Inside the brown brick walls of Lansing Correctional Facility, Richard Jones’s long ordeal is finally coming to an end. For 17 years, he has been incarcerated in the Kansas prison, serving time for a robbery that he did not commit. But now, investigators have found a new and very plausible suspect for the crime; one who fits the bill for a remarkable reason.
Back in 2000, Jones was found guilty of a violent theft that took place in a Walmart parking lot the previous year. And despite a lack of concrete evidence linking him to the crime, he was sentenced to just short of 20 years behind bars. At the time, eyewitnesses identified him as the culprit – but could they have made a terrible mistake?
As the years ticked by, Jones remained frustrated by his fate. Why had the witnesses insisted on accusing an innocent man? And would the truth about the robbery ever come to light? Eventually, in 2015, his case came to the attention of justice campaigners, and an unbelievable story began to unfold.
The story began on May 31, 1999, in Kansas City in Wyandotte County, Kansas. That day, a group of three acquaintances had been passing the time by taking drugs and aimlessly driving through the neighborhood. But at some point, their stash ran out, and they decided to get more.
Apparently, the trio decided to visit an area of town where they knew that they could get their hands on some drugs. And together, they visited a local pair of flats where they picked up a man known only as Rick. Settling himself in the front seat of the vehicle, he directed them to a Walmart in Roeland Park, a city in Johnson County.
Once there, however, things started to go terribly wrong. According to a 2017 report in the Washington Post newspaper, Rick exited the car and approached a female passerby, attempting to steal her handbag. However, she put up a fight, and he was only able to make off with her cellphone. And while the occupants of the vehicle managed to escape, the authorities were soon called.
Unfortunately, neither the victim nor the store’s security guard had enjoyed a clear sighting of the culprit. In fact, the woman later told a detective that she had only seen the back of the man’s head before he made his escape. Nevertheless, investigators quickly began to piece together a profile of their suspect.
According to records, police were able to establish from eyewitness reports that the suspect was a thin male with a head of dark hair. However, descriptions of his race varied. And while some identified the culprit as a black man with light skin, others claimed that he was dark-skinned and of Hispanic origin; the former skin tone was settled upon as the more reliable description by the authorities.
Elsewhere, investigators were able to track down the driver of the vehicle in which the assailant had arrived. Apparently, he confirmed that he and his friends had barely known Rick before they collected him on the day of the robbery. But despite his unfamiliarity with the suspect, he was given the opportunity to identify the man to police.
According to a 2018 New York Times newspaper article, officers had presented the driver with a large number of photographs featuring a selection of men. And while they all exhibited similar features, he zeroed in on one individual, claiming that he was the one who had committed the crime. And in April 2000, almost a year after the robbery, an arrest was finally made.
The man who was arrested, however, maintained his innocence. In fact, Richard Jones claimed to have been miles away in Kansas City, Missouri, at the time that the crime was committed. Apparently, he had just finished hosting a party with his girlfriend, and was busy cleaning up his home.
But despite Jones’s alibi, the authorities were convinced that he was a guilty man. In fact, they were even able to get witnesses to pick out his photograph in a lineup. However, according to the New York Times, those present were asked to choose from just six images – out of which only one featured a fair-skinned man. As the only suspect who fitted the description of the robber, Jones was unsurprisingly selected.
Shockingly, this type of procedure is far from unique to Jones’s case. Established in 1992, the Innocence Project is an organization dedicated to achieving justice for the wrongfully convicted. And according to them, it’s surprisingly common for administrators to unintentionally point witnesses towards a suspect they believe to be guilty.
“In a standard lineup, the lineup administrator may choose to compose a live or photo lineup where non-suspect “fillers” do not match the witness’s description of the perpetrator, or do not resemble the suspect,” an article on the Innocence Project’s website explains. “This can cause the suspect to stand out to a witness because of the composition of the lineup.”
According to the Innocence Project, DNA evidence has led to the reversal of wrongful convictions in over 360 cases in the United States. And of these, more than 70 percent were the result of inaccurate identification by eyewitnesses. But despite the flaws evident in this approach, it’s a method that’s still regularly adopted to put people behind bars.
In the web article, the Innocence Project goes into detail about the problem. “Despite solid and growing proof of the inaccuracy of traditional eyewitness ID procedures – and the availability of simple measures to reform them – traditional eyewitness identifications remain among the most commonly used and compelling evidence brought against criminal defendants,” it reads.
Moreover, the article points out that by focusing on flawed eyewitness testimony, the authorities often make it easier for the real culprits to escape justice. And because there is no system in place that allows administrators to record the level of confidence with which the identification has been made, the process often produces skewed results.
Instead, the Innocence Project has proposed a number of reforms designed to improve the eyewitness identification process. For example, they have suggested selecting administrators with no previous knowledge of the case and ensuring that the suspect does not stand out from other members of the lineup. Moreover, they believe that witnesses should be required to clarify just how sure they are that they have picked out the right person.
Currently, these reforms have been adopted by 24 states. However, neither Kansas nor Missouri are among them. As a result, Jones found himself the victim of a system that relies heavily on witness testimony. And even though there was a distinct lack of solid evidence connecting him to the crime, he was convicted.
Indeed, in late 2000, Jones, 25, was found guilty of aggravated robbery and sentenced to 19 years in jail. Tragically, that meant that he was forced to leave his two daughters behind – one of whom was just a baby at the time. And for the young man who had always maintained his innocence, it was the beginning of an horrific ordeal.
