BATON ROUGE, La. — A judge in Louisiana has thrown out the conviction of a man serving a life sentence for the 1971 rape of a nurse, ruling authorities withheld evidence that could have exonerated him decades ago.
Wilbert Jones’ attorneys on Tuesday asked the judge to order his immediate release from prison. State District Court Judge Richard Anderson is expected to hear arguments on that request next week.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore said his office will ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the judge’s Oct. 31 ruling. For now, Jones remains imprisoned at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.
Emily Maw, one of Jones’ attorneys, said her client was “thrilled” and “obviously relieved” when he learned of the judge’s ruling.
“Wilbert, amazingly, still has faith in the court system,” she said. “I think he always felt this day would come.”
Jones, now 65, was 19 when police arrested him on suspicion of abducting the nurse at gunpoint from a Baton Rouge hospital’s parking lot and raping her behind a building on the night of Oct. 2, 1971.
In his 14-page ruling last week, Anderson said the case against Jones was “weak, at best.” He concluded that authorities concealed “highly favorable” evidence that the crime was committed by another man linked to two similar attacks.
The state’s case against Jones “rested entirely” on the nurse’s testimony and her “questionable identification” of Jones as her assailant, the judge wrote. 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, 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.
Anderson said the evidence shows police knew about the “plethora of similarities” between that man and the nurse’s description of her attacker.
“Nevertheless, the State failed to provide this information to the defense,” he wrote.
Moore’s office has said the state didn’t withhold any “relevant, material evidence” about other Baton Rouge rapists.
“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 a February court filing.
In January, Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys had asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to order a new trial for Wilbert Jones. Instead, the justices voted 4-3 for Anderson to hold an evidentiary hearing on Jones’ claims he was denied a fair trial.
Jones has been seeking DNA testing since 2003. His attorneys say key pieces of testable evidence — including the nurse’s clothing — went missing from an envelope. The district attorney’s office said a judge’s order in 1975 allowed for the victim’s clothing to be destroyed.
Jones’ attorneys claim that a prosecutor who secured his conviction had a track record of withholding evidence favorable to defendants. A 1974 opinion by a 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 justice noted.
At that point, Jones had been in prison for only three years. Now he’s served more than 45 years behind bars.