A Louisiana man who spent nearly 50 years in prison will be released after a judge overturned his conviction in the kidnapping and rape of a nurse. But first, the man has to pay $2,000 bail.
Wilbert Jones was 19-years-old when police arrested him in 1971 on suspicion of abducting a nurse at gunpoint from a Baton Rouge hospital's parking lot and raping her behind a building. Jones was convicted of aggravated rape at a 1974 retrial and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Jones, now 65, will be released and walk out of prison a free man. NBC News reports that Jones showed no visible reaction in the courtroom when the judge announced his freedom and the $2,000 bail.
State District Judge Richard Anderson ruled that the decades-old case against Jones was “weak, at best” and determined that authorities at the time withheld evidence that could have exonerated Jones decades ago. In his ruling, Anderson said that the state's case against Jones "rested entirely" on the nurse's testimony and her "questionable identification" of Jones as her assailant. She picked Jones out in a police lineup more than three months after the rape, but also told them that the man who raped her was much taller and had a "much rougher voice" than Jones'.
The nurse died in 2008.
According to Jones' attorneys, the nurse's description fits a man who was arrested but never charged in a similar case 27 days after the nurse's attack. In 1973, that same man was arrested in the rape of a third woman but was only charged and convicted of armed robbery in that case.
Anderson said in his ruling that this evidence shows police knew of the similarities between that man and the nurse's description of her attacker, but “[n]evertheless, the state failed to provide this information to the defense.”
Prosecutors denied that authorities withheld any relevant evidence about other Baton Rouge rapists, and weren't bound to disclose that information.
"The state was not obligated to document for the defense every rape or abduction that occurred in Baton Rouge from 1971 to 1974," prosecutors wrote in February.
Jones' attorneys also said that a prosecutor who secured his conviction had a track record of withholding evidence favorable to defendants. A 1974 opinion by a Louisiana state Supreme Court justice said the prosecutor was responsible for 11 reversed convictions over the preceding year — "an incredible statistic for a single prosecutor," the justices noted.
Jones' attorneys from the Innocence Project New Orleans began working on his case 15 years ago. They describe him as a "highly trusted prisoner and a frail, aging man" who doesn't pose a danger to the community. They wrote in a court filing that the late nurse's husband isn't opposed to Jones' release.
"He feels that Mr. Jones has been in prison long enough and that he should be able to get out and spend his remaining years with his family," the lawyers wrote.
Jones' family members embraced one another and fought back tears outside the courtroom. Jones' niece Wajeedah Jones said she already knew what her uncle's first request would be.
"We will have the gumbo ready for him when he gets out," she said.
Prosecutors said that they intend to ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review Anderson’s decision, but they will not retry Jones for the crime.