Anyone interested in criminal justice knows that our system is broken. Two recent cases out of Louisiana highlight just how broken our system really is.
The first case is about a now-senior citizen named Wilbert Jones, who was released last week from prison after serving 45 years for a rape he didn’t commit. Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton (twice), Bush (twice), Obama (twice) came and went, while this innocent man languished in prison waiting for a miracle to occur.
Mr. Jones was a poor, black teenager in 1972 when he was arrested. He was convicted of abducting a white nurse from a hospital parking lot and raping her, and was sentenced to life without parole. The case against him was weak, resting solely on the nurse’s questionable identification of Mr. Jones made nearly three long months after the rape had occurred.
The prosecutor involved in the case appears to have withheld crucial evidence from the defense, including the identity of another man, accused of a rape in a difference case who better matched the nurse’s description of the suspect. This apparently was not uncommon: the prosecutor in Mr. Jones’ case had a reputation of routinely violating his constitutional obligations to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense.
It took the Innocence Project New Orleans nearly 15 years to gain Mr. Jones’ freedom. And here’s the kicker. Even though the prosecution has said they will not seek to re-try Mr. Jones, they nonetheless requested that bail be set at $2,000. Even more outrageously, the judge granted the bail motion. Let me repeat: a judge set bail for a 65-year-old man who spent 45 years in prison for a crime he did not commit in a case where the prosecution is not planning to re-try him.
Keeping with the theme of outrageous, last week Kevin Smith was released from a New Orleans jail, after serving nearly eight years without ever having been convicted of a crime. In 2010, Mr. Smith was arrested for a non-violent drug offense and placed in the county jail, where he sat, and sat, and sat some more, awaiting his day in court. His case was delayed because of a hurricane, because of a competency hearing, because of motions and who-knows-what else as lawyers for both sides hemmed and hawed about moving forward with the case. In the meantime, Mr. Smith rejected a plea offer of 10 years, which would have ended his sentence in 2015, and finally filed his own motion to be released, arguing that his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated. After his lawyers joined his motion, a judge set Mr. Smith free. He earned the dubious honor of having spent the most time in pre-trial detention for a non-violent offense.
Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the country. It is rife with allegations of corruption and misconduct. It disparately impacts poor people of color. The system is simply not working, and it is time for places like Louisiana to do something about it.
Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith are owed far more than an apology by Louisiana. In the meantime, a mea culpa by the State would be a good start.
This piece also appeared in the Huffington Post.