When Wilbert Jones was 19, he was arrested. He was convicted of aggravated rape based entirely on a highly questionable identification by the victim, according to the judge who recently released him. The woman, a nurse, had picked him out of a lineup months after the crime and was careful to tell police that her assailant had been taller and had a “much rougher” voice.
He was convicted anyway, on retrial, and sentenced to live in prison without the possibility of parole.
According to the Louisiana District Judge who just let him go, the state’s case was “weak at best.” Furthermore, there is evidence that the police knew of a suspect who fit the nurse’s description and who committed a similar crime in the same time period. However, the prosecutor who tried Jones’s case never turned over that pro-defense evidence, as is required by the U.S. Constitution.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1963 case of Brady v. Maryland that prosecutors have a legal duty to inform the defense of any evidence they have that would tend to exculpate the defendant. Pro-defense evidence is often called “Brady” evidence as a result of that ruling.
That prosecutor had a track record of refusing to turn over evidence favorable to the defense, according to Jones’s attorneys. In fact, according to a Louisiana Supreme Court opinion in 1974, that prosecutor had racked up 11 reversed convictions in the preceding year.
Today’s prosecutors deny that the authorities of that time had withheld favorable evidence. They dismissed the concerns of Jones’s lawyers, characterizing the failure to provide Brady evidence as too much trouble. “The state was not obligated to document for the defense every rape or abduction that occurred in Baton Rouge from 1971 to 1974,” they wrote earlier this year.
Jones wasn’t asking for documentation of every possible defendant, but merely the one who committed a very similar crime in the same time period, and who better fit the description given by the victim. Making connections between current and past crimes is part of the police’s job, and the judge found there was evidence the connection had been made.
The current prosecutors don’t plan to retry Jones, but they do plan to see if the judge’s findings can be appealed. Jones hasn’t officially been exonerated but was released on bail.
Jones’s lawyers, who are from the Innocence Project New Orleans, said it would be “legally incorrect and morally problematic” for the DA’s office to retry Jones.
According to a study by American University, Brady violations are among the Top 10 factors most commonly identified in wrongful conviction cases.