Despite having spent nearly a half-century behind bars for a violent crime that he did not commit, 65-year-old Wilbert Jones said that his faith enabled him to “forgive” everyone involved in his ordeal.
In 1974, Mr. Jones was convicted of an aggravated rape he allegedly committed as a teenager and was sentenced to life without possibility of parole. The judge who reviewed the conviction noted that the state had no evidence against Mr. Jones other than the victim’s identification. The nurse picked Mr. Jones out of a lineup about three months after the attack occurred. Furthermore, her initial description matched that of a man who committed a similar act less than a month after she was attacked, but according to the judge, “the state failed to provide this information to the defense.” Prosecutors said they would appeal the ruling but would not re-try Mr. Jones.
He had little to say about his time in prison other than it was “very difficult.” His brother, Plem Jones, said “I never gave up on him” and “I knew that he didn’t do it, so it was only a matter of time” before he was released.
Burden of Proof in Civil Rights Abuse Cases
Once a jury reviews the evidence and renders a verdict, it is very difficult to overturn that verdict. Appeals court judges rightfully presume that the jury was in a much better position to evaluate all the facts in the case, because all the evidence was much fresher and the jurors could see things that appellate judges could not, such as the look on a witness’ face when giving certain testimony.
No one knows how many “innocent” people are in prison due to a civil rights violation, but we do know that in 2015, the number of post-conviction reversals reached an all-time high. These individuals, and their attorneys, had to convince a reviewing court that:
- Error During Trial: This element is rather easy to satisfy, because everyone makes mistakes, no matter how diligent they are.
- Affected the Outcome: This element is the hard part, because the error must not only be substantial, it must also be harmful and touch one of the foundations of criminal law. As courts are fond of ruling, the defendant is entitled to a fair trial, but not a perfect trial.
Withholding possibly exculpatory evidence is a clear violation of Brady v. Maryland and related cases. Note that the standard is that the withheld evidence is possibly exculpatory, and not conclusively exculpatory.
In addition to the wrongfully withheld evidence, there was also an issue with the eyewitness identification in Mr. Jones’ case. These issues are a factor in most conviction reversals, mostly because one former Supreme Court Justice called eyewitness testimony the most compelling, and also most unreliable, evidence in criminal cases. Some specific issues include:
- Cross-Racial Identification: People of one race cannot distinguish among people of another race. That is not due to animus, but scientific fact. The inability is prevalent even if the witness lived among people of that different race for a long period of time.
- Time Delay: Eyewitness memory quickly fades, and within just a few days, recall has degraded to almost nil.
Moreover, police lineups are inherently suggestive, because in most cases, the witness is told that the perpetrator is in the lineup and only needs to be pointed out.
At Napoli Shkolnik PLLC, we firmly believe in second chances. Contact us today for a free consultation with an experienced civil rights attorney in New York, because you have a limited amount of time to act.the sooner you act, the greater our chances of success.
Image: Gerald Herbert/AP