March 27, 2014
By ELIZABETH MARCELLINO
City News Service
A 74-year-old woman who served 32 years for a murder committed by her abusive boyfriend, who forced her to participate in the crime, was freed from prison Tuesday March 25. Mary Virginia Jones, known as “Mother Mary” to family and friends, was convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping and robbery in a fatal shooting in 1981. The gunman was Mose Willis, who kidnapped two drug dealers and forced Jones at gunpoint to drive a car to an alley where he shot them, according to law students at USC’s Post-Conviction Justice Project. One man died and the other survived.
“She ran down the alley fully expecting him to shoot and kill her too,” said Heidi Rummel, co-director of the USC justice project and the supervising defense attorney on the case.
Jones was a churchgoing woman who worked as a teacher’s aide and had never been arrested before the 1981 crime, her lawyers said. She met Willis, who was homeless, and took him in because he told her that he wanted to clean up his life.
A week before the shooting, Willis shot at Jones’s daughter, Denitra, and threatened to kill the two women if they went to the police, defense attorneys said.
Willis was sentenced to death for the murder and died while awaiting execution on death row, according to a USC spokeswoman.
Denitra was in the courtroom Monday, along with more than a dozen other family members and friends, as her mother was brought in with her hands cuffed behind her back, wearing blue jail clothes. USC law students Laura Donaldson and Mark Fahey worked for years to free Jones and said she never should have been convicted. Jones had been through four trials in all, including two with hung juries and a reversal on appeal, because the court failed to properly instruct the jury and excluded evidence of Jones’s duress defense.
The District Attorney’s Office independently investigated the case and agreed in advance to accept a plea of no contest to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for Jones’s release.
“I did not willingly participate in this crime,” Jones told the judge, but “entering a no contest plea is in my best interest.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan today set aside Jones’s earlier convictions and noted that she had already served 11,875 days, well in excess of the 11-year maximum sentence for voluntary manslaughter.
“The court orders the defendant released forthwith,” Ryan said, prompting tears, cheers, singing and a shout of “Thank you, Jesus” from those assembled. “Your honor, can I take my mother home?” Denitra asked. The judge nodded yes, but left the logistics to bailiffs. Jones could not walk out with her family but was freed later that day.
“Words cannot express the way I feel,” Denitra said outside the courtroom. “It’s surreal ... this is a day we’ve been waiting for all our lives.”