On April 17, 1992, Robert Jones went to sleep in his mother’s house. He had no idea that it would be over 23 years before he next slept anywhere except a prison cell. The next day, at 4:30 A.M., police arrived at Robert’s mother’s house to arrest Robert for the April 14 murder of a British tourist. Robert had become a suspect in this murder because of an anonymous tip made in response to a $10,000 reward offered by The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper.
The murder for which Robert was arrested was part of a crime spree that began on the night of April 6, 1992, with the kidnapping and rape of a young woman and the robbery of her fiancé and friend. Because of the connection between this crime and the murder, police showed the rape victim a photo array containing their suspects in the murder case. The victim picked Robert’s photo and then she and her fiancé picked Robert out from a lineup. The crime spree, however, continued while Robert was in jail.
The police continued to investigate the crime spree and could find no other evidence linking Robert to any of the crimes. Other victims declined to identify Robert as their assailant. On April 22, 1992, the police’s continued investigation paid off when they located the car used in every crime in the crime spree. The car was owned by a man named Lester Jones (no relation to Robert). Lester was also arrested and police quickly found he had the gun used in the murder and property stolen from every other crime in the spree including the rape-kidnapping.
Despite the arrest of Lester Jones, Robert remained in jail. He was charged with the rape and a role in the murder. Robert sat in jail for four years. During this time, Lester was convicted of the murder and some of the later robberies in the spree.
Robert finally came to trial on the rape case in March 1996. The only evidence of guilt the jury heard was the two witnesses’ identifications of Robert. The jury heard Lester owned the car used by the rapist and was found with the victim’s medallion, but the prosecutor argued—without any evidence—that Lester and Robert were friends and that Lester lent Robert his car in exchange for jewelry. The jury did not hear anything about the other crimes in the crime spree or the fact that Lester had already been convicted of some of them. Robert’s attorney made a weak attempt at presenting Robert’s alibi—that he had been at a birthday party for his son on the night of the crime. He offered only testimony from a few close family members and failed to even prove that Robert’s son’s birthday was on the day in question. Robert was convicted and faced an automatic sentence of life without parole.
The prosecutor then talked Robert into a plea deal on his remaining charges. This included the crimes related to the murder, but also—unbeknownst to Robert or, apparently, anyone else in the court room—a completely unconnected robbery from February 1992. This additional charge was not described in court. It was another 10 years until Robert learned he had in fact plead guilty to it. In pleading guilty, Robert did not admit his guilt as to any charge.
Robert was sent to Angola. He sought DNA testing, but State agencies had lost or destroyed all the testable evidence. In 2007, Robert presented testimony from Lester Jones. Lester testified he did not know Robert, had never loaned him his car or received jewelry from him, and had told the prosecutor this before Robert’s trial. The prosecutor challenged the credibility of this testimony. Robert did not get a new trial.
IPNO began seriously investigating Robert’s case in late 2009 and began litigating in 2010 (it had previously tried to help him locate the missing DNA evidence). At a 2013 hearing, IPNO presented evidence that:
IPNO was not, however, able to add to the evidence already presented about Lester’s conversation with the trial prosecutor.
The new evidence, and the fact that the State withheld much of it at Robert’s trial, was enough to get the court of appeal to grant Robert a new trial in the rape case. In summer 2015, a few weeks after the grant of a new trial was finalized, prosecutors disclosed for the first time that they had a memorandum by the trial prosecutor corroborating Lester Jones’s 2007 testimony (testimony that prosecutors had spent over seven years mocking as non-credible). Due to the prosecutorial misconduct and the missing evidence, IPNO moved to bar any further prosecution of Robert in the rape case. It also pushed to have his plea conviction vacated as he had only plead guilty due his unconstitutional conviction in the rape case and the evidence now made clear he had no involvement in any of crimes to which he had plead guilty. This evidence included, in addition to that presented in 2013, affidavits from the victim (and sole witness) of the February 1992 robbery stating he did not believe Robert robbed him, did not believe he ever identified Robert as having robbed him, and did not believe Robert should be punished for robbing him. At this point, the prosecutor asked Robert to plead guilty to a crime of his choosing and immediately be released, but not exonerated. Robert refused.
On November 20, 2015, Robert Jones walked out of prison, but he remained on bond due to the prosecution’s attempts to reconvict him in the rape case and, also, on parole due to his remaining convictions from the plea cases.
After Robert’s release, the prosecution spent another year fighting the case to try and send Robert back to prison for the rest of his life. Eventually, on January 20, 2017, the court began a hearing on whether the plea convictions should stand and whether the State was permitted to attempt to reconvict Robert in the rape case. At this hearing, IPNO attorneys were joined by Barry Scheck and Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project. A few days into this hearing, the district attorney’s office agreed to vacate Robert’s remaining conviction and drop all charges against him. Finally, on January 26, 2017, his 44th birthday, Robert was cleared of all charges. Robert was allowed to address the court and stated “Today is not only my birthday, but today is a day of justice. This is what I stood on for many years. I have stood on my innocence. I've stood on my truth, my confidence and justice.” Robert then walked out the court, completely free for the first time in a quarter of a century.
For more information:
BBC Interview with Robert Jones: http://www.bbc.com/923905
NOLA.com/Times-Picayune - http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2017/01/robert_jones_freed_new_orleans.html
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