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‘Progressive DA’ Fights to Put Innocent Man Back in Prison

Office of East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore

‘Progressive DA’ Fights to Put Innocent Man Back in Prison

The evidence connecting Wilbert Jones to the 1974 rape for which he spent 46 years in prison was always weak. He was freed shortly before Thanksgiving due to the revelation that East Baton Rouge prosecutors hid evidence pointing to a different suspect entirely. But thanks to the efforts of East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III, Jones now faces the prospect of returning to prison after less than a month of freedom.

Soon after Louisiana 19th Judicial District Judge Richard Anderson vacated Jones’ conviction, Moore promised to file an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court to seek “justice for the victim,” who died in 2008.

Sure enough, on Friday Moore’s office asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the conviction, arguing that Judge Anderson had overreached by freeing Jones. Anderson found that “the State’s case against Jones was weak, at best,” and that the hidden, “highly favorable” evidence could have altered the trial’s outcome.

Moore claims to be a “progressive DA.” A 2013 Times-Picayune profile noted his conference table was stacked with iconic justice reform titles including The New Jim Crow and Don’t Shoot.

“For the guy whose job is prosecuting bad guys, Moore is hell-bent on finding a way to keep them out of courtrooms,” the Times-Picayune declared.

Moore’s record on keeping “bad guys” out of courtrooms is questionable, but he has certainly seemed hell-bent on keeping Jones, now 64 and in poor health, locked up for the rest of his life. District attorneys have enormous discretion in deciding which cases to pursue; Moore is not obligated to defend the conviction of his predecessors. But he has continued to fight in the face of mounting evidence of wrongdoing by his office.

Jones was granted a new evidentiary hearing in June. At that point, Moore could have simply declined to defend the conviction. The original case rested entirely on identification by the victim, a nurse at a Baton Rouge hospital. She later testified she had doubts that she had identified the right man, saying her attacker had a different voice and was taller than Jones.

Jones’ attorneys at the The Innocence Project introduced police reports indicating a serial rapist had committed nearly identical assaults in the same time period. The suspect in those cases matched the nurse’s description, and lived a block away from where he had left her after the assault. Yet prosecutors with the East Baton Rouge DA’s office, which Moore leads, withheld this information from Jones’ defense team for decades.

Moore’s latest appeal disputes that his office suppressed this evidence, arguing that the assaults were not similar enough to exonerate Jones. Furthermore, Moore asserts, the other rapes were publicized in the media at the time, so Jones’ defense attorneys should have investigated any possible connection themselves.

It’s not clear why Moore is continuing to fight a nearly 50-year-old case where the defendant has already served more than four decades behind bars. But Jones’ case sheds light on potentially major scandals at the East Baton Rouge DA’s office.

One of the prosecutors on Jones’ case had a history of withholding evidence favorable to the defense. In 1973, he was responsible for 11 overturned convictions. Evidence that could have been DNA-tested to exonerate Jones mysteriously disappeared after his conviction, leaving defense lawyers with only an empty envelope. The other suspect discovered by the Innocence Project was charged only with armed robbery in one of the rape cases, and was never prosecuted in the other, though his fingerprints were found in the victim’s car.

Many in Louisiana celebrated Wilbert Jones’ release as a rare correction of injustice. But while the holes in the case against Jones were big enough to free him, it’s unlikely they will prompt Moore to investigate his office’s failings. The ease with which Jones was wrongfully convicted and the effort it took to get him out demonstrates the destructive power of prosecutors’ win-at-all-costs approach. Jones may be home, but that power hasn’t budged.

Thanks to Burke Butler.

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