Prosecutors and pro bono defense attorneys in New Orleans last year announced they would join forces to free the wrongfully convicted.
It was the first such collaboration in the United States and now the defense side claims to have found the perfect candidate. Innocence Project Director Emily Maw thinks it so obvious that Robert Jones was bum-rapped into a life sentence 19 years ago that she has urged District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to cut him loose.
Cannizzaro, however, is intent on a retrial, although even more evidence favorable to Jones has come to light since a state court of appeal overturned his convictions for rape, armed robbery and kidnapping.
A spokesman said Cannizzaro would have no comment, but it is easy to see why he might not think this is a suitable occasion to link arms. Jones, after being convicted on the strength of victim testimony, pleaded guilty not only to a separate armed robbery, but to a homicide.
Maw, however, in a long memo to Cannizzaro, adduces a mass of evidence that the perp in all the crimes was not Robert Jones, but Lester Jones, who is of no relation. That Lester Jones was guilty is not in doubt; he also is doing life over the same crime spree that landed Robert Jones in trouble. Prosecutors at trial alleged the two Joneses were in cahoots, but Maw maintains they did not even know each other and that Lester Jones acted alone.
Arguments are always more compelling before the other side has responded, and we cannot discount the possibility that Cannizzaro has something up his sleeve. Still, Maw’s memo makes a persuasive case that Robert Jones is innocent.
Robert Jones was arrested when police got a Crimestoppers tip fingering him as the killer of English tourist Julie Stott in the French Quarter. Stott was shot in the course of an attempted robbery, and police figured the man who did it also was responsible for a string of crimes in and around the same neighborhood. They all occurred in the middle of the night, the same car was used each time and the assailant was in the habit of forcing his victims to lie down in the street.
The last armed robbery that fit the pattern occurred after Robert Jones had been jailed.
Police determined that the car driven by the assailant, a burgundy Oldsmobile with a white top, belonged to Lester Jones, who was found with various items stolen from the victims, all of whom reported they had been attacked by a lone gunman. Lester Jones was convicted of a couple of armed robberies and of murdering Stott. Prosecutors told the jury that he had done the murder alone.
But Robert Jones went to trial because, after his arrest in the Stott shooting, he was put in a line-up for victims of an earlier attack and two of them picked him.
Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, however, and these may well have caught the extensive media coverage of Robert Jones’ arrest.
Prosecutors needed to explain, moreover, how come the perp had been driving Lester Jones’ car. Prosecutors explained that by making up a story that the two Joneses were friends. Thus was Robert Jones’ goose cooked.
A couple of weeks later, Robert Jones pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the Stott case and to another count of armed robbery. Those were false pleas, entered because Robert Jones was already facing life and had nothing to lose, according to Maw.
Harry Connick was district attorney at the time, so naturally a truckload of exculpatory evidence was illegally withheld. Jurors were not told, for instance, that the witnesses who fingered Robert Jones, then 19 years old, initially gave descriptions that matched Lester Jones. Lester Jones is 13 years older and does not have the prominent gold teeth that are evidently hard to miss in Robert Jones.
Jurors were not told that two NOPD detectives had investigated the Joneses and assured detectives that they did not know each other. The appeals court last year ruled that Robert Jones was entitled to a retrial.
Now a 1996 internal memo has suddenly surfaced at the District Attorney’s Office to reveal that, way back in 1996, Lester Jones told prosecutors that Robert Jones had nothing to do with the Stott murder. Lester Jones also has testified in post-conviction proceedings that he did not know Robert Jones.
Meanwhile, prosecutors have lost or deep-sixed case files as well as evidence that might have been used for DNA tests.
If Robert Jones is acquitted at retrial, his guilty pleas in the other cases will presumably be withdrawn, but defense and prosecution won’t be celebrating jointly this time.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.