America imprisons a higher proportion of its citizens than anywhere else in the world, and Louisiana more than anywhere else in America. It is estimated that 14 out of every 1,000 adults in the state are in prison. This is the story of one of them, Robert Jones, who was jailed in the 1990s for killing a young British tourist in New Orleans. It was a crime another man had already been convicted of, but he was prosecuted anyway. The judge who sentenced the young father to life in prison now says his skin colour sealed his fate. But even today, more than 23 years after he was arrested, Robert Jones is still not a free man.
Murder of a tourist
British holidaymakers Julie Stott and her boyfriend Peter Ellis were on a trip to the US that was meant to be one they remembered for the rest of their lives. It was a celebration of the couple's engagement, though they had decided not to announce the news until they returned to the UK. On Tuesday 14 April 1992, having already visited Los Angeles and the Grand Canyon, the couple planned a night out in New Orleans. Julie chose a restaurant and later they went to see a Latin jazz band at the Cafe Brasil. At about 11.30pm the couple were strolling back to their hotel through the city's historic French Quarter, laughing and fooling around with a balloon they had found on the street. But suddenly, as they passed an old French convent, a man leaped out from the shadows, and pointed a gun at them. He shouted at them to lie down, but the couple froze in panic staring at the gun. The next moment the man started shooting. He fired two shots at Peter. One grazed the front of his shirt as he dived behind a parked car. Then the gunman turned to Julie, who was still standing startled in the middle of the road. She began to turn to run but as she did two shots rang out.
She slumped to the ground. The attacker turned, jumped into a car and sped off the wrong way down the one-way street. Peter rushed to his fiancee's side, trying to revive her. There was no response. He saw blood gushing from her arm and tried to stem the flow with his shirt. As he cradled her, he shouted for someone to call for an ambulance. But the second bullet had hit her in the head, just behind the ear and she was dying of her wounds.
“When I got here, only Julie's clothes were left in the road. She had been taken away by the emergency medics,” says James Stewart, the murder detective called to investigate the killing. He had no trouble showing me the exact spot where the attack took place more than 23 years ago.“This crime scene is just burned on my brain. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Julie's boyfriend Peter Ellis was still here. He was in shock. He helped us piece things together trying to be as helpful as he could, but you could tell he was devastated.”Now an FBI agent based in Florida, Stewart says it was quickly apparent that Julie Stott's death was the result of a botched robbery. The entire confrontation, he estimates, took less than 30 seconds. While the details Peter Ellis gave were crucial, his description of the gunman was sketchy, so focused had he been on the gun. Stewart did have leads - the bullets used by the gunman and witness descriptions of the attacker's car. But he also knew the pressure would be on to find the murderer quickly. “At the time there were crime sprees in other American cities, like Miami, where tourists were targeted,” he says.
As soon as I realised this was the killing of a tourist in the US, I knew there would be a media blitz. But I've never seen anything like it on a case before or since.”What Stewart had not bargained for was the hunger for the story in the British media, which got involved in a way that dramatically altered the course of the case - and the life of Robert Jones.
Hunt for a killer
Stewart quickly learned some other important facts about the night of the murder. Just minutes before the shooting of Julie Stott, and just a short distance away in New Orleans's French Quarter, another couple had been robbed at gunpoint. And two hours after Julie was killed, another street robbery took place. Again the attacker was armed. Crucially, in both cases, descriptions of the gun and a burgundy car with a white roof used by the attacker matched those given by witnesses after the killing of Julie Stott, and by the victims of a sadistic robbery and rape a week earlier.
It was clear that Julie Stott's killer had embarked on a violent one-man crime spree and had already carried out at least four attacks in the city. Meanwhile, the UK media had begun crying out for this man to be brought to justice. Within days the Sun newspaper had offered a $10,000 reward. That news spread quickly in New Orleans and suddenly calls to the police flooded in. “Any time you throw around a lot of money like that, you're going to get all kinds of people calling in and all kinds of leads,” says Stewart.
Most of the tips were discarded, but then one came in that investigators thought they should explore further. “The caller identified some guys. He said they had all been in a bar talking about the murder and giving details that made him think they had been involved,” says Stewart, who was by this stage getting desperate for a breakthrough. One of those named by the caller was Robert Jones, a 19-year-old from a run-down neighbourhood who had already been in some scrapes with the law. He had been suspected of selling drugs, and though he had never been convicted of any crime, police had his picture on file. Soon after the tip came in, a woman who had been robbed, kidnapped and raped in a horrific, prolonged ordeal a week before the murder of Julie Stott, was in the police station for a follow-up interview. The investigator interviewing her said the police had news of a potential suspect and showed her a series of photographs.
Looking at the first picture, the rape victim said the man was too young. The second she did not recognise at all. The third she put to one side, before looking through the others. Ultimately, she went back to the third picture. That, she said, was the man who had attacked her.
