Zurik: Lawmaker says AG Landry is misinterpreting his exonerated inmate compensation law
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Wilbert Jones spent nearly 50 years in prison for the kidnapping and rape of a nurse before he was exonerated. At his trial, authorities withheld evidence that could have exonerated him decades ago.
Jones’ accuser spent between 10 and 15 minutes looking at a lineup before identifying him. However, the victim noted that Jones’ voice sounded different, he was much shorter than her assailant, and that Jones didn’t have a gap between his front teeth. She later told investigating officers she wasn’t sure about the identification.
A Baton Rouge prosecutor still brought the case to court, and Jones was sent to prison. Court records show the prosecutor in Jones’ case frequently excluded black people from jury service under “an assumption that many of them might not possess the intelligence and education to sit on the case.”
Court records also show the now-deceased prosecutor had convictions frequently reversed because of his disregard for the laws of the state.
In 2015, a judge tossed Jones’ conviction, writing, “Prejudice played a concrete role in his case.”
Despite spending 46 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Jones says he’s not bitter.
“I’m not bitter. I prayed and God took it away from me,” Jones said.
Louisiana state law allows Jones to be compensated for his years of wrongful incarceration. The law allows for annual payments of $40,000 for a maximum of 10 years.
States in teal have a program to compensate exonerated inmates. States in yellow do not have such programs.
However, Attorney General Jeff Landry has tried to fight giving Jones that compensation.
For years since he was released, Jones has been back in court fighting for compensation. His wife says the process has been unfair.
“It’s just not right. It’s not fair. He’s 70 years old. He has visual problems. He’s legally blind. He has other medical issues and he has to get up every day and go to work at 70 years old,” Mary Jones said. “He wasn’t allowed to be out and work and earn retirement, and all of those things that people get at his age. And now the compensation was set in place for exonerated members of society here in the state of Louisiana to get the compensation. And he’s being denied that? That’s a slap in the face.”
Since his release, Jones has been working at LSU, wiping tables in the dining hall. In November 2022, he earned the title of employee of the month.
To receive compensation, the law says the conviction must be reversed or vacated, and clear and convincing scientific or non-scientific evidence has to exist that proves factual evidence. Past Attorneys General have challenged some compensation claims; however, Landry has done so all but two times since he took office.
“To me, he’s factually innocent the day he was exonerated. And so, I can’t understand that people in the judicial system are not wanting to adhere to what another judge has already ruled on and said that, you know, he’s exonerated,” Mary Jones said.
State Representative Cedric Glover of Shreveport wrote the exonerated inmate compensation law that was passed in 2005.
“The intention was to basically say, ‘We made a mistake. We have wronged you and manifest ways. There’s no way we can give you back your life, but at least we can give you some compensation,’” Glover said.
Glover believes Landry is misinterpreting the law he wrote.
“I think, unfortunately, it boils down to this is good politics for some people. Apparently, there’s a base of people in this state, who believe that continuing to punish people who have effectively been able to prove that not only was I not guilty, not only did I not commit the crime, I’m, in fact, innocent. And in fact, not only am I innocent, I spent time incarcerated, away from my family, away from the potential life that I could have lived away from the central contributions that I could have made. And now that I’m actually out and have managed to be able to meet what is, in my estimation, still an unreasonable standard in terms of establishing my factual innocence, you’re still saying that I’m not worthy of the minimal compensation that we offer here as a state,” Glover added.
When Malcolm Alexander was exonerated after 40 years in Angola, he was given a dog. He named her Innocence to commemorate his innocence and the help he received from Innocence Project New Orleans. DNA evidence showed he hadn’t committed the rape he was locked up for. However, Landry’s office is still trying to stop him from receiving compensation.
“If they’ve been cleared by DNA evidence and shown that they did not commit the crime... unless there are some other extenuating circumstances that obviously come up in the course of the process. But DNA obviously is one of those clear standards that proves that ‘I’m not the person. I wasn’t involved with it, wasn’t there, I didn’t play some other role in the crime.’ Then if that’s the case, then you obviously don’t belong in prison, and you should be compensated,” Glover said.
Without the money, Alexander thinks he’ll need to work until he’s between 75 and 80 years old since he was unable to work or save for retirement while wrongfully imprisoned.
“I’m 63 years old. And being 63 years old, thank God that my health is pretty decent other than high blood pressure. If I would have been out of there, I would have been able to financially put something away for my golden years,” Alexander said.
While Alexander still waits, a recent State Supreme Court decision in Jones’ case means he’ll finally start receiving compensation. The court ruled Landry’s office had a faulty argument and cleared the way for Jones to start getting yearly payments.
“I was rejoiceful. I was so happy that burden was lifted off of me. I shed a tear. And it’s sorry it took so long,” Jones said.
Jones says he hopes the money will help buy him and his wife a home. But he says the money won’t heal the lasting memories of being wrongfully locked up for most of his life.
“I’m going to share something with you also. The DOC number they give you on the back of each prisoner, you never forget that … until you die. It put a scar on my chest and my mind. I cannot forget that. Even though I try, I can’t forget that number they gave me,” Jones said.
Landry refused FOX 8′s request for an on-camera interview. In a statement, he said, “I have supported compensation in cases where the evidence was clear and convincing that the petitioner did not commit the crime. Juries at the trial court level have found Jones and Alexander guilty of rape. The men have no alibis, no witnesses to disprove their victims, and no physical evidence proving their innocence. Jones was convicted by jury of rape not once, but twice. Unfortunately, the victim died and could not make identification in court for the third time. Sex crimes are horrific offenses that can forever leave harmful effects on victims, their families, and our communities. So, I am proud to pursue justice for victims of crime whose scars last much longer than trials.”
Innocence Project New Orleans says the two cases Landry hasn’t opposed involved fingerprint evidence.
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