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Wrongfully convicted at 15, a Columbus man goes free after growing up in prison

He was jailed at 14, convicted and sent to prison at 15, and just released after an appeals court overturned his conviction

Arthur James Jones was 14 years old when he was jailed for burglary and 15 when he was convicted and sent to state prison. For nine years, he knew no other life. All that changed Wednesday, when freed at age 23. This is his story.
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Arthur James Jones was 14 years old when he was jailed for burglary and 15 when he was convicted and sent to state prison. For nine years, he knew no other life. All that changed Wednesday, when freed at age 23. This is his story.

Arthur James Jones was 14 years old when he was jailed for burglary and 15 when he was convicted and sent off to state prison.

For nine years, he knew no other life. Others decided what he would wear, what he would do, when he would eat, sleep and wake. He lived without choices.

All that changed Wednesday, when freed at age 23, he walked out of the Muscogee County Jail, took a deep breath, and walked on.

The Georgia Court of Appeals overturned his conviction, ruling his confession to a 2009 break-in was not freely given, so it should not have been admitted as evidence in his 2010 trial.

The ruling meant he could have a new trial, but public defender Victoria Novak and prosecutor Wesley Lambertus struck a deal: If Jones pleaded guilty to burglary and using a gun to commit a crime, he would be sentenced to serve nine years, and with credit for the time he already spent in jail or prison, he would be released.

Jones took the offer. Judge Ben Land accepted his guilty plea and sentenced him Tuesday morning, and Jones spent one last night in the county jail before he walked free around 2 p.m. Wednesday, accompanied by jail chaplain Neil Richardson.

“I can’t even describe it,” he said afterward at Grace House, a facility operated by Richardson’s Safehouse Ministries, where he’ll learn to look for work. “I done been in a negative place for so long that it feels like weights is on your back. So I walked out, and it was a big relief.”

Said Richardson: “As soon as we hit that door, he took the biggest breath he’s taken since I ever met him … and then the step picks up. We start going faster.”

That’s common for people leaving jail, Richardson said: First they breathe deeply outside, then they pick up the pace walking away.

“Inside the building, you’re going to walk slow, because you’ve no place to go: You’re already there,” the chaplain said. “Now coming out, the biggest question he has is, do we go left or right.”

Many more questions follow, enough to overwhelm anyone who for years had no decisions to make.

“You’ve been down for so long, you’re basically programmed,” Jones said.

Said Richardson: “One of the things he’s going to be going through is decision overload.”

Someone freed after years of incarceration can be overwhelmed by choices, and freeze in a dilemma, the chaplain said: “It’s almost like that deer in the headlights moment, where they both look good; I’ll stand here and wait.”

But waiting also is a choice, and often not the best one.

“People do nothing because they’re stuck,” Richardson said. “Nothing means you forget to report to the probation officer. Nothing means you don’t go look for work. Nothing means your landlord throws your stuff to the curb.”

So, among the first lessons a former convict has to learn is “to make decisions, but not be afraid to fail.”

Looking back

Back in 2009, Jones was a Jordan High School freshman living with his mother in Ashley Station apartments off Talbotton Road.

“At first I was just a normal kid, you know what I mean?” he said. He wanted to play ball, and sign up for track and field, but he didn’t.

“I started to run around with some people I should not have ran around with, and it led to me having to do a whole bunch of time, nine years,” he said.

He and two others were accused of kicking in the door of a neighbor’s apartment on Aug. 9, 2009, holding a babysitter and two children at gunpoint, and taking cash, car keys, a television and a PlayStation 3 video game.

It was not the only break-in in which Jones was implicated. According to prosecution filings, he was a suspect in two more in the same apartment complex: one on Sept. 14, 2009, in which intruders kicked in the door and took 96 compact discs, and another the following Sept. 22, when again the front door was forced open, and burglars took two laptops, a cellphone, more compact discs, $50 and some alcohol.

How police questioned him about these crimes led to his imprisonment, and, conversely, to his eventual release.

According to court records, police went to Jones’ home to ask him about the Sept. 22 break-in on Sept. 23, 2009. His mother, Jacqueline Floyd, gave them permission to speak with her son. After Jones gave investigators some videos stolen from the apartment, they handcuffed him and told Floyd they were taking him to police headquarters for more questioning. Floyd said she would meet them there.

When Floyd arrived, officers told her Jones would be charged with burglary. Although she could have been present as they questioned her son, police did not tell her that, and the teen was interrogated alone.

He admitted being a lookout for accomplices in the Sept. 22 break-in, but denied he was involved in the other burglaries. He was released to his mother that day, but later police got more information linking him to the Aug. 9 case, and went back to question him Oct. 14 – again with Floyd’s permission, but without her presence.

Novak, his attorney on the appeal, believes Jones was so young at the time that he could not understand his Miranda rights, such as his right to remain silent or hire an attorney, so he waived them: “In order to waive them, you first have to understand them,” she said.

After he waived them, he was questioned by Detective D.R. Bailey, the same investigator who interviewed him before.

Jones still insisted he was not involved in the Aug. 9 burglary, but Bailey believed he was lying, so she pressed him, saying:

“You’ve already dug yourself a hole. … So when I go to the judge Tuesday, I’m going to tell him how you lied, and how you don’t want to help yourself out because you keep lying. You understand? Did I not tell you that if I found something out, I was going to come back and charge you? What happened? … What do you think you need to be doing right now?”