The third photograph was of Robert Jon
It was about 4am when police officers surrounded Jones's home. “We were in bed asleep when we heard a lot of noise outside, and banging on the doors. All around we hear people shouting, 'Open up!'” says Kendra Harrison, then Jones's 17-year-old girlfriend.
Someone opened the front door and they all just rushed in, pointing their guns at us and shouting. It was total chaos, everybody was hollering and crying.” She says the police made everyone - Jones and her, and their two young children, plus Jones's mother and his five younger siblings - lie flat on the floor.
Only then did they shout out who they were looking for. Robert Jones was quickly in handcuffs and being hauled out of the house. “He kept on asking them what he was being arrested for. We didn't understand what was going on. I was so lost and confused. We all were,” says Harrison. “After they took Robert away there was chaos, tears. Everybody was crying all over the place.”
Later, Jones was shown on TV bulletins being taken to Orleans Parish Jail, bare-chested and with his hands cuffed behind his back, accused of the murder of Julie Stott. TV news crews interviewed tourists, who talked of their relief that a killer had been caught. In the UK too, Robert Jones's arrest was being widely reported. “The Sun traps Julie's Killer” ran The Sun's front-page headline.
The Sun front page, 20 April 1992 The mayor of New Orleans was quoted congratulating and thanking the newspaper for offering the $10,000 reward that appeared to have led to the arrest (though there is in fact no evidence to suggest a reward was ever paid). Inside the newspaper, above a picture of Robert Jones, was the headline, Beast of the Jungle.
He was a “junkie murderer”, the story said, going on to describe the squalid conditions in the Jones family house, and to accuse him of a string of crimes - rape, kidnapping and robbery, as well as the callous shooting of Julie Stott.
But Detective James Stewart was uncomfortable. “It was hard not to publicise that arrest, the media were all over the case, but I thought the headlines were overblown because we knew there was a lot more work to do.” “The only things we had from the murder scene were a car and a bullet casing, and we hadn't yet tied Robert back to either,” he says. His misgivings proved well-founded. On 20 April 1992, six days after Julie Stott was killed - and the very day British newspapers ran triumphant headlines about the killer being caught - another young couple walking through New Orleans was suddenly confronted by a gunman. He ordered them to lie on the ground. They complied. With jewellery that the couple then handed over, the attacker got away. He drove off in a distinctive burgundy car with a white roof.
Robert Jones (no 5) in a police line-up, 1992
Nightmare in court
Thanks to what they had seen on the news, or read in newspapers, many in New Orleans believed that the violent attacker who had terrorised their city and killed a British tourist had now been caught. But detectives, who had by this stage formed a special taskforce, knew otherwise. They continued to look for the real gunman, and could not have hoped for better than what happened next.
It was reported that a car fitting the description given in all five crimes in the spree was parked outside a home in a poor area of the city - a housing development known as the Desire Projects. When detectives went to investigate, they found what appeared to be the burgundy car with a white roof that witnesses had described. More than that, a man identifying himself as the owner approached them, asking why they were sniffing around his car. A sharp-eyed detective immediately noticed that both the ring and the wristwatch the man was wearing matched descriptions of items stolen during the crime spree. On closer inspection, it was found that he was also wearing a gold chain stolen in another of the robberies - and a medallion and chain stolen during the rape. The man, 30-year-old Lester Jones (no relation to Robert), was arrested.
Car linked to the crimes
In his car, four more rings stolen during the crime spree and a pair of round wire-rimmed glasses described by the rape victim were discovered. And at his home there were clothes that matched those worn by the rapist, other items stolen during the robberies and one other crucial bit of evidence, in a jacket hanging in Lester Jones's bedroom wardrobe. “In Lester's apartment we found a weapon and bullets,” says James Stewart. “We quickly had them tested and the ballistics guy over in our lab was able to tie the gun to the bullet removed from Julie Stott's body.” In the days that followed, some of the victims of the crimes - including the robberies immediately before and after the murder of Julie Stott - identified Lester Jones as their attacker.
“We had everything we could want,” says Stewart. We had compelling physical evidence that linked Lester to all the crimes and nothing to link Robert to any of them.” “We still felt we had to positively exclude Robert from our investigations and that meant making sure there were no ties between Robert and Lester. We found none.” So, in August 1994, following a trial attended by the parents of Julie Stott, and where testimony was given by her fiance, Peter Ellis, Lester Jones was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He would soon be found guilty of other offences committed during the crime spree, though not the rape.
