California woman freed after life sentence overturned

An elderly California woman was recently freed from a Lynwood prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder in 1981.

In late March, 2014, a Los Angeles woman walked out of a Lynwood prison after serving 32 years for the death of a drug dealer shot in an apparent robbery attempt. Mary Jones, now 76 years old, was convicted in 1981 for her role in a kidnapping, robbery and shooting perpetrated by her then-boyfriend. Though Ms. Jones argued that she was only at the scene out of fear for her life (she was being held at gunpoint just like the two men who were shot and was fearful of being beaten), and that she did not willingly participate in any of the crimes, a jury convicted her of first-degree murder, kidnapping to commit robbery and robbery. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A complicated history

While a jury found Jones guilty in 1981, that conviction was later overturned. Upon retrial, a second jury was unable to reach a verdict on any of the counts against her. A third trial resulted in Jones being convicted of only the two counts of robbery, with a sentence of 15 years. In 1987, surprisingly, she was tried a fourth time; during that trial, she was again found guilty of murder and re-sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole.

She likely would have remained in prison until her death had it not been for the efforts of a team of law students and professors from the University of Southern California Law School's " Post-Conviction Justice Project." The USC group, guided by directing attorney Heidi Rummel, successfully argued to a California judge that Jones was forcibly involved in the crime by her gun-toting boyfriend, and that she should not be held accountable for his actions. The Project team also successfully proved that Jones fully expected to be shot and killed if she defied her boyfriend, and that none of the trials took into account the fact that she was a "battered woman."

The judge agreed, and her convictions were overturned. As a condition of release, Jones pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to "time served." No other conditions - such as probation - were imposed upon her.

A powerful lesson

Perhaps the most powerful lesson that comes from Jones's case is the extreme importance of an aggressive, thorough defense against any criminal charge, particularly murder and other serious crimes where life in prison is on the proverbial table. If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges, you need to be focused on mounting your best defense from the very beginning. By working with an experienced criminal defense attorney, you can start building a persuasive case that, statistically, has a better chance of success (than if you were to defend yourself).

Keywords: murder, attempted murder, criminal law, defense, wrongful conviction