LAWRENCE — The outlook for Richard Jones appeared bleak when University of Kansas School of Law Project for Innocence interns Chapman Williams and Chad Neswick took over his case in 2015.
Despite maintaining his innocence from the start, Jones had already spent 15 years in prison for aggravated robbery – convicted after the victim and witnesses of a purse snatching identified him in a police lineup. Without new evidence to counter the eyewitness testimony, relief seemed unlikely.
Then something happened that made everyone see the case differently.
Inmates at the Lansing Correctional Facility — where Jones was serving his 19-year sentence — started mistaking him for another guy on the inside named Ricky Amos. Jones reported the look-alike confusion to the Project for Innocence, and Williams and Neswick tracked down mugshots of Amos.
“They looked like they could have been twins,” Williams said. “From there, other pieces of the puzzle began fitting together.”
Nearly two years later, Jones is enjoying a new view. He walked free this month after a Johnson County judge reversed his conviction and ordered his release. Jones held his 2-year-old granddaughter for the first time and enjoyed a barbecue with family and friends.
“Working on Richard’s case has taught me to look at every case with care,” said KU Law student Brenna Lynch, who helped draft the petition that won Jones another chance to challenge his conviction. “It’s bittersweet. We were able to help Richard, and now he gets to be with his family and live as a free man again. But it’s hard knowing that almost 20 years of his life were taken from him for a crime he didn’t commit.”
‘No other option’
On May 30, 1999, Jones celebrated his girlfriend’s birthday by hosting a Memorial Day weekend barbecue in Kansas City, Missouri. The next day, he was home all day cleaning up.
A few miles across the state line in Kansas City, Kansas, three people who had been driving around smoking crack went to a neighborhood where they could buy more. They picked up a man named Rick at a known drug house. He told them to drive to a nearby Walmart, where he attempted to steal a woman’s purse in the parking lot. She fought back, sustaining minor injuries, and the assailant got away with only her cell phone.
Neither the victim nor the Walmart security guard got a good look at the attacker. According to court records, they could only describe him as a thin, light-skinned black or Hispanic man with dark hair.
Through a series of identification procedures, police and witnesses came to believe Richard Jones was the assailant. He was arrested nine months after the attack and convicted of aggravated robbery in 2000.
No physical evidence tied Jones to the getaway vehicle, the victim or the robbery. Despite presenting a verified alibi, he was convicted based solely on eyewitness identification.
“Richard Jones’s case highlights the flaws in eyewitness identification and the importance of proper procedures,” said Alice Craig, supervising attorney with KU’s Project for Innocence. “Witnesses were presented with no other option but to choose Jones in the lineups as created. None of the other photos matched the description provided by the witnesses.”
Those flawed identification procedures became strikingly clear after Jones drew the attention of Project for Innocence advocates to the existence of his doppelganger, Ricky Amos.
As students Williams and Neswick dug deeper, they discovered that Amos had committed other crimes consistent with the one for which Jones was serving time. They also determined that Amos had lived in the Kansas City area and was associated with the address of the duplex where Jones had allegedly been picked up before the robbery.
“With all of these facts, we were able to build a case, including meeting with the victim of the crime and witnesses who were at Walmart that day,” Williams said.
None of them could tell Amos and Jones apart. “I am no longer certain I identified the right person at the preliminary hearing and trial,” Tamara Scherer, the robbery victim, said in an affidavit last year. “If I had seen both men at the time, I would not have felt comfortable choosing between the two men and possibly sending a man to prison.”
Indeed, Jones was the only light-skinned man in the police lineups shown to Scherer and witnesses.
Project for Innocence students Brenna Lynch and Nikki Multer took over the case in 2016. They drafted the motion to vacate Jones’s sentence, compiled exhibits, made trips to get statements from the original witnesses, researched problems with eyewitness testimony, searched for experts to testify, met with the Johnson County District Attorney’s office and eventually helped file the case.
Although Jones had previously exhausted his appeals, the 10th Judicial District Court in Johnson County agreed to hear the new evidence to prevent a “manifest injustice.”
Improving the system
Former Johnson County Assistant District Attorney John Cowles, who prosecuted the original trial, testified at the June 7 hearing that it was rare for him to try cases based solely on eyewitness identification because of its known “pitfalls.” He said new evidence presented by the Project for Innocence, in partnership with the Midwest Innocence Project, undermined his confidence that Jones’s trial produced a just result.
In a ruling from the bench, Judge Kevin P. Moriarty wrote that no reasonable jury would convict Jones if he were tried again, especially in light of evidence linking Amos to the crime.
“When Judge Moriarty finally said what we all had been waiting hours to hear, it was almost surreal,” said Lynch, who attended the hearing and was at the Johnson County Jail when Jones was released the next day. “The effect of that ruling didn’t even really hit me until I saw Richard get to hug his daughter, something he probably hasn’t done for 17 years. Members of his family, people I had never met before, were thanking me and hugging me. That’s a really good feeling, knowing you’ve made a difference in someone’s life like that.”
Multer and Lynch both said working on Jones’s case taught them the importance of vigilant advocacy.
“Our criminal justice system is flawed, so we as lawyers have a duty to make it better,” Lynch said. “I had the privilege of working on a case that had a happy ending, but, unfortunately, that’s rare. There are hundreds of other cases — and maybe hundreds of other people like Richard — who never get this chance.”
Recent independent studies conservatively estimate that between 2 and 5 percent of inmates in the United States are innocent. More than 70 percent of those wrongful convictions are the result of mistaken eyewitness identification, especially across racial lines, according to Cardozo Law’s Innocence Project.
“Cases like Mr. Jones’s give our students the opportunity to examine the causes of wrongful convictions, as well as the valuable experience of working with a client,” said Beth Cateforis, supervising attorney with KU’s Project for Innocence. “When we achieve an outcome like Mr. Jones’s, the students get to see the result of their perseverance and know that their efforts changed their client’s life.”
Williams, who graduated in May, characterized Jones’s exoneration as the most important accomplishment of his budding legal career.
“More importantly, I’m extremely happy that Richard is free,” he said. “His resilience and determination made it all possible. I hope he is compensated for those 17 years of lost time.”
PHOTOS (from top): Exoneree Richard Jones hugs Alice Craig, supervising attorney with the University of Kansas Project for Innocence, after being released from prison; Jones embraces KU Law student Nikki Multer, who helped work on his case as an intern with the Project for Innocence; Jones holds his 2-year-old granddaughter for the first time while giving a TV interview after his release.