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Former Angola inmate won’t face retrial, D.A. says

30th January 2017   ·   0 Comments

Robert Jones, a New Orleans man who spent 23 years behind bars after being convicted of rape and murder but was released by an appeals court judge after evidence of prosecutorial misconduct was presented, will not face retrial after the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office said last week that it would be too difficult to pursue another conviction in the pre-Katrina case.

The former Angola inmate was released from prison in November, 2015 after an appeals court ruled that prosecutors had withheld critical evidence in the trial in the early ‘90s.

The case, along with those of Shareef Cousin, Curtis Kyles, Jerome Morgan and John Thompson, dates back to the administration of former Orleans Parish D.A. Harry Connick and is cited as an example of why criminal justice reform is sorely needed in New Orleans.

WWL News reported last week that for the past year, the Orleans Parish D.A.’s Office indicated that it would re-try the case, but decided Thursday that was no longer an option for them. The decision came in the middle of an evidentiary hearing in which District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro had been subpoenaed to testify. During the three previous days of the hearing, defense attorneys with Innocence Project New Orleans — aided by celebrity defense attorney Barry Scheck — grilled former and current prosecutors to try and show a pattern of the D,A.’s Office withholding critical evidence from defendants.
While Jones’ legal team and supporters considered the dismissal of the case a clear exoneration, a spokesman for Cannizzaro rejected that language, stating, “in the opinion of the District Attorney, 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,” Orleans Parish Asst. District Attorney Christopher Bowman said in a statement Thursday.

“Given the current epidemic level of violent crime in New Orleans, it is difficult for a systemically underfunded law enforcement agency such as the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office to not only keep up with its current prosecutorial demands, but to also retry a more than 20-year-old case in which a defendant has been granted a new trial on account of something that occurred long before the current administration.”

The remark about the D.A.’s Office being “systematically underfunded” is a thinly veiled reference to the Landrieu administration decision to reduce the D.A.’s Office budget by $600,000. D.A. Leon Cannizzaro told an audience at the Metropolitan Crime Commission’s annual awards luncheon Tuesday that the budget reduction was “revenge” for Cannizzaro supporting the expansion of the Orleans Justice Center jail against the mayor’s wishes.

Bowman said the victim is still certain that Jones was her attacker.

WWL News reported that the Innocence Project worked on Jones’ case and had previously said that the withheld evidence was substantial.

“The evidence withheld in this case is a series of police reports, witness statements and, really, a mound of police documentation,” said attorney Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, the non-profit organization that won Jones’ freedom birthday.

That evidence was enough to convince the appeals court to throw out Jones’ conviction on multiple grounds, including withheld evidence that “undermined confidence in the jury’s verdict” and resulted in “a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

Jones, who celebrated his 44th birthday Thursday, was brought to trial during the tenure of former District Attorney Harry Connick, whose 30-year career as D.A. has been marred by a number of guilty verdicts reversed due to withheld evidence by his office.

Former death-row inmate John Thompson spent 14 years on death row for a murder he did not commit. After he was eventually cleared and evidence of prosecutorial misconduct was presented, a federal jury awarded him a $14 million settlement — $1 million for each year he spent on Death Row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

He never received the settlement because newly elected Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro told the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 that the City of New Orleans could not afford to pay the settlement.

Last year, Thompson filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice seeking a probe of the previous and current administrations of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office as well as the former prosecutors who have gone on to become judges in Orleans Parish Criminal Court.

This article originally published in the January 30, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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