Inside Lester Jones's car
“I've always worked under the assumption it was one perpetrator, and we found him and he was going to jail. And once Lester Jones got convicted then I thought that the case was over with, it was done with,” says Stewart. But incredibly, two years after his arrest, Robert Jones had still not been released. And in March 1996, now 23 years old, he too went on to be convicted of some of Lester Jones’s crimes - the killing of Julie Stott and some robberies – and in his case the rape too. No-one mentioned at the trial that Lester Jones had already been jailed for some of these offences. Prosecutors described him as a man convicted of violent crimes - a dangerous associate of Robert Jones. They insisted the two were friends, despite the fact that detectives - including James Stewart - had told the prosecutor's office that they were not. Even though the original tip implicating Robert Jones related to Julie Stott's murder, the trial focused almost solely on the charge of rape, and the identification made by the rape victim. Prosecutors claimed that Robert had borrowed Lester's car and gun, carried out that attack, then given back Lester his car, weapon and all of the items he had stolen.
When they came back and said 'Guilty', I felt like I died. It was like it was a moment of total despair for me. I was totally crushed internally.” I can't put that moment into words,” Jones told me from prison.
Robert Jones in 1992 and 2015
Once he was convicted of rape, the prosecutors offered to downgrade the murder charge to manslaughter if he pleaded guilty to this and the other charges - a deal he accepted to avoid the risk, which must at the time have seemed a strong probability, of ending up on death row. The trial had lasted less than 10 hours. The parents of Julie Stott, now both deceased, were never informed that a second man was convicted of killing their daughter. Even the murder detective in the case, James Stewart, only found out in 2013. Jones was sent to Louisiana State Penitentiary, the famous prison known as “Angola” built on a huge former slave plantation. “It's like I've been having a nightmare for more than 23 years and I'm still waiting for someone to wake me up,” he told me. To this day, prisoners (more than three-quarters of whom are black) work in the fields, often picking cotton under the watch of (predominantly white) armed prison officers. Did race play a part in putting Robert Jones there? One key figure in the case now says that it did.
I meet Judge Calvin Johnson in the spacious hallways of New Orleans's grand criminal court. It's a place he came to love over his long career, but one where he now says grave injustices were done. “The fact that Robert Jones was wrongly convicted and is in jail for something he arguably he didn't do weighs heavily on me,” says the judge, now retired, who presided over Robert's trial in 1996. “But we had a prosecutor's office that was not forthcoming in providing information that could help defendants. It was playing fast and loose with the truth and was negligent across several cases and they did it consistently. That is what happened with Robert Jones.”Himself an African-American, Johnson makes the astonishing claim that the system worked to put as many young, black men behind bars for as long as possible.
Judge Calvin Johnson
“That wasn't anything unique about Robert Jones or that time. I mean that was the driving force in this town for decades,” he says.
The way we looked at Robert Jones was: 'If he didn't do this, he did something else and therefore his punishment is not justified for this particular act, it's justified for other things he did and got away with.'”
Both of the prosecutors involved in Robert's case declined to be interviewed.The first is Roger Jordan, now a defence lawyer. In 2005, in a rare ruling, the Louisiana Supreme Court barred him from practising law for three months for withholding evidence in another case. He said “professional rules of ethics” prevented him from discussing Robert Jones's case with me. The second is Fred Menner, who argued the case against Robert Jones in court and is still a prosecutor. Again, he said he could not speak to me on the record about an active case. But in September of this year, a memo that Menner wrote in 1996 was finally made public. In essence, it concedes that there was no admissible evidence against Robert Jones in the Julie Stott murder case.
Another person I wanted to talk to was Robert Jones's original defence attorney, Curklin Atkins, and as he never returned my calls I decided to visit his home. After several minutes knocking on his front door, I noticed a movement in the car parked in the driveway. It appeared to be a head slowly being raised which disappeared again suddenly when I turned. It was Atkins, so I walked over to talk to him through the car window. “People can say whatever they want to say, they wasn't in the heat of the battle,” he said, referring to people who have criticised his handling of the case. The idea that it was his incompetence that led to Robert Jones spending 23 years in jail for crimes he did not commit, he dismissed as “impossible”. “While people on the side are sitting back criticising and saying, 'You could have did this, you could have did that, you could have investigated this, investigated that,' they didn't spend the time - they could have went down there and represented Robert Jones.” Any other defence attorney might also have failed to find out that Lester Jones had already been convicted of Julie Stott's murder, he said.
Some might argue that the massive volume of cases going through the criminal justice system in Louisiana is bound to result in mistakes. Others have suggested that prosecutors may have withheld evidence to speed up trials, or simply to win. It is hard to prove Judge Johnson's allegation that there was a conspiracy to lock up as many black youths as possible, but another senior figure in the Louisiana justice system accepts that something was badly wrong during the 30 years the state prosecutor's office was run by District Attorney Harry Connick (father of the jazz musician and singer, Harry Connick Jr). “Certainly the reputation of this office traditionally has been stained, there is no question about that,” says the man doing the job now, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.
