Five years into his life sentence, Darryl Jones now awaits release from prison following a Louisiana Supreme Court decision handed down Tuesday overturning his 2014 murder conviction and granting him the promise of freedom.
A jury convicted Jones, 46, and two other men, of second-degree murder in 2014 after authorities found the body of Gerald Wilkins along a sparsely populated road in the Sorrento area of Ascension Parish. All four men were from Baton Rouge.
Wilkins was shot three times in the back of the head while urinating by the side of the road, according to court documents. He was unsuspecting of the crime — wearing a white shirt and white shoes that remained clean despite muddy conditions — and was holding a crack pipe when killed.
Prosecutors argued at trial that Jones orchestrated the 2013 shooting death of his childhood friend, painting Jones as a central figure within the culture of late nights and illicit activity emanating from his Baton Rouge home. But they pinned direct responsibility on the two other defendants, Cecil Ray Beals and Calvin Williams.
The largely circumstantial case placed Beals and Williams with the victim inside a car belonging to Jones early on Jan. 12, 2013. Investigators obtained surveillance video showing Beals and two other unidentified men at a gas station near the crime scene not long before the shooting occurred. Prosecutors alleged that Jones directed his friends via cellphone from his house.
Jones told police the last time he saw Wilkins was several hours earlier that night. Jones also said the victim was a "troublemaker" but that he instructed his friends not to harm Wilkins nonetheless. Another acquaintance of both men testified Wilkins often used drugs at Jones' house and had robbed Jones and purchased drugs with counterfeit money in the past.
Defense attorneys attempted to highlight holes within the narrative prosecutors presented during trial.
Jones' trial attorney Jarrett Ambeau disputed the use of cellphone records as evidence against his client, arguing the allegations were based on "fantastical connections" that overlooked whether calls were answered and the information discussed when they were. Ambeau maintained that prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to show Jones had specific intent to kill Wilkins and could not be held accountable for the intent of codefendants.
Jones' girlfriend testified he was home in bed with her when the crime was committed.
Jurors voted unanimously to convict Beals and Williams, but voted 10-2 to convict Jones — the minimum ratio allowed under state law for the charges in question. Ambeau said the jury convicted Jones of second-degree murder even though he was charged with principal to second-degree murder. Both carry mandatory life sentences.
Jones appealed to the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, which found the evidence against him sufficient and upheld his conviction. But one of the judges dissented, according to court documents.
In its decision released Tuesday, the state Supreme Court cited that dissenting opinion and stated that "based on the evidence presented, the jury could only speculate (Jones) was guilty" since "there was no evidence in the record showing that (Jones) directed Beals or Williams to commit murder."
The Supreme Court acknowledged that Jones became an accessory after the fact when he tried to obtain a phone possibly connected to the slaying, but said that crime would not warrant murder charges.
Ambeau, the trial attorney, called Tuesday's ruling "absolutely wonderful" and said "justice has prevailed." He highlighted a line from the state Supreme Court opinion, quoting an earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision that also addressed due process standards: "Reasonable jurors must have a reasonable doubt."
"That really is the crux of what's going on here," Ambeau said. "The state has to rule out all possible reasonable doubt — the fact that this story could have been told differently, that this guy could have had no idea what was going on. … Reasonable doubt is a strange legal concept and it's very difficult to teach a jury what that means in the real world."
Ambeau initially requested that Jones be tried separately from his two codefendants, but the trial court denied that request.
Lieu Vo Clark, the attorney who represented Jones in his appeal before the state Supreme Court, said his conviction was "ultimately a case of guilt by association. He looked guilty just because was sitting next to (Beals and Williams)."
"They were trying to put him away for the rest of his life … for a crime he did not commit," she said. "I believe the (Louisiana Supreme Court) came to the correct decision. I believe in our justice and I believe that when courts follow the law, they achieve the right outcome, which is what happened here."
Tyler Cavalier, spokesman for 23rd Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin, said his office respects the state Supreme Court decision and is still determining how to proceed.
Clark said prosecutors have several days to request a rehearing, which could mean Jones remains in custody pending that decision. But otherwise he must be released.