Man freed after 17 years in prison after lookalike raises doubts in case

Posted at 1:41 PM, Jun 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-12 13:55:15-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Richard Jones just enjoyed his first weekend of freedom after nearly 17 years behind bars.

Jones always maintained his innocence when police in Kansas City, Kansas, linked him to a 1999 robbery. Now, he has his life back thanks to the tireless work of wrongful-conviction advocates.

Richard's father, Fred, couldn't believe it when he learned his son was free.

"She said, 'They let him go' and I said, 'Nuh-uh.' She said, 'Yeah, they let him go. He'll be out first thing in the morning,'" he recalled.

According to independent studies, between 2 and 5 percent of U.S. inmates are innocent. The Midwest Innocence Project says it takes 7 to 10 years to exonerate an innocent prisoner.

"I didn't know what he looked like anymore because he was so young when he went there. I didn't know what he looked like," Fred Jones said.

Nearly 20 years ago, a robbery victim and a witness claimed to know what Jones looked like -- and said he looked like the man who attacked them. In court, there was no DNA, no fingerprints, no physical evidence, only testimony. But it was enough to get a conviction and a sentence of 19 years.

"It's not something you wrap your mind around. It's surreal. It's hard to believe you're actually going through it," Richard Jones said.

Even harder to believe: a set of inmate pictures that linked Jones to his doppleganger.

Another man -- also named Richard -- went to prison, and due to his uncanny resemblance to Jones, the Midwest Innocence Project began to surmise that Jones had been mistaken for him. It was all part of key evidence brought forward by the Midwest Innocence Project and presented to a judge who ordered Jones' release.

"It doesn't get the type of attention that it should get because it's purely injustice," Richard Jones said. "And that's not right. We're supposed to be able to depend on our justice system."

With no support from courts, Jones said he had to find it somewhere else.

"Believing in God, praying that kept me just that kept me strong," he recalled. "I had my days but it was pretty much just praying."

Jones said his family also kept him going. His support system was in full effect this past weekend: dad, brothers, sister and friends all hanging out, basking in his newfound freedom.

"This actually brought our family closer together, you know, but that's what family does in times of tragedy and things of that nature: they come together," Richard said.

"Everything that happened, there's nothing I can do to change it," he added. "I move forward and I look forward to the future and what's going on with me now and I just feel like this is giving me a platform to speak for people who can't speak for themselves."

While most states have laws that compensate wrongful conviction victims, Kansas does not.

A bill introduced this year would have changed that. SB 125 aimed to compensate individuals $80,000 for each year in prison. In Jones' case, that would come to $1.36 million.

But the bill wasn't touched after going to a committee in February, according to online Senate records. Without a law like that, Kansas exonerees can still seek compensation through civil lawsuits.

In the meantime, a GoFundMe has been set up to help Richard Jones get a solid financial footing for his new life on the outside.