Newly revealed memo shows Orleans Parish DA's office can't handle 1992 French Quarter kidnapping and rape case, defense argues _lowres

Advocate staff photo by A.J. SISCO -- Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro delivers his annual speech on the state of the criminal justice system at Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward Tuesday, August 19, 2014.

Attorneys for a man who last year won the right to a new trial in a 1992 French Quarter armed robbery, kidnapping and rape say there’s no way Robert Jones can get a fair trial, after Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office last week turned over a 19-year-old internal memo that contradicts a key argument the office made as it fought for years to preserve Jones’ conviction.

The new disclosure follows a state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ruling last year that granted Jones, 52, a new trial and vacated his life sentence in the kidnapping and rape. The court based its ruling in part on what it found to be other failures by the state to turn over evidence that might have helped Jones at trial.

Jones’ attorneys with the Innocence Project New Orleans are now asking a judge to throw out the indictment and bar Cannizzaro’s office from retrying him. They argue that prosecutors either hid the memo, never bothered in nearly two decades to search for it or found it but failed to grasp their legal obligation to turn it over.

In any case, the newly found memo highlights an “epidemic of nondisclosure” in the case, IPNO attorneys Emily Maw and Richard Davis argued in legal papers filed Friday.

The DA’s Office “has repeatedly proved itself entirely incapable of recognizing exculpatory material in this case and making honest representations to the courts regarding the existence of such material,” they wrote.

Cannizzaro acknowledged this week that the 1996 internal memo should have turned up a lot sooner.

“We revealed it, albeit tardy,” he said. “We should have revealed it earlier at the post-conviction (process) we were involved in. It did not happen, and we revealed it once we put a different set of eyes on it.”

In the memo, dated April 4, 1996, a prosecutor describes how an alleged cohort of Jones recanted an initial statement saying it was Jones who pulled the trigger in another crime — the high-profile slaying of English tourist Julie Stott a week after the robbery and rape.

That other man, Lester Jones, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for Stott’s murder. His car, a burgundy Oldsmobile with a white top, was used in the robbery and rape that authorities pinned on Robert Jones.

When police caught up with Lester Jones, he was holding a Jesus medallion stolen from one of the rape victim’s friends.

A connection between the two men was central to the state’s case against Robert Jones in the rape — namely, that he’d borrowed Lester’s car and turned over the jewelry to him after the crime.

According to the memo, which Cannizzaro said turned up recently in a murder file, Lester Jones denied ever making a statement implicating Robert Jones.

The memo supports Lester Jones’ later testimony, when he took the witness stand as Robert Jones pressed his innocence claim and fought for a new trial beginning in 2007.

Lester Jones testified that he didn’t know Robert Jones and that he’d told prosecutors as much back in the 1990s.

Cannizzaro’s office repeatedly waved off that claim as “specious” and untrustworthy. The DA’s Office also dismissed the testimony of a former detective, Herman Cade, who testified that he had found no connection between the two Joneses and may have been misconstrued when he testified at Robert Jones’ trial.

The 4th Circuit agreed with the DA that Lester Jones’ testimony wasn’t believable, but it found other failures by the state that warranted a new trial for Robert Jones.

No decision on retrial

In an interview, Cannizzaro said he wasn’t yet ready to decide whether to retry a 23-year-old rape case that already had problems.

The DA acknowledged that the files of both police and prosecutors are missing in the rape case and others related to a string of armed attacks over a three-week period in April 1992. Robert Jones has long argued that Lester Jones alone perpetrated all five crimes, including the rape and the Stott murder.

Also, evidence from a rape exam kit that might have proven Robert Jones’ guilt or innocence through DNA testing has disappeared.

Now 52, Jones has maintained his innocence of a sordid crime that started with the gunpoint robbery of three people on North Rampart Street.

The robber held a cocked gun and at one point ordered two of the victims to lie face down and give up their cash and jewelry, then ordered them to strip naked and get under a car. He kidnapped one female victim and drove her to the Desire public housing complex, where he raped her in an abandoned building and ordered her into a crawl space.

