BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — It has been nearly 50 years since a Louisiana man was sentenced to life in prison in the kidnapping and rape of a nurse, but after a judge overturned his conviction, he was preparing Wednesday to walk out of prison a free man.
The case against Wilbert Jones, now 65, was "weak at best," and authorities withheld evidence that could have exonerated him decades ago, State District Judge Richard Anderson said in overturning his conviction last month.
His lawyer, Emily Maw, praised "the extraordinary strength" of a man "who has spent over 16,000 days in prison for something he didn't do," and would nevertheless "come out with a faith in God and in humanity."
Jones showed no visible reaction when the judge set his bail Tuesday at a mere $2,000. But his relatives embraced one another and fought back tears outside the courtroom. Wajeedah Jones said she already knows what her uncle's first request would be.
"We will have the gumbo ready for him when he gets out," she said.
Prosecutors said they do not intend to retry Jones, but they also said they would ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the judge's decision. As Jones was being transferred Wednesday to a Baton Rouge prison in preparation for his release, court spokesman Robert Gunn said no such request had been filed.
Maw told The Associated Press that it would be "legally incorrect and morally problematic" if the East Baton Rouge District Attorney's Office challenges the judge's decision, because by doing so, it would be "saying that when Wilbert Jones was arrested in 1972 as a young, 19-year-old poor black man, he did not deserve the rights that people deserve today."
The district attorney's office did not immediately respond to the AP's request for comment Wednesday.
Jones arrested on suspicion of abducting a nurse at gunpoint from a Baton Rouge hospital's parking lot and raping her behind a building on the night of Oct. 2, 1971. Jones was convicted of aggravated rape at a 1974 retrial and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"The community has changed so much since he was locked up," said prison warden Timothy Hooper, who testified in favor of Jones' release because he said he was a model inmate.
The state's case against Jones "rested entirely" on the nurse's testimony and her "questionable identification" of Jones as her assailant, the judge has said. 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 of the 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.
Prosecutors denied that authorities withheld any relevant 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 February.
Jones' attorneys from Innocence Project New Orleans describe him as a "highly trusted prisoner and a frail, aging man" who doesn't pose a danger to the community. The late nurse's husband isn't opposed to his release, they wrote in a court filing.
"He feels that Mr. Jones has been in prison long enough and that he should be able to get out and spend his remaining years with his family," the lawyers wrote.
Jones' attorneys also said 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 justices noted.
Maw choked up while talking about the case, which her organization took up about 15 years ago.
"It takes a long time sometimes for courts to recognize a wrong," she said.
Associated Press contributors include Michael Kunzelman in Baton Rouge and Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans.