A Kansas City man sentenced to 19 years in prison for a purse snatching was freed by a Kansas judge on Wednesday after he found the man was wrongly convicted.
Richard A. Jones had spent nearly 16 years in prison for a crime he said he did not commit.
Johnson County District Judge Kevin Moriarty ordered Jones to be released after students and faculty working on a post-conviction project at the University of Kansas Law School, which had taken up his case, presented evidence showing he was wrongly identified in a photo lineup. The Kansas City-based Midwest Innocence Project also assisted in the case.
Hours after his release, Jones said his freedom had barely begun to sink in.
“The whole time my lawyer was telling me [the judge] is about to reverse my sentence and release me I didn't believe it,” Jones said. “When he finally said it, I shed some tears. It was a beautiful thing.”
The case was based entirely on eyewitness identification, which is notoriously unreliable. Jones was picked out of the lineup three months after the incident -- an attempted purse snatching on May 31, 1999, at the Walmart parking lot in Roeland Park. The thief only managed to grab the victim’s cellphone.
Jones bore a striking resemblance to another man, whom Jones’ lawyers showed was almost certainly the perpetrator.
“This court has no doubt -- although that isn't the standard -- has no doubt that a jury would not be able to reach a determination that this defendant was guilty,” Judge Moriarty said from the bench Wednesday, “and this court does not believe any reasonable jury could have made such a decision in this case.”
Tamara Scherer, the victim of the robbery, testified at Jones’ trial that Jones was the perpetrator. But she later signed a sworn affidavit stating that if she were presented with photographs of Jones and the other man, she probably would not have been able to tell the difference.
Jones was arrested more than five months after the incident and charged with aggravated robbery. He was found guilty at trial and sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison. The Kansas Court of Appeals later denied his appeal of the conviction. Jones’ subsequent claim that he was denied effective assistance of counsel was also thrown out.
All the while, Jones maintained his innocence.
“If you believe it just happens to certain people -- people with criminal histories and things of that nature -- it doesn't,” Jones said. “It can happen to anybody. And it took me to go to prison to see that.”
The prosecutor in the case, John Cowles, now a criminal defense attorney in private practice, stated in an affidavit that the lawyers’ evidence undermined his confidence that the trial’s outcome was just.
“The guiding principle of all prosecutors should be to achieve a just result,” he stated, “not just to ‘win’ a case.”
Jones said he plans to stay in the Kansas City area and spend time with the family he barely knows.
“When I got locked up, my kids were kids and now they're grown,” Jones said. “That gives you an idea of what type of time people are doing and the type of time a person can do for a crime they didn't commit.”
Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.