BATON ROUGE, La. – A man serving a life sentence for the 1971 rape of a nurse is getting a court-ordered hearing to determine if authorities withheld evidence that could exonerate him.
In January, Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys had asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to order a new trial for Wilbert Jones. Instead, the justices voted 4-3 for a district court judge to hold a "full evidentiary hearing" on Jones' claims he was denied a fair trial.
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote Friday that she is "gravely concerned" evidence in the case may have been misplaced or prematurely destroyed before DNA tests could be performed.
"It is not apparent to me from the materials presently before the court what evidence was destroyed, why it was destroyed, what evidence has been lost, and whether any might remain to be found and tested," Johnson wrote.
Jones' attorneys claim authorities concealed evidence another man raped the woman who had been abducted from a Baton Rouge hospital's parking lot on the night of Oct. 2, 1971.
The other man fit the nurse's description of her attacker and was suspected of kidnapping and raping two other women under similar circumstances in the early 1970s, according to Jones' lawyers. They claim authorities withheld that evidence from Jones' trial attorneys.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore's office said the state didn't withhold any "relevant, material evidence" about other Baton Rouge rapists.
"The state was not obligated to document for the defense every rape or abduction that occurred in Baton Rouge from 1971 to 1974," prosecutors wrote in a February court filing.
The three justices who voted against a hearing for Jones didn't give written reasons.
Jones, now 64, was 19 when police arrested him on suspicion of carjacking the nurse at gunpoint and raping her behind a building. The nurse, who died in 2008, identified Jones as her assailant during a police lineup more than three months after the rape.
But defense attorneys said the nurse later testified that Jones' voice was different from her assailant's voice and Jones was too short to be the man who raped her.
Jones has been seeking DNA testing since 2003. His attorneys say key pieces of testable evidence — including the nurse's clothing — went missing from an envelope. The district attorney's office said a judge's order in 1975 allowed for the victim's clothing to be destroyed.
Jones' attorneys claim that a prosecutor who secured his conviction had a track record of withholding evidence favorable to defendants. A 1974 opinion by a state Supreme Court justice said the prosecutor was responsible for 11 reversed convictions over the preceding year — "an incredible statistic for a single prosecutor," the justice noted.
Defense attorney Emily Maw said the hearing before state District Court Judge Richard Anderson is "a chance for Wilbert Jones to present the evidence of the injustice that happened to him 45 years ago and that he has been suffering under ever since."