For the past 45 years Wilbert Jones has sworn to anyone who would hear him that he did not kidnap and rape a woman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1971, crimes for which he is serving a life sentence. But only in the past five years or so have his attorneys and investigators been able to find compelling evidence that might support his claim of innocence. And it has been more than five years, from July 29, 2011 until today, that a Louisiana “commissioner,” acting as a judge, has had the case and done nothing to either reject or embrace it.
In “Case in Point,” Andrew Cohen examines a single case or character that sheds light on the criminal justice system.
How long is a reasonable time for a judge to delay issuing an order with a man’s liberty on the line? And what leverage does a defendant like Jones have to push into action an unelected, essentially unaccountable judicial commissioner, appointed to handle the case by the chief judge in a Louisiana district? After all, Jones cannot appeal to a traditional judge an order that has not yet been issued. And the longer his commissioner fails to act the less likely Jones will ever get to what his lawyers say is the heart of the problem.
The passage of time always has been a part of the story of this crime and conviction. The rape occurred on October 2, 1971. The victim (identified in court proceedings only as A.H.) was a nurse at a local hospital who was attacked as she parked her car to begin her shift. After she reported the rape, she was shown three police lineups over a six-week period (none of which included Jones) and identified no one. Then, three months after the crime, police arrested a 16-year-old named Emmett Hills for another rape and Hills, looking to ingratiate himself with prosecutors, told officials that Jones was his “partner” in the rape of A.H. The victim then viewed another police lineup and identified Jones, who had been arrested based on Hill’s incriminating statement.