Wilbert Jones walked through the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison gate around noon Wednesday and into the arms of his brother, sister-in-law and niece — free for the first time in almost 46 years after his 1974 rape conviction was overturned.

“I just want to be free,” the 64-year-old said, with a smile on his face and family embracing him. “I thank God for my family, I thank God for my legal team and I thank God for God.”

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His brother Plem Jones gave him a long hug, later wiping tears from his eyes.

"I never gave up on him, I knew that he didn't do it," Plem Jones said Wednesday. "It was nothing but a matter of time, I knew he was going to be free one day."

In the almost 46 years his brother was incarcerated, Plem Jones said he can remember missing only two opportunities to visit him. Jones traveled from his Baton Rouge home two weekends a month to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, and additionally on a month's rare fifth weekend, to talk, to cry with his brother, he said. In his earlier years, he brought his daughter with him, and more recently, he brought his grandchildren. 

"My dad and Wilbert, they never, ever gave up hope," said Wajeedah Jones, Wilbert Jones' niece. 

Wilbert Jones plans to move in with his brother and sister-in-law at their Baton Rouge home, where his family said seafood gumbo and potato salad — his requests — were awaiting him. With his new freedom, Jones said, he hopes to do some traveling, maybe to Canada and Colorado, and also find ways to reach out to the youth in Baton Rouge.

"I'm going to get out there to speak to young kids, show them: 'Don't go this way, go the right way,'" Wilbert Jones said. "Most of my life was taken away from me for something I didn't do. … (I want to) just enjoy life and praise God."

Innocence Project New Orleans Director Emily Maw, whose legal team represented Jones and worked the case since 2003, said she has been humbled by Jones' patience, strength and unwavering faith. 

"(Jones spent) over 16,000 days in prison for something he didn’t do, and came out with faith in God and humanity," Maw said. She said she's in awe of "his ability to carry on in spite of having been denied and ignored."

Wilbert Jones said he doesn't hold any grievances against those who arrested, accused and convicted him.

"I forgave," Jones said. 

Maw said Jones' release and overturned conviction are significant because it shows the ability of government to right wrongs. 

"Our courts have been willing to go back and recognize injustice from 1972, acknowledge that it happened and try to stop the damage,” Maw said while waiting for Jones outside East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. "Governments work best and are at their best when they're willing to acknowledge that there's been past pain for people, people who were vulnerable like Wilbert Jones — who was 19 years old, illiterate, poor, black, lived in Baton Rouge, was wrongly arrested for something he didn't do, and has spent 45 years and 10 months in prison. It is not too late for our government to be responsive to him."

Wilbert Jones said he never lost faith that he would one day be free, calling both his legal team from Innocence Project New Orleans and his family his "super team."

"I had hope," Jones said. "With God, all things are possible."

On Oct. 31, 19th Judicial District Judge Richard Anderson tossed out Jones' 1974 rape conviction, ruling that East Baton Rouge prosecutors withheld "highly favorable" evidence from the defense. That evidence, the judge said, probably would have resulted in a different outcome at his trial. 

Anderson set a $2,000 bail for Jones on Tuesday, allowing him to post bond Wednesday. He had been serving a life sentence for aggravated rape.

Prosecutors are appealing Anderson's decision to overturn the conviction, but have said they won't retry the case. The victim has since died. 

"We have the utmost respect for the court and are respectful of its decision, but disagree and will seek appellate review," said East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III. He said his office will file a detailed brief on the case by Dec. 1. 

Jones was arrested in 1972, accused of abducting a nurse from the Baton Rouge General hospital parking lot in 1971 and then raping her at gunpoint. Anderson, in his decision, agreed with the Innocence Project attorneys that evidence implicating another man in a very similar rape a month later outside Our Lady of the Lake hospital should have been given to Jones' attorneys for his trial. The judge also noted the "plethora of similarities" between the OLOL suspect and how the Baton Rouge General victim had described her attacker. 

In a written statement Wednesday, Moore said he disagrees with Anderson's decision to overturn the conviction based on the "legal and factual conclusions that appear based simply on allegations that another rape occurred at a different hospital in the same month."

Moore said Anderson's decision was based on a "disclosure of potential exculpatory materials and not on issues of guilt or innocence. The court’s decision, while not making a finding of guilt or innocence, sets aside the decision of two prior juries and leaves the state in a position never being able to try this case again."

"We will continue to seek justice for the victim in this case, who is now deceased," Moore wrote. "Two juries heard the evidence and heard and saw this victim testify and identify her attacker after being subjected to a brutal abduction and repeated rapes. The victim was with her attacker for at least an hour and was able to clearly see and later identify him as well as speak with him."

Maw, however, called the appeal a waste of resources and an attempt to further deny Jones his legal rights. 

"Their argument is that Wilbert Jones, a young black man in 1972, should not be afforded the same rights as somebody would be afforded today," Maw said. "We don't think it's necessary to ask the Supreme Court to review this well-reasoned decision that is entirely supported by the evidence. We think it would be a better use of resources to go after the person who really did this crime." 

Wilbert Jones said he is not worried about the appeal.

"You want to know why? Because I'm innocent," Jones said. 

State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, joined the Jones family outside Parish Prison early Wednesday, working with officials to expedite Jones’ release and supporting the family, who have been her constituents for years. She went back to their home in the Fairfields neighborhood to share in the celebration, and the gumbo. 

"I'm elated," Marcelle said. "For someone to have the fortitude that he has, to believe in God, to trust in God and not have any bitterness, it's amazing. I'm excited he's free, but it makes me wonder how many more people are in there that are innocent."

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.