Wilbert Jones was fully exonerated Thursday, more than 46 years after being arrested in an aggravated rape case for which he has always maintained his innocence.
The Louisiana Supreme Court on Monday let stand a lower court ruling overturning Jones' 1974 conviction and on Thursday prosecutors declined to retry the case.
"I feel great," said Jones, laughing with his niece.
Jones has been free on bail since a state district judge ruled last November that "highly favorable" evidence was withheld from Jones' defense. That evidence, the judge said, likely changed the original outcome of the case. Jones was convicted in 1974 and sentenced to life in prison.
“From day one, my uncle has been faithful and trusting in God," said Wadeejah Jones, Wilbert Jones' niece. "I was at work when Uncle Wilbert called me to tell the news (today), and I was so overwhelmed ... I could hardly contain myself."
Wadeejah Jones called her uncle's full exoneration "the best birthday gift ever," as she will turn 40 tomorrow.
“On my birthday we are going to celebrate Uncle Wilbert's freedom," she said.
After Jones' conviction was overturned, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court. On Monday, that court denied Moore's application to hear the case, leaving the lower court decision intact. Moore said on Thursday that because of challenges with such an old case, his office would not retry it.
"Now, forty-seven years after the crime occurred, the state is unable to retry this case due to the death of the victim in 2008, as well as the deaths of both trial prosecutors, the lead defense attorney, and many of the law enforcement officers who would be needed as witnesses," Moore wrote in a statement.
That decision finally gave Jones the freedom his attorneys say has deserved, and was denied, for decades.
"Wilbert Jones spent more time wrongly imprisoned than any known exonerated American," said Jee Park, the executive director of Innocence Project New Orleans. "Mr. Jones was arrested as a young, poor, illiterate black man at a time of great racial tension in Baton Rouge. He had a cursory trial and flimsy evidence was sufficient to throw him away for the rest of his life.”
Park said the bulk of the evidence used against Jones rested almost entirely on the victim's eyewitness' testimony, which science says can be unreliable. She also noted that, in Jones' case, when the Baton Rouge General nurse who was kidnapped and raped identified Jones as her perpetrator, she later told police she wasn't 100 percent sure he was the right man.
Additionally, his attorneys argued that prosecutors at the time knew a serial rapist was attacking women in Baton Rouge and committed another assault after Jones was behind bars.
“Authorities at the time made the connection between the serial rapist and the rape of the nurse at Baton Rouge General Hospital, but never disclosed this information. The serial rapist is alive, free and living in Baton Rouge today,” the Innocence Project New Orleans organization wrote in a statement.
Wadeejah Jones said this week had already been a good one for her uncle, as they had just registered him to vote.
"He wants to be a productive citizen," she said. "We want him to experience everything in life that he’s been missing."