Life's a prison without bars for parolee
After serving 22 years, big challenges remain
By Steve Israel
Published: 2:00 AM - 11/20/11
Two years ago yesterday, Lebrew Jones stepped out of a blue steel prison door into what he thought would be freedom. He had endured 22 years behind bars for a murder that he, the victim's mother and many of the country's top legal experts insist he didn't commit. Just minutes before his release on that day of such great promise, a rainbow creased the New York City sky.
In a decision one national legal expert called "basically unheard of," New York state had granted parole to Jones. Yet despite the complete lack of any physical evidence, and an investigation by former Times Herald-Record reporter Christine Young that showed Jones could not have committed the crime, Jones has never been cleared of that murder of a prostitute.
"There is every good chance (the prosecutors) have convicted an innocent person who has spent the last 20 years of his life in prison," said Steve Drizin, legal director of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions.
Today Jones, 55, lives behind another bluish steel door of a bare-walled, 10-by-16 room in Manhattan's Spanish Harlem, seemingly still imprisoned by the society that put him in jail in the first place.
He can't get a job — not with the murder conviction hanging over the head of hair that's grayed after two decades in state prisons. Not with a certificate in "custodial maintenance" that's basically useless because it reveals his past — "NY Dept of Corrections Services."
Jones has only worked a handful of days in the past two years — except for some gigs as a drummer on a set of Ludwigs that a radio station gave him. He says he's applied for more than 200 jobs since he got out of prison. His social services benefits of about $150 per month were put on hold. After 22 years behind bars — with an IQ tested at 66 — Jones has trouble negotiating the paperwork of a system that wouldn't send him a recent check because he didn't return some forms in time.
So Jones is often destitute, going hungry for days in the room provided by the Fortune Society, which helps freed prisoners with transitional housing.
All that was in his refrigerator a few weeks ago was a bag of brown rice, three eggs and a couple of jars of peanut butter.
"I'll go maybe four days without eating," he says, explaining that when he is hungry, he won't go outside because he doesn't want to make himself hungrier by walking.
Jones was recently stranded overnight in Long Island after a drumming gig because he didn't have the $15 train fare back to Manhattan. He wouldn't dare hitchhike — not with a murder conviction; and not, he says, with the color of his skin. "I mean, I'm black, you know."
"I just need a job," he says, repeating what's become his mantra. "I need a job. I need a job."
But first, he needs to be freed by the society that imprisoned him in the first place.
Case closed again
The Manhattan District Attorney's office, which reinvestigated Jones' case after the Times Herald-Record's special report two years ago, has now closed it — despite the fact that its new Conviction Integrity program states "if we have any reason to believe that we have prosecuted ... someone who is actually innocent, we must take prompt steps to investigate the matter and see that justice is served."
Only because of the Record's investigation did former District Attorney Robert Morgenthau assign someone to Jones' case in the first place.
"My review did not reveal any information which caused me to conclude that the defendant was wrongfully convicted," Assistant District Attorney Linda Ford wrote in 2009, before Jones' release — and before he was granted parole. "All leads have been exhausted."
But, she added — after no DNA turned up from the remains of the prostitute who was brutally killed — "I remain open to suggestions or requests from Jones' attorneys or any other source."
Jones' new law firm — which has taken the case for free — hasn't given up on him, although it admits that overturning the conviction will be a challenge.
"The only way to free him is to solve the crime," says his lawyer, Anand Swaminathan of the Chicago civil rights law firm Loevy and Loevy. "We've got to prove that someone else did it."
Yet despite the fact that a similar unsolved murder of a prostitute was committed the day before in Long Island City — a murder it would have been impossible for Jones to commit because he was working miles away — the New York Police Department won't release the evidence, saying the case is still under investigation.
Jones' lawyers — and former reporter Young — aren't the only ones who think the two murders may have been committed by the same person. Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner of New York City, and current chief forensic pathologist for the state police, thinks so, too.
"I'd be very surprised if it were more than one murderer," he said after examining pictures of the bodies of the two victims who were violated in the same gruesome way.
Strange, new world
So Lebrew Jones remains held hostage by the system that imprisoned him nearly a quarter-century ago. That's not the way he imagined life would be when he walked out of prison.
Even though he only had a Bible, prison-issued khakis and $300 — or about 20 cents per week for his work behind bars — he glowed like the sun behind that welcoming rainbow.
"I thought I'd get a job ... like this," Jones said, snapping his fingers in that bare-walled room where, along with a Bible, he has books like "Life on the Outside" and "True Stories of False Confessions."
But after the TV cameras left the streets around the Queensboro Correctional Facility on that gray, raw morning; after Jones wolfed down his first, longed-for meal of a roast beef, chicken and Swiss cheese Subway sub — "with everything on it" — he began to learn that freedom wouldn't taste as sweet as that sandwich.
When his brother took him to fancy shops like Brooks Brothers to buy clothes, Jones felt uncomfortable, not just because of "all the rich people" there, but because he thought everyone was looking at him.
Once his brother went back to California, Jones, whose father is dead and whose mother has dementia, had to get used to a world he had only seen on TV, and through glimpses of a blue sky in prison yards.
Not only did he hold a cellphone upside down, but when he saw people walking in the city streets talking on earpieces, he didn't understand.
"I thought they were talking to themselves," he says. "I thought, what are all these crazy people doing?"
Then, when Jones tried to find a pay phone in the city where he'd grown up, they were few and far between. When he finally found one, it swallowed his dime, before a computerized voice demanded the new fee of 25 cents.
When he tried to take a subway, he had to figure out what a Metro card was and how to work the machines to get one.
"And there were all these people trying to knock you over," he says.
So Jones decided to do what he'd done as kid growing up in the Inwood section of Manhattan — walk.
Wearing the dark blue dress suit his brother bought him, he began searching by foot for work — only finding one temporary cleaning job for $9 an hour sweeping up at the U.S. Open.
"It was cool," he says.
A love of music
Whenever he'd fill out an application, he'd get to the part that says, "Have you been convicted ..." Then he'd pause.
If Jones lied, and they checked, he wouldn't get the job. If he told the truth ...
"You've got to pull them aside and explain... And they say, 'Yeah, I'll let you know ....'"
Ask Jones his ultimate goal, and after he again repeats, "I need a job, I need a job," he'll tell you that he'd like to work 9-5, so he can play drums at night. He'd also like to hook up with a band that eventually tours Europe — like his father, Speedy Jones, did, when he played drums with Duke Ellington and Count Basie. But he needs a passport for that. To get one, he can't be saddled with that murder conviction.
But even though Jones often goes hungry for days, he won't ask his brother for money.
"I don't want to bother him too much," he says.
And while his lawyer hopes to find someone to help him negotiate the bureaucracy to see if he's entitled to benefits, even he's not that confident Jones can ever get back the one thing that's rightfully his — his freedom.
So Lebrew Jones puts his faith in God, heading to a Baptist church on Sundays, reading a Bible that, on a recent day, was opened to Isaiah 52:15 — "The suffering servant. The Messiah. Jesus Christ."
He knows he has people working to free him.
"To get me out ... I mean off," he says in a slip that may say a lot about the prison without walls that still confines him.
But Jones worries that as the years pass, he'll be forgotten.
So while he prays to God, he faces his new reality.
"Unless you keep popping it in their face," he says, "they're just going to sweep it under the rug."
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