Freedom sweet for man wrongfully convicted in 1974

Stacey Plaisance
Associated Press

Baton Rouge, La. – Nearly 50 years after he was arrested in the kidnapping and rape of a nurse, a Louisiana man walked out of prison on Wednesday, his life sentence and conviction overturned by a judge who said the case against him was “weak at best.”

Authorities withheld evidence decades ago that could have exonerated Wilbert Jones, now 65, State District Judge Richard Anderson said.

Jones thanked God for the freedom, and his loyal family for never giving up hope. He also hugged his legal team at the Innocence Project New Orleans as tears flowed outside the gates of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.

Jones’ lawyer, Emily Maw, praised “the extraordinary strength” of a man “who has spent over 16,000 days in prison for something he didn’t do,” and would nevertheless “come out with a faith in God and in humanity.”

Wajeedah Jones said she already knew what her uncle’s first request would be after the judge set his bail Tuesday at a mere $2,000.

“We will have the gumbo ready for him when he gets out,” she said.

Prosecutors said they do not intend to retry Jones, but they also said they would ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review last month’s decision by the judge.

Jones was arrested on suspicion of abducting a nurse at gunpoint from a Baton Rouge hospital’s parking lot and raping her behind a building on the night of Oct. 2, 1971. Convicted of aggravated rape at a 1974 retrial, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“The community has changed so much since he was locked up,” said prison warden Timothy Hooper, who testified in favor of Jones’ release, calling him a model inmate.

The state’s case against Jones “rested entirely” on the nurse’s testimony and her “questionable identification” of Jones as her assailant, the judge said. The nurse, who died in 2008, picked Jones out of a police lineup more than three months after the rape, but she also told police that the man who raped her was taller and had a “much rougher” voice than Jones had.

Jones’ lawyers claim the nurse’s description matches a man who was arrested but never charged in the rape of a woman abducted from the parking lot of another Baton Rouge hospital, just 27 days after the nurse’s attack. The same man also was arrested on suspicion of raping yet another woman in 1973, but was only charged and convicted of armed robbery in that case.