. Since a jury convicted him of rape for a second time in 1974 — the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned the verdict of his first trial after taking issue with the prosecutor's opening statements — Jones has spent his life since inside the fences of the Louisiana prison system.
Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys for Jones point in their filings to discrepancies between the victim's description of her attacker and Jones' appearance. They also note two other kidnappings and rapes of young women from Baton Rouge hospital parking lots — 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 from Baton Rouge General — as potential proof of his innocence.
The attorneys say the convicted felon and East Baton Rouge Parish resident who was arrested for those other two rapes matches far closer the description of the attacker in the crime for which Jones is serving a life sentence.
Jones' attorneys call that other man, who was convicted of armed robbery but not rape for abducting and attacking a 24-year-old nurse from the parking lot of Baton Rouge General and served more than 20 years in prison, a "serial rapist." The attorneys claim prosecutors and police illegally withheld information about the other crimes from Jones' defense attorneys during his trials.
The Innocence Project New Orleans also alleges the East Baton Rouge Parish assistant district attorney who prosecuted Jones has a history of misconduct, such as withholding key evidence from defendants. As evidence, the defense attorneys note a 1974 opinion by a state Supreme Court justice that accused the prosecutor of "systematic disregard for … the constitutional rights of the accused defendants."
Unlike a number of other Innocence Project New Orleans cases where DNA testing has cleared convicted inmates or cast doubt on their convictions, there appears little chance for definitive physical proof clearing Jones or connecting the alleged serial rapist to the crime. Original evidence gathered from the victim and the crime scene — including seminal fluid on the victim's clothes and hair on a comb left by the attacker — has apparently disappeared in the ensuing decades. According to court records, searches of the East Baton Rouge Clerk of Court's offices and the Baton Rouge Police Department's evidence storage facilities turned up only an empty envelope.
The crime for which Jones was convicted was brutal: The victim, who died in 2008, was approached by a man with a pistol at 10:45 p.m. outside of Baton Rouge General, where the then-26-year-old woman was headed to work her nursing shift. "Shut up, get in and drive," he told her, according to court files, and sat in the back seat as she drove around the surrounding neighborhoods. Twice he directed her to the East Baton Rouge Special Education Building, where each time he raped her.
The rape also took on racial dimensions: The victim, a very light-skinned black woman, testified at trial that her rapist refused to believe she wasn't white — even after she showed him a copy of her driver's license — and he told her he was, at least in part, acting out of desire for revenge on white people.
Three months later, police arrested Jones, then 19. The victim identified him as her attacker from a five-person lineup but, according to Innocence Project New Orleans, then called detectives the next day to say there was "a small possibility" Jones wasn't her attacker. Jones' voice, she told police, sounded "much rougher" than the "quiet," "smooth" and "gentle" voice of her rapist.
The court filings seeking to overturn Jones' verdict also note that the victim described her assailant as tall, giving heights variously between 5 foot 8 and 6 foot 3. Jones, however, stands just 5 foot 3 (though a detective testified at his trial that, adding in the height of his hair, he stood just above 5 foot 7). And the woman also clearly recalled her rapist having a significant gap between his front teeth; Jones has no such gap.
Her description fits almost perfectly the appearance of the other man arrested in the 1971 Our Lady of the Lake and 1973 Baton Rouge General abduction and rapes, attorneys with Innocence Project New Orleans argue in Tuesday's filing: The victims in both crimes noted a gap in their attacker's front teeth and his smooth, gentle voice.
Current District Attorney Hillar Moore III — who had no personal involvement in the case at that time but whose office has been handling the appeals — said the victim spent a considerable amount of time with her attacker during the ordeal. Moore said she was, at worst, "98 percent sure he (Jones) was her rapist."
While the Innocence Project New Orleans filing identifies the man they claim committed all three rapes, The Advocate is withholding his name as it tries to reach him for comment.
He was arrested for the 1973 rape. During a search of the man's apartment, District Attorney's Office investigators discovered that victim's car keys in the pockets of a pair of his pants, according to Innocence Project New Orleans filings. At his trial, prosecutors presented evidence of the rape and kidnapping but only pursued the armed robbery charged, the petition says.
The victim in that attack co-signed a letter filed Tuesday in support of Jones' appeal.
Her alleged attacker was eventually booked in the 1971 Our Lady of the Lake rape after police matched him to fingerprints found on that victim's car, according to Innocence Project New Orleans, but he was never indicted in that crime.
In Tuesday's filing, Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys allege "the best explanation" for the "unusually lenient treatment" of the other man by then-East Baton Rouge District Attorney Ossie Brown's office is that it was made to protect the case against Jones and to "ensure Mr. Jones was convicted by a jury that never heard (the other man's) name."
Moore, the current district attorney, said most of the people involved in investigating and convicting Jones — including Brown, the assistant district attorneys who tried the case, many of the detectives and the victim — have since died.
"I have no knowledge of the facts of this case or who did, knew or thought what about any issues raised in the pleadings," Moore said. "I do not know why any charging decisions were made and the reasons for those decisions."
Moore said Tuesday evening that his office hadn't yet received a full copy of Innocence Project New Orleans' latest filing or the voluminous attached documents but would respond appropriately.
"This case was tried to jury twice and the defendant was convicted on both occasions," Moore said.
The East Baton Rouge District Attorney's Office has opposed the Innocence Project New Orleans' fight to overturn Jones' conviction, denying in a running court battle over the last five years that prosecutors withheld evidence and arguing that procedural rules prevent the courts from considering Jones' claims. The DA's Office also noted that prosecutors at the time weren't legally obligated to turn over information about the other rapes, describing them as unrelated and pointing to extensive news coverage of the attacks.
Judge Richard Anderson of the 19th Judicial District rejected Jones' request to overturn his conviction in November, ruling that the information uncovered by the Innocence Project New Orleans didn't suffice to invalidate the 1974 jury's guilty verdict.
Jones' attorneys are now asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to overrule Anderson and either set Jones free or order a new trial.
"This system inflicted an injustice on him (Jones) and he was left to die in prison," his attorneys wrote. "He has, however, lived long enough for evidence of his innocence and of the prosecutorial misconduct that occurred at his trial to come to light."