There is also no question that this is not the only case, there have been other cases, where prosecutors either intentionally or negligently withheld evidence. The best I can do is move forward.” “From this point, from the moment I took office, what we said we were going to do, is those things are not going to happen.” But despite this admission, in the past Cannizzaro has strenuously fought accusations that the prosecutor’s office exhibited a pattern of failures. On that basis, he refused $14m in compensation to a man named John Thompson, who was freed from death row after evidence withheld by prosecutors was finally brought to light. He also fought to prevent any court ruling that Robert Jones's trial was unfair, but in June the Louisiana Supreme Court finally dismissed his appeals. He then wanted a bond of $2.25 million to be paid if Jones was to be released ahead of a retrial. But in mid-November that demand was rejected by a judge, who said that pending a retrial - on the charge of rape - Robert could finally leave jail.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro
Late in the afternoon on Friday 20 November, 23 years and seven months after he was arrested, Robert Jones walks out of jail, with arms raised, to be engulfed by his family.
Among those waiting for him are his elderly mother, his sister and a daughter, Bree, born eight months after he was dragged from the family home in handcuffs.
All are in tears except Jones himself, who is beaming and calmly telling them everything is going to be all right.
“It was wonderful, it's a beautiful feeling, I couldn't have dreamed of that feeling,” Jones tells me later.
“The burden of all this weight of being incarcerated was being lifted, like I wanted to fly - that's why I held my hands up, because I wanted to fly.”
I am meeting him the day after his release in a restaurant close to the home he once shared with his mother and siblings - his first trip to a restaurant for more than two decades.
In his hand is a smartphone his daughter has given him, which he struggles to use. When he was arrested the internet barely existed and mobile phones were the size of bricks.
He is wearing the new clothes they have just bought together.
I ask him what it was like to be in prison for so long.
“A complete nightmare actually, a real nightmare. You can't find the words in the dictionary to describe the cruelty,” he says. When you're in prison serving a life sentence, even for something you did do, life is just rough, man. It's a deeper, greater injustice when you're innocent. It's real tough.”
How did he get through it?
“My faith in God,” he replies. “And it's a true saying that the truth will set you free one day, when you can find it. And that was a problem for me, just finding the truth. The truth was buried so deep and God was able to reveal those things.”His close relationship with 22-year-old Bree, his youngest child, has been built entirely on prison visits and phone calls that automatically cut off after 15 minutes.“ I'd get emotional and upset at the end of the call, when they say there's one minute left,” she says. “I'd have so much to say.”
The two were never able to have their photograph taken together, so Jones painted a picture instead. It shows Bree in a lab coat - she has been studying at university and is now about to graduate. “Every year I think, 'He's gonna be home this year,'” she says, talking of the many times she wished her father had been around. “I saw my friends ride bikes and eat out with their parents… I graduated high school, he missed all those moments. It was like he was here, but not here.”
Bree with her father's painting
For years now, Jones has been fighting to clear his name. At one point he asked for DNA tests to be carried out, but forensic samples gathered after the rape had somehow disappeared and there was nothing left to test. Desperate as he was to leave prison, he refused a deal offered by the district attorney's office to admit to some of the charges he had been convicted of in exchange for freedom.
Reporters at Robert Jones's release on bail
In the end a judge released him. But he is still being monitored, he has a curfew, and the district attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, still insists that that he go through the ordeal of a retrial. In jail, Jones studied law and became a legal counsellor to other inmates, meeting many he felt sure were innocent but who never got out. Some, he says, lost their minds, and over the years 39 of them died. He suddenly breaks down at the memory of these wasted lives.
“That's something that gives me the resilience to fight. It's not just for me but for a lot of those guys as well. Because a lot of them, who I know were actually innocent, they died,” he says, still wiping away tears. A lot of guys have lost hope in the system. That motivates me to stand tall, to make sure my case gives them some hope and to create a better system for them.”
Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, who has fought for years to clear Robert's name, says Jones's case stands out. It is one of the most obvious wrongful convictions she has seen.
“When you start to read about it you think this cannot be true, I must be missing something,” she says. But in other respects she believes it is far from unique. Some justice charities estimate there are hundreds of innocent people in prison in New Orleans alone. Calvin Johnson, the judge at Jones's 1996 trial, agrees that Robert Jones is just the visible tip of the iceberg.
New Orleans, Louisiana, The South, America, our justice system is replete with Robert Joneses.“It's replete with individuals, because of how the justice system has operated over the decades,” he says. “We've ended up with people who were wrongly prosecuted, wrongly convicted, people who had mountains of evidence not provided which could have exonerated them. “When you drill down to New Orleans, and you factor in the race thing, then you're just multiplying the effect.” The truth in Robert Jones's case was not easy to unearth. In cases where the convicted man's innocence is less obvious, it may be buried even deeper. What will happen to the other Robert Joneses?