After nearly 46 years in a Louisiana prison, Wilbert Jones became a free man Wednesday after a judge overturned his conviction in a 1971 rape case.
You could call it a belated birthday gift. Jones turned 65 on November 1.
“My life was taken away from me for something I didn’t do,” he told CNN affiliate WAFB during an interview after his release.
Jones was convicted of raping a nurse after abducting her from outside a Baton Rouge hospital on October 2, 1971. He was arrested, tried and subsequently sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He was 19 at the time of his arrest.
The victim’s testimony was the only evidence that linked Jones to the crime. But she told police that she had doubts about her identification of Jones because the man who raped her was taller and had a rougher voice.
State District Judge Richard Anderson said the state had “at best” a weak case against Jones.
It was more than three months after the crime was committed when the victim went to view a lineup and picked out Jones, the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) director Emily Maw told CNN.
The state’s case against Jones was based entirely on the victim’s testimony and “questionable identification” the judge said.
In 2003, the IPNO decided to represent Jones. The group dug through old files and eventually discovered that a similar rape had been committed weeks after the one of which Jones was convicted. That discovery was key to the eventual overturning of Jones’ conviction.
Jones’ attorneys argued that the prosecution failed to share crucial information about the second rape, which happened on October 29, 1971. In both cases, the women were kidnapped at gunpoint in the parking lot of a Baton Rouge hospital.
The suspect in the October 29 case had a “plethora of similarities” to the man described by the victim in Jones’ case — but “the state failed to present a shred of evidence” to Jones’ legal team, said Judge Anderson.
“I thank God for my family, I thank God for the legal team and I thank God for God,” Jones said.
A fundraiser has been setup to assist Jones financially at razoo.com.
The district attorney’s office is appealing the decision and asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to review it.
“We think that the court has committed error in the ruling that he did and we respectfully disagree with that decision and we ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to look at that decision,” District Attorney Hillar Moore told WAFB.
By Joe Sutton, CNN