As soon as railroaded inmate sees daylight, D.A. Leon Cannizzaro throws shade

Jarvis DeBerry, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
January 29, 2017

Robert Jones
After 23 years behind bars in Louisiana, Robert Jones walks out of the Israel M. Augustine Jr. Criminal Justice Center after prosecutors formally dropped charges against Jones, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, in New Orleans. Legal advocates working on behalf of Jones had long argued that the case was "riddled with prosecutorial misconduct," dating back to former District Attorney Harry Connick's days in office.

This was going to be a column just about Robert Jones, who celebrated his 44th birthday Thursday by walking out of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court a free man.  Jones had spent 23 years locked up at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, but like many other poor and poorly represented defendants cornered by Harry Connick's district attorney's office, he was charged, convicted and shipped off to Angola despite significant doubts about his guilt.

Robert Jones was sent to Angola for an April 1992 French Quarter crime spree that included robbery, kidnapping, rape and murder even though evidence pointed to a man named Lester Jones - no relation to Robert - as the single culprit.  This was going to be a column about how Robert Jones - who was pressured into pleading guilty despite the prosecution's weak case - smiled on the courthouse steps and said that he doesn't have bitterness or resentment against anybody.

This was going to be a column about the joy in the air at Tulane and Broad, about the looks of excitement on the faces of other men who were previously sprung from Angola.  There was Calvin Duncan, who worked as an inmate lawyer with Jones and praised his commitment to helping other inmates who'd also been wrongly incarcerated. There was Jerome Morgan who - after a 20-year bid at Angola - had murder charges against him dropped last year.  After Jones' first remarks as a free man, Morgan pulled him into what may have been history's tightest bear hug.

This was going to be a column about how the Innocence Project of New Orleans, directed by attorney Emily Maw, keeps getting people out of prison, keeps reuniting families that have been unfairly torn assunder by our criminal justice system.

But then District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro - who isn't even responsible for sending Robert Jones to prison - decided that all that joy at the courthouse was a problem in need of a fix.  "In the opinion of the District Attorney," Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman wrote in a Thursday morning email blast, "today's proceedings did not exonerate Robert Jones. It is difficult to retry any case that is more than two decades old. The office, unfortunately, has concluded that it cannot at this time retry a complex case such as this."

Bowman goes on to write that "this victim is certain that the defendant was her attacker."  The "real tragedy," Bowman writes, is that Cannizzaro's office couldn't bring her a "full measure of closure."

When Bowman says the case is complex, what he really means is that the case against Robert Jones is as weak as they come. All things being fair, Cannizzaro's office couldn't win a conviction against Robert Jones with these facts no matter when the crimes occurred.

Police first arrested Robert Jones on the suspicion that on April 14, 1992, he murdered 27-year-old British tourist Julie Stott in the French Quarter.  After his picture had been shown on the news and published on the front page of The Times-Picayune, the victims of an April 7 French Quarter robbery, kidnapping and rape picked Robert Jones out of a line-up.

But in fairly short order police realized that Lester Jones killed Stott. He's serving a life sentence for Stott's murder.  Prosecutors still successfully leaned on Robert Jones to plead guilty to killing Stott.  At a 2015 hearing in his case, James Stewart, a former homicide detective turned FBI agent, said he was testifying for a defendant for the first time in his law enforcement career.  If Robert Jones pleaded guilty to killing Stott, Stewart said, then his attorney steered him wrong. Lester Jones killed Stott and killed her by himself, Stewart said. Stewart said he told prosecutors back then Robert Jones wasn't involved.

Lester Jones' car was used to commit the April 7 crimes. An item stolen that night was found in Lester Jones' car. There's no evidence that Robert Jones and Lester Jones knew one another, and Lester Jones told authorities they didn't, but Connick's office kept that secret as they pressured Robert Jones to plead guilty. Maw said at that 2015 hearing that despite the victims of the April 7 crimes picking Robert Jones out of a line up, Lester Jones better matches their initial description of their attacker. 

Prosecutors had their man in Lester Jones. But why send just one man to prison if you can send two?

Prosecutors didn't innocently err, Maw said. They deliberately pressured Robert Jones to plead guilty in Stott's death when they knew Lester Jones killed her. And they charged Robert Jones for a rape, robbery and kidnapping when they knew that everything except that eyewitness identification pointed to Lester Jones.

Cannizzaro had an opportunity Thursday to disavow the abuses of the past and declare that he's running a different kind of office than Connick did.  But he chose to display the same stubbornness and arrogance that led to Connick's epidemic of wrongful convictions.  If Cannizzaro had kept quiet, we'd only be shaking our fists at Connick.  But Cannizzaro chose to deny that Robert Jones was railroaded, which makes him part of the problem, too.

Jarvis DeBerry is deputy opinions editor at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. He can be reached at jdeberry@nola.com. Follow him at twitter.com/jarvisdeberry.

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