“I can’t go back and do anything I should have been doing when I was 35, 38, 40.”
It would be a good guess that Wilbert Jones made that comment after he walked out of prison this week after spending 45 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola when his rape conviction was overturned.
Those words actually came from Glenn Ford, who spent nearly 30 years in the state pen. He faced the death penalty for a 1983 killing. He was 64 when he was finally released from prison after a judge overturned his conviction.
Sadly, Ford died of cancer less than a year after getting out of prison.
“I just want to know why the prosecutors who hid the evidence sent me to prison for something I didn’t do, and nearly had me killed, are not in jail themselves. There are no ethics charges against them, no criminal charges, no one was fired.”
Maybe Jones said that Wednesday before hugging his brother and sister-in-law when they greeted him as he stepped into his freedom for the first time since he was 19 years old.
Again, no. That was John Thompson speaking in 2003 after he had spent 18 years in prison, 14 on death row, for something he didn’t do. A court overturned his conviction.
The sad part of this is that it is so easy to find folks like Jones, Ford and Thompson who were sent to prison on trumped-up charges, prosecutors intentionally hiding evidence that could have exonerated them, along with other misdeeds and missteps.
Unfortunately, there are a few prosecutors who feel it is more important to ruin a person’s life than to be totally truthful. How do these people sleep at night? For some, not all, it might be that they have certain prejudices that rip all goodwill from their hearts.
When I looked at Jones’ smiling face on TV, I felt so deeply for him. How do you spend so many years in prison and the hell that came with it, knowing that you’re innocent, hoping beyond hope that someone would listen to you?
Jones was sent to prison on a rape charge in 1974. A judge ruled recently in dismissing the conviction that East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors withheld “highly favorable” evidence from the defense. That evidence, the judge said, probably would have resulted in a different outcome.
I thought again about Jones sitting in a prison cell for, as his lawyer put it, 16,000 hours, longing for his family and freedom. How many hours did he think about the prosecutor who sent him away?
“I just want to live. I don’t have time to think about that. (Being in prison for something he didn’t do.) It’s in the Lord’s hands.”
No, those are not Jones’ words either. That was Clyde Charles, who got a life sentence for rape and spent 18 years in prison before he was freed by a court decision.
“This was no mistake ... But why did this take so long? Why suck the life out of a human being?” he asked.
I pray that Jones is able to cobble together a life of some richness. I hope that district attorneys and their prosecutors become more forthright in carrying out their duties. There should be tough sanctions, even real jail time, for prosecutors who knowingly hide evidence from the defense. There has to be accountability.
In the long run, convicting the wrong person does no justice to the wrongly convicted nor the victims of the offenses and their families. It’s more of a placebo for a failed prosecutor.
That leads me to Greg Bright, who spent 27 years at Angola on a 1975 murder charge. A court said the prosecutors concealed evidence, and a crime scene investigator later found that it was impossible for the witness in his case to see what the “eyewitness said she claims to have seen.”
When he received some compensation for the time he spent in prison, the first thing he reportedly purchased was a bag of apples. Wow.
Lastly, in thinking about Jones, I have to consider the haunting and true words of Clyde Charles, who said upon leaving prison after 18 years: “I know I left some innocent men behind.”
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.