On 44th birthday, man cleared in violent 1992 crime spree

Robert Jones, right, speaks with reporters, with defense attorneys Emily Maw, left, and Barry Scheck, at the New Orleans courthouse, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017. Prosecutors formally dropped charges Thursday against Jones who spent more than 20 years behind bars for a 1992 crime spree that included the slaying of a British tourist. (AP Photo/Kevin McGill)

NEW ORLEANS — Tears of relief and joy flowed in a New Orleans courtroom Thursday as prosecutors formally dropped charges against a man who spent 23 years behind bars for a 1992 crime spree that included rape, robbery and the slaying of a British tourist.

Legal advocates working on behalf of Robert Jones had long argued that the case was "riddled with prosecutorial misconduct," dating back to former District Attorney Harry Connick's days in office.

An appeals court had thrown out Jones' convictions in 2014. He was released on bond in 2015. On Thursday, his 44th birthday, he walked out of the criminal courthouse no longer under curfews or other bail-related restrictions.

"I feel like I could fly right now," a jubilant Jones told supporters and reporters on the courthouse steps.

With him was attorney Barry Scheck of the New York-based Innocence Project and Emily Maw, a lawyer with the Innocence Project-New Orleans.

Earlier, his aunt openly wept and Jones himself seemed overcome, taking a lengthy pause to gather his thoughts. He said he was "a young boy, confused, scared and afraid," when he first entered the courtroom at age 19. "Today is not only my birthday, today is a day of justice," he told Judge Jerome Winsberg.

"Happy birthday. And good luck," Winsberg replied. Winsberg formally accepted the prosecution's decision not to pursue rape and robbery charges. And he vacated a guilty plea to the manslaughter of tourist Julie Stott. Stott's killer had been convicted in 1994 but police had also linked Jones to the crime.

On the courthouse steps, Scheck and Maw decried the decision of current District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to, until Thursday, continue prosecuting the rape and robbery case against Jones.

In court documents, Jones' lawyers suggested Cannizzaro's staff kept the case alive because they feared dropping the charges could lead to a civil lawsuit against the District Attorney's Office.

Prosecutors didn't comment in court Thursday but issued a statement later saying the rape victim remains certain that Jones was her attacker.

"In the opinion of the District Attorney today's proceedings did not exonerate Robert Jones," the statement from Assistant District Attorney Chris Bowman said. "It is difficult to retry any case that is more than two decades old."

On that point, the defense agreed. Innocence Project attorneys had argued that a fair trial for Jones would be impossible after more than 24 years since the crimes were committed.

As for the victim's identification of Jones, defense lawyers had raised doubts about its reliability. They noted that Jones has gold teeth, a prominent characteristic that the rape victim had not initially told police in describing her assailant.

The defense also said prosecutors withheld from the defense the fact that the other man implicated in Stott's death and the other crimes, Lester Jones, had recanted a statement linking Robert Jones to the crimes. Lester Jones not only recanted, but said he didn't know Robert Jones, court records show.

Lester Jones, who is not related to Robert Jones, was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison in Stott's death.

Connick, who retired in 2003, has long defended his 30-year tenure as district attorney against allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in various cases. Now in his 90s, he has consistently declined comment on specific cases.

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