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Wilbert Jones

Other Louisiana Exonerations
On the night of October 2, 1971, a 26-year-old nurse, identified as A.H., was approached by a man with a gun in the parking lot of Baton Rouge General Hospital in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The man forced her into her car and got into the back seat. The gun discharged and blew a hole in the windshield on the passenger side of the car.

The man ordered the woman to drive to a secluded area and forced her to walk away from the car where he sexually assaulted her. Ultimately, he fled on foot.

The woman described her attacker variously as 5 feet 8 inches tall, 5 five feet 9 inches tall, and 6 feet 3 inches tall. She said he had a single gap between his front teeth and a smooth, soft voice.

In January 1972, Baton Rouge police arrested a man who was suspected of an attempted rape. During questioning, the man said that at the time of the alleged attempt, he was with 19-year-old Wilbert Jones. On the night of January 13, 1972, police picked up Jones at his home and took him to the police station.

The following day, A.H. viewed a lineup that included Jones. The men in the lineup were ordered to say certain phrases aloud that A.H. attributed to her attacker during the assault. She identified Jones as her attacker, although she expressed concern because Jones’s voice was “rougher” than her attacker’s, and because Jones was only 5 feet 3 inches tall—two inches shorter than she was.

Jones was charged with aggravated rape. In February 1973, he went to trial in East Baton Rouge Parish 19th Judicial District Court. The prosecution’s case was primarily based on A.H.’s identification of him as her attacker. She told the jury she was “not 100 percent sure; I was only about 98 percent sure because he seemed taller that night and the voice was different.” She also testified that the day after she identified Jones in the lineup, she telephoned the detectives and said that “the man that assaulted me appeared to be taller and I was worried about the voice. It wasn’t quite the same.” Her testimony was the only evidence linking Jones to the crime.

On February 6, 1973, the jury convicted Jones. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In September 1973, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed his conviction and ordered a new trial. The court held that the prosecutor had improperly injected race into the trial by telling the jury in his opening statement that while driving in the car, the attacker said “something about white people having been taking advantage of the colored people and, of course, he wanted to get even with the white people.” The court noted that A.H. was black [although she was very light-skinned] and never testified that her attacker made that statement.

“The statement in question was clearly of an effect to prejudice the white jury against this black defendant,” the court said. “(T)he statement of the district attorney appealing to racial prejudice was incorrect and was not supported by evidence introduced at the trial.”

Jones went to trial a second time and on July 10, 1974, he was convicted a second time based on A.H.’s testimony. He was once more sentenced to life in prison.

Jones, who steadfastly maintained his innocence, appealed the conviction, but the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld it in 1975.

In 2001, lawyers at Innocence Project New Orleans began re-investigating the case. In 2011, the lawyers filed a motion for DNA testing. However, they discovered that the physical evidence in the case had been destroyed after Jones was a convicted a second time.

The lawyers continued to investigate and ultimately discovered that another man, Arnold Ray O’Conner, had been implicated in two rapes that were similar to the attack on A.H.

On October 27, 1972, just 27 days after the rape of A.H., a 24-year-old woman was forced into her own car in the parking lot at Our Lady of the Lake of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge—a few miles from Baton Rouge General Hospital. The woman described her attacker as about 6 feet to 6 feet two inches tall, with a space between his teeth and a soft voice. The woman said her attacker forced her to drive him to a secluded area where he raped her and then fled on foot.

Police recovered fingerprints from the window of the woman’s car and two years later, the prints were linked to O’Conner. By that time, O’Conner was in custody for a rape that occurred in September 29, 1973, after Jones had been convicted at his first trial. In the 1973 case, O’Conner was accused of ordering a young woman into her car near Baton Rouge General Hospital and forcing her to drive to a secluded area, where he raped her and then fled on foot—circumstances very similar to the October 29, 1971 attack and the attack for which Jones had been convicted.

In the 1973 attack, O’Conner was only charged with armed robbery although the victim had been kidnapped and raped. O’Conner also was never charged with the abduction and rape at the October 27, 1972 attack at Our Lake of the Lake Hospital. In March 1974, three months before Jones’s second trial, O’Conner was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to prison.

Neither the police nor the prosecution disclosed to Jones’s defense attorney any of the police reports relating to the two other rape cases or any information about O’Conner’s prosecution.

In March 2015, Innocence Project New Orleans lawyers filed a petition for a new trial for Jones, arguing that the prosecution should have disclosed that the existence of evidence suggesting that O’Conner, “a serial kidnapper-rapist,” was responsible for the attack on A.H. The petition noted that O’Conner fit the description of the attacker in all three crimes—particularly the gap between his teeth—and lived near where the women were abducted.

A hearing was held on the motion, and O’Conner refused to answer questions posed by Jones’s lawyers.

On October 31, 2017, District Judge Richard Anderson granted the petition, vacated Jones’s conviction, and ordered a new trial. The judge said the similarities between the rape of A.H. and the rape 27 days later linked to O’Conner by his fingerprints were “almost too numerous to list” and that the attacks were “almost a mirror image” of each other.

Jones was released on bond on November 15, 2017—nearly 45 years after his initial conviction—the second longest time spent incarcerated after a known wrongful conviction in U.S. history. Only Richard Phillips, who spent 45 years and two months in prison after being wrongly convicted of murder in Detroit, Michigan, served longer than Jones.

The prosecution appealed Judge Anderson’s ruling, and on October 8, 2018, the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to overturn Jones’s new trial. On October 11, 2018, the prosecution dismissed the charge.

Jones sought compensation from the state of Louisiana, but his claim was denied. District Court Judge Kelly Balfour, in a May 2021 ruling, determined Jones failed to prove his “clear and convincing” innocence because he didn’t offer any new evidence that conclusively undermined the case prosecutors presented at trial.

In August 2022, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that Balfour misapplied the evidentiary burden Jones had to meet. The appellate panel said exonerees seeking compensation only have to show they are “factually innocent of the crime” they are convicted of, according to state law. The panel agreed that Jones proved it’s “highly probable” the other man was the actual rapist.

In May 2023, the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed and found Jones to be factually innocent, paving the way for $400,000 in compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/13/2018
Last Updated: 5/8/2023
County:East Baton Rouge
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1971
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No