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A New Orleans man who has spent nearly two decades in prison for robbing, kidnapping and raping a woman is claiming now that prosecutors at his 1996 trial ignored obvious evidence that someone else did the crimes.
At a Criminal District Court hearing Tuesday on their motion for a new trial, attorneys for Robert Jones, 40, argued the evidence against him — which included identification by two victims — was false.
They said prosecutors withheld evidence and falsely convinced the jury that Jones had a relationship with another man, Lester Jones, who was later convicted in a series of similar robberies, plus a murder, that took place over the same two-week span, all within a mile radius around the French Quarter.
In each of the five crimes, the perpetrator approached the victims from behind, demanding jewelry and fleeing in a car.
Lester Jones, who is not related to Robert Jones, was found with jewelry from several of the victims of the crime spree, including a Jesus-head medallion taken in a crime for which Robert Jones was accused.
The car used in the crime for which Robert Jones was convicted, a 1980 Oldsmobile Delta, belonged to Lester Jones, according to police.
During the trial, prosecutors argued Lester Jones had loaned the car to Robert Jones, though the latter’s new attorneys said detectives knew the two did not know each other, and told prosecutors as much.
Attorneys for the Innocence Project New Orleans, which represents Robert Jones, portrayed the 1996 trial as another case of prosecutors withholding evidence during the era of former District Attorney Harry Connick, whose three-decade tenure has come under harsh criticism for shady conduct by prosecutors.
By the time police pinned the bulk of the crime spree on Lester Jones, “tunnel vision had set in” on Robert Jones as the perpetrator of the April 6, 1992, robbery, kidnapping and rape, according to his attorneys.
They said Lester Jones, after hours of questioning, told police he loaned Robert Jones his car in exchange for jewelry taken from some of the victims in the crime spree. Lester Jones has since testified he didn’t know Robert Jones.
Attorneys for Robert Jones also claim the initial witness identifications fit Lester Jones better than their client.
The crime spree around the French Quarter, which included the murder of British tourist Julie Stott on Chartres Street, was widely reported in news media.
Robert Jones initially was targeted from a Crimestoppers tip about that murder.
F ormer New Orleans police Detective James Stewart, who is now with the FBI in Florida, testified Tuesday he notified prosecutors Robert Jones was excluded as a suspect in the murder, as well as in robberies that took place that same day.
“Eventually we found a car fitting the description. We found another person. His name was Lester Jones, and the case took on another twist,” Stewart said. “We found a lot of evidence that linked him to the robberies before and after the murder.”
Jewelry, a gun and other evidence were found on Lester Jones, Stewart said.
“Did you find any credible evidence that they knew each other?” asked Emily Maw, director of Innocence Project New Orleans.
“No, I did not,” Stewart said.
Later, Maw asked, “How many times have you arrested somebody and told the DA’s office you had arrested the wrong person?”
Stewart responded, “It would be one time, once, and that would be in this case.”
Still, that arrest was for a different crime than the one for which a jury convicted Jones.
Assistant District Attorney Andrew Pickett argued that much of the defense argument — including a claim that Jones’ original attorney dropped the ball — did not address the 1992 robbery, kidnapping and rape that a jury agreed he committed.
“Once you really scratch the surface, there’s really nothing there,” he said. “They’re just throwing stuff against the wall to see if it sticks.”
Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson said she would rule within two months on whether Robert Jones deserves a new trial.