Tuesday’s swift "not guilty" verdict in the retrial of Darrell Jones is a clear repudiation of prosecutors' misguided decision to retry the case in spite of strong evidence of his innocence. In 1986, Jones, who is black, was convicted of first-degree murder by an all-white jury in Brockton, and sentenced to life in prison. He stayed there for 32 years.
In 2017, Jones was released after the court vacated his conviction and granted a new trial, finding that his original trial was unjust — tainted by an overtly racist jury and false police testimony. Jones’ original lawyer also had a clear conflict of interest, initially failing to disclose that he had recently represented several witnesses against Jones, including the two lead detectives in the case.
In spite of proof of police, attorney and jury misconduct in the original trial — along with growing evidence of Jones’ factual innocence — the Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office still opted to retry to the case. This decision demonstrated the DA’s arrogant refusal to honestly assess the evidence. The jury responded to their hubris with an acquittal.
While the "not guilty" verdict in the Jones case was a just result, it was long overdue. This case illustrates the layers of injustice during the investigation, trial and after the conviction. Jones’ original trial resulted in a wrongful conviction and over three decades of incarceration — a profound miscarriage of justice. The prosecution’s unwillingness to reckon with the wrongful conviction once it was revealed added further insult to injury. In 2019, nearly 35 years after Jones’ original trial, and in light of the increasing public awareness of wrongful convictions in the interim, there is no excuse for a prosecutor to turn a blind eye to such significant evidence of innocence.
Wrongful convictions of the innocent occur at an alarming rate. To date, there have been 2,462 known exonerations in the United States, resulting in 21,645 years of wrongful incarceration. These numbers are widely regarded as reflecting the tip of the iceberg of factually innocent prisoners who remain incarcerated. The primary factors giving rise to wrongful convictions include eyewitness identifications, false confessions, flawed forensics and police and prosecutorial misconduct — several of which were present in the Jones case.
Jones’ conviction was suspect from the beginning. He was originally convicted in the 1985 shooting death of Guillermo Rodrigues outside a Brockton bar, based solely on inconsistent eyewitness identification testimony. At trial, the so-called “eyewitnesses” gave conflicting accounts about whether they had, in fact, identified Jones as the shooter. The prosecutor presented no physical evidence connecting Jones to the crime, nor any proof of motive or a relationship with the victim. There was also affirmative evidence supporting Jones’ factual innocence, including several witnesses who reported seeing him eating inside a nearby bar at the time of the shooting.
Jones’ trial counsel was manifestly ineffective. He failed to meaningfully cross-examine police witnesses, some of whom he had recently represented in civil matters, including Detective Joseph Smith, who tampered with evidence by “crash editing” the videotape of an eyewitness to erase her description of the perpetrator. Inexplicably, trial counsel also requested to have Jones sit in the prisoners’ dock throughout the trial rather than at counsel table, a decision that denied Jones the opportunity for attorney consultation. This arrangement also gave the jury the impression that he was dangerous and likely guilty. During his decades in prison, Jones consistently maintained his innocence, filing a series of unsuccessful appeals and motions.
In December 2017, following an investigation by WBUR uncovering racial bias among the jury and a new trial motion filed on Jones’ behalf by the state’s Innocence Program, Superior Court Judge Thomas McGuire found the circumstances of Jones’ trial to have been fundamentally unjust. He vacated the conviction and granted a new trial.
Although the original trial was deemed to have been unjust, and in spite of mounting evidence of Jones’ factual innocence — including medical records turned over on the eve of the trial casting Jones’ identity as the shooter into doubt — the DA insisted on retrying the case. During the retrial, the prosecution presented much of the most contested and critical eyewitness testimony without the benefit of live witnesses appearing before the jury. Instead, members of the district attorney's office read prior transcripts of witnesses' testimony. This approach left the jury unable to assess the credibility of this fundamental testimony.
Ultimately, the jury’s verdict was a rebuke to the DA’s irresponsible approach. A prosecutor’s job is to pursue justice, not to pursue a conviction at all costs. It is bad enough that Darrell Jones was wrongfully convicted in 1986, well before the era of DNA exonerations and the resulting understanding of wrongful convictions and their causes. But it is worse still, in 2019, for a prosecutor to ignore evidence of innocence and blindly pursue a retrial against a factually innocent man.