Frustrated by the miscarriage of justice, Jones struggled to come to terms with life at Lansing Correctional Facility, some 25 miles northwest of Kansas City. However, in 2015, something strange happened. Apparently, the young man’s fellow inmates began claiming that he had a doppelganger incarcerated in the same prison.
In her 2017 article for the Washington Post, journalist Kristine Phillips quoted Jones’s attorney explaining the situation. Apparently, other inmates would tell Jones, “Hey, you were in the cafeteria and you didn’t say hello to me.” However, the innocent man initially dismissed these claims. “I took it with a grain of salt,” he is reported to have said.
Soon, however, Jones began to suspect that his double could hold the key to his situation. “I knew it was, at that time, it was my only shot,” he told reporters. “I could not lose. I had to throw it out there.” And so, he enlisted the assistance of Project for Innocence, an initiative run by the School of Law at the University of Kansas.
Before long, the team at Project for Innocence managed to track down a photograph of Jones’s doppelganger. And apparently, the resemblance was striking. Moreover, the convict – a man named Ricky Amos – had been living in Roeland Park back in May 1999. In fact, his home had been close to the Walmart store where Jones had allegedly committed his crime.
Although Amos was apparently evicted before the robbery took place, investigators discovered that he had moved into his brother’s home nearby. And soon, they realized that this address matched the one where, back in 1999, three friends had picked up a man they knew as Rick. Finally, the pieces of the puzzle began to come together.
However, the most striking thing about the case was the staggering similarity between Jones and Amos. “They looked like they could have been twins,” Chapman Williams, an intern with Project for Innocence, explained in a 2017 statement from the University of Kansas. In fact, the two men were almost identical – despite having no known family connection.
According to reports, both Jones and Amos weighed roughly 200 pounds and stood about six feet tall. However, photographs of the two men show that these were far from the only similarities between them. In fact, as well as looking startlingly alike, they also each wore cornrows and groomed their facial hair in the same goatee style.
Soon, investigators realized that Amos was a far more likely suspect in the crime that had put Jones behind bars. With an extensive criminal record – including robbery – he was serving time for sex offender charges. However, by this point the statute of limitations had passed, meaning that he could not face justice in Jones’s place.
But despite the fact that Amos could not be charged with the robbery, justice campaigners dedicated themselves to overturning Jones’s wrongful conviction. And slowly, Williams and his fellow intern Chad Neswick began to build a case. Crucially, they were able to meet with the eyewitnesses who had been key to the initial investigation.
Unsurprisingly, once the witnesses were presented with photographs of both Jones and Amos, their confidence in their former testimony disappeared. “I am no longer certain I identified the right person at the preliminary hearing and trial,” the victim, Tamara Scherer, swore in a written statement. “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.”
Additionally, a security guard also withdrew his testimony after seeing photographs of both men. Meanwhile, Edward Miller Jr. – another of the car occupants on the day of the robbery– cast further doubt on the accuracy of the conviction. “I remember having my doubts at trial,” he claimed in an affidavit. “If I had been given these two pictures before trial, I would not have been able to tell them apart.”
With evidence in support of Jones mounting, the case was taken over by two new law students, Breanna Lynch and Nikki Multer, in 2016. And even though the prisoner had exhausted his right to appeal, they were able to gather enough data to persuade the courts to reconsider. Eventually, on June 7, 2017, the original case prosecutor John Cowles was called to testify at a new hearing.
When presented with the new evidence, Cowles soon acknowledged that the initial conviction may have been flawed. “The information provided to me has undermined whatever confidence I had at the time that the trial of Richard Jones resulted in a just result,” he swore in an affidavit. And while he admitted that these errors were not necessarily a guarantee of Jones’s innocence, he recommended further investigation.
Ultimately, Judge Kevin P. Moriarty ruled that “no reasonable jury” would have convicted Jones based on the evidence now before them. And so, the following day, the prisoner was finally released, having served all but two years of his lengthy sentence. But despite the happy occasion, there was no denying the time that he had lost thanks to his wrongful conviction.
Now, Jones’s children are grown, and he missed the births of his first grandchildren while behind bars. Nevertheless, his loved ones were ecstatic to be reunited with him. “The effect of that ruling didn’t really hit me until I saw Richard get to hug his daughter, something he probably hasn’t done for 17 years,” Lynch admitted in the University of Kansas statement. “Members of his family, people I’d 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.”
However, Lynch acknowledged that their victory merely highlighted the injustice that Jones has suffered. “It’s bittersweet,” she admitted. “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 did not commit.”
Soon, Jones’s case had made the national news. Now a free man, he appeared in interviews from his home, speaking to the camera about his ordeal. “I hoped and prayed for this day to come,” he told ABC News in 2017. “And when it finally got here I was overwhelmed.” Meanwhile, wellwishers raised over $16,000 via GoFundMe to help him rebuild his life.
However, that was a drop in the ocean compared to what Jones would ultimately receive. More than a year after his release, he filed for compensation from the state to the tune of $1.1 million. According to the former prisoner, he wished to use the money to get back on track after so many years behind bars. And four months later, he was awarded the full amount – along with a promise of healthcare and counseling services.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Jones was in trouble with the law once more. And in May 2019 – less than two years after his release – he stood in court facing new charges. It has been alleged that he was caught in possession of methamphetamine and cocaine, as well as illegal firearms.
At the moment, it is unclear whether Jones will return to life behind bars. But despite this unfortunate development, the fact remains that there are many people still serving sentences for crimes that they did not commit. And therefore, organizations such as Project for Innocence form a vital resource. “Our criminal justice system is flawed,” Lynch explained, “so we as lawyers have a duty to make it better.”