At first,’ said Robert Jones, ‘I thought this must be a practical joke. But the police were real, and they were taking me to the homicide division. I assumed they would turn me loose, because I’d done nothing wrong. Of course, that didn’t happen.’
Jones, now 44, is describing his arrest at 4am on April 18, 1992, for the notorious killing of a British tourist, Julie Stott, as well as three robberies and a brutal rape.
He had no previous convictions, and by the time of his trial, another man had already been convicted of Julie’s murder.
But Jones was to spend the next 24 years of his life locked up in Louisiana’s most terrifying prisons for crimes that even the lawyers who convicted him knew he had not committed.
It was not until the end of January this year that New Orleans prosecutors, who for years hid evidence proving Jones’s innocence, finally announced they would not seek a retrial, following his victory on appeal.
Incredibly, the manhunt that led him to spend more than half his life in jail was backed by a British newspaper, The Sun. Having offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the man who killed Julie, who had been holidaying in New Orleans, it later boasted on its front page that it had ‘trapped Julie’s killer’, adding that Jones was a ‘beast’ who was ‘raised in a stinking hell’.
The British connection does not end there. Were it not for the dogged persistence of two British lawyers, Emily Maw and Richard Davis from the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO), then Jones would still be in the stinking hell of the Angola penitentiary, a former slave plantation where inmates still pick cotton in conditions little different from the 1850s.
This isn’t just a story of a prisoner fitted up, wrongfully convicted and freed because of bombshell new evidence. It is also the story of a man of exceptional courage, who overcame impossible odds and utter degradation to prove his innocence and emerge as a man transformed.
When Jones went to jail, he could barely read. He left not only with a high school diploma, but having passed college-level law courses that meant he did much of the legal spadework that underpinned his appeal. Inside he also ran a prisoner self-help group with 700 members. ‘I was supposed to die in prison and to stay the way I was: an uneducated black boy,’ Jones said. ‘I didn’t let that happen. But I feel for Julie and the other victims. Like me, they are victims of a system that failed.’
Julie Stott, 27, a fashion graduate from Greater Manchester, was murdered on the evening of April 14, 1992 towards the end of a holiday with her boyfriend, Peter Ellis.
They were walking to their hotel through the New Orleans French Quarter when a gunman leapt in front of them and told them to lie down.
They were slow to comply, and the man fired. One bullet grazed Peter’s shirt but Julie was hit twice: in the arm and, fatally, in the head.
It was soon apparent that the murder was one of a series of attacks. Witnesses said the perpetrator drove a distinctive vehicle – a maroon Oldsmobile Delta 88 with a white roof. Six days before the murder, its driver had robbed and kidnapped a woman, whom he raped several times.
The same man was believed responsible for a further robbery shortly before Julie was murdered, and yet another one afterwards. The police had no idea who he was.
Enter The Sun. Julie’s slaying triggered outrage in Britain, prompting the paper to offer the reward – which in fact, was never paid.
But to the poor black community of New Orleans, $10,000 was a fortune. Calls flooded in to police, and somebody fingered Robert.
Arrested while in bed with his girlfriend Kendra, he was paraded half-naked in front of the TV cameras, and charged later that day.