Robert Jones was identified by the rape victim and another of the victims in the initial armed robbery on Rampart. His attorneys call those identifications false, saying their accounts of the perpetrator more accurately described Lester Jones — despite the rape victim’s insistence that she “looked him in the face about five or six times.”

Lester Jones refused to cooperate with the state in the rape case. His only role at Robert Jones’ trial was to stand up and open his mouth. Prosecutors wanted to display his teeth for the jury, seeking to show that the victim’s description of the rapist fit Robert, not Lester.

After his conviction, Robert Jones walked into a courtroom and pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the tourist’s killing, as well as to a separate armed robbery.

According to the newly found memo, prosecutors accepted his guilty plea despite having no evidence to convict him after Lester Jones recanted. “The only evidence against Robert is Lester’s statement,” wrote the memo’s author, then-Assistant District Attorney Fred Menner.

Robert Jones, who claimed he was at his son’s birthday party when the kidnapping and rape took place, entered false pleas in the other cases, Maw said.

“Robert Jones had just been wrongly convicted and was about to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He had no confidence that going through another trial for a crime he didn’t commit would result in any other outcome,” Maw said. “He wasn’t to know their case was utter nonsense.”

Threat to a marriage

The case threatens to become a sore spot in a marriage of sorts between Cannizzaro’s office and IPNO, which joined forces last year in an unlikely union to root out bad convictions.

“Robert Jones has been wrongly imprisoned for 23 years because a succession of prosecutors withheld evidence that someone else was obviously guilty of the crime. That is now beyond dispute,” Maw said Tuesday.

“Successive district attorney’s offices have ridiculed Robert Jones’ pleas of innocence. All the while they have had in some separate file a document that corroborates his pleas, which they did not turn over until last week — 19½ years after the document was written.

“Last year, Mr. Cannizzaro committed to the citizens of New Orleans that he would remedy cases of past injustice. This case presents a real test of that commitment.”

In its recent legal filing, IPNO points a sharp finger at former prosecutor Roger Jordan. The filing suggests that Jordan, who has faced similar allegations in the past, influenced an eyewitness to identify Lester and Robert Jones after first telling police he’d seen only a single silhouette. The filing also notes that Jordan was the last person to have documented custody of the physical evidence, in 1993.

Now a criminal defense attorney, Jordan called the claim of misconduct “a ridiculous allegation.”

Jordan brought the rape case to a grand jury but didn’t try the case against Robert Jones. Jordan also noted that Robert Jones pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Stott’s killing.

“That should give you pause,” Jordan said Tuesday. “The lengths people will go to find the guilty innocent.”

Menner, who tried the case against Robert Jones, told the jury that the two Joneses were in cahoots, by way of explaining how Lester Jones wound up with the jewelry.

“We know him and Robert are friends,” Menner argued. “We know they interacted. It’s never been denied, and we know it to be true.”

Now a federal prosecutor in the Middle District of Louisiana, Menner declined to discuss the case or his memo, citing state rules that bar him from commenting on a case in which he may become a witness. But his memo, citing a lack of evidence, could spell trouble for Robert Jones’ manslaughter plea in Stott’s killing.

“We may well have a problem with that conviction,” Cannizzaro acknowledged.

Both Joneses were tried during the tenure of Harry Connick, whose long reign as Orleans Parish DA has led to repeated allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 spared Cannizzaro’s office from a $14 million judgment when it ruled that the DA’s Office could not be held liable, based on a single case, for failing to train prosecutors under Connick to turn over evidence, and that freed death row inmate John Thompson had failed to prove a pattern.

Since then, advocates have pointed to other episodes of misconduct under Connick, while Cannizzaro’s office has found itself defending convictions from that era with mixed success.

Cannizzaro has insisted that under his watch, prosecutors are trained to promptly turn over exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.