“I need to be talking,” Jones replied.

“OK,” Bailey said. “And doing what else?”

“And telling the truth,” Jones said.

“Then why didn’t you do it the first time I came to you?” Bailey asked.

“Because I was nervous,” Jones said.

“You were nervous?” Bailey said. “Didn’t I promise you I wasn’t going to do anything? Am I not making that promise to you again? … I don’t care about any other detectives, OK? I’m sitting here telling you, if you don’t sit here and tell me the truth, you are going to make me charge you again, do you understand me?”

Later she said, “I’ll get you to become a designated felon real quick…. So your best bet is to sit here and tell me everything that you’ve been involved in. We’re going to sit down and determine what you’re going to get charged with and what you’re not going to get charged with, and we’re going to take it from there.”

Within a minute of hearing this, Jones admitted to being involved in the Aug. 9 break-in.

Tried as an adult, separately from his codefendants, Jones on Sept. 23, 2010, was convicted of two counts of burglary and one of armed robbery. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison with 10 years to serve and the rest on probation.

Prison life

First he went to the Burruss Correctional Training Center, a medium-security prison in Forsyth.

“It was all right,” he said Wednesday. “It was a peaceful place.”

But he would not stay there: “I went from Burruss in 2014 to Macon State,” he said. “When I got there, you could tell it was a bad vibe. People die in there. They get stabbed over a bag of chips.”

Macon State is a high-security prison in Oglethorpe, Ga.

Referring to state prisons as “camps,” Jones said: “People ain’t making it out of those types of camps. It’s a lifer camp. It’s a rough place.”

He always dodged or talked his way out of trouble, if he could, but defended himself if necessary, he said: “I always handled my business if I had to. I had put it in my head that I’m going home. I didn’t really make friends. I might hang around five or six people, but it was never no big circle. If a problem came, I tried to talk it out. I wasn’t going to let nary a person hurt me.”

But some pain doesn’t come from within prison walls. Jones said he managed to maintain contact with friends and family, at first, but as the years went by, he became increasingly isolated.

“I’ve had family members constantly pass, and it’s been rough on me, because I’ve been having to digest what’s going on in a place that has no peace.... You’ve been down for so long, you’re basically programmed.”

What hit him hardest was his mother’s death, at age 52, on Dec. 10, 2017.

He did not know: “I had just talked to her that Friday. Sunday morning she passed.” He called home the following Tuesday, feeling happy until his brother got on the phone.

“Brother, I need to talk to you,” his sibling said. “Our Mama’s gone.”

It was hard to accept. “When he told me, for a whole month I was down. I was lost. I didn’t go crazy, but it was a thinking thing,” he said. “My mother told me, ‘Even when I’m gone, you’ve got to push on still.’ Over the last four or five months, I’ve had dreams of her talking to me.”

Dreaming of his mother’s face gave him hope.

So did Vicki Novak, the public defender who took over his appeals.

Overturned

Though Novak raised several issues to the Georgia Court of Appeals, the judges focused solely on what the detective told Jones to get him to confess – particularly a promise not to charge him with other crimes, if he admitted what he had done.

The court cited a Georgia law that states “to make a confession admissible, it must have been made voluntarily, without being induced by another by the slightest hope of benefit or remotest fear of injury…. It has long been understood that ‘slightest hope of benefit’ refers to promises related to reduced criminal punishment – a shorter sentence, lesser charges, or no charges at all.”

The late Judge Robert Johnston III, who presided at Jones’ 2010 trial, should have found Jones’ confession was not voluntary, the court ruled: The detective made an “explicit promise” not to charge Jones with some of the other crimes if he confessed, so his ensuing confession was not given “without being induced by another by the slightest hope of benefit.”

Of the detective’s promise, the appeals court wrote: “This is exactly the hope of benefit which is prohibited under Georgia law.”

The ruling was issued Feb. 28.

“May 3 came of 2018, and I was in a dorm sweeping out my room, and they called my name and told me to pack up all my personal property,” Jones recalled. “And I’m like, ‘Why? What’s going on?’ And that’s when they said I was being released from there.”

But he wasn’t going to walk free from prison. His conviction was overturned, but the charges still were pending. His case had to be resolved in Muscogee Superior Court.

He got to the county jail on a Thursday, and met Novak the next day. “That Friday she came down to see me, and we talked, and I had a good feeling about it.”

But Novak was worried: The only family contact the jail had for Jones was his mother. What would happen to someone who grew up in prison, were he released with nowhere to go, and no one to guide him?

It turned out Jones did have other family here, as well as in Arkansas, where a distant relative learned of his impending release and came to court Tuesday to see if he could help.

“My Mom’s brother was married to his mother,” Jones said. “My mom helped raise him.” The man cried outside the courtroom as Novak spoke with him.

By then Jones had decided to join the Grace House program, having met Richardson through Novak, who wanted to be sure her client wouldn’t be abandoned on the street.

Richardson said he heard from the prosecutor, too. “Both were calling, saying, ‘What can we do? He’s worth a shot.’”

Richardson met with Jones, and was impressed: “He’s pretty straightforward, knows what he’d doing, so we agreed we’re going to do a mentoring thing.”

Grace House is a 48-bed facility on Columbus’ Kolb Avenue, an old apartment complex that Safehouse Ministries renovated to offer housing for those with nowhere to go.

“Our target is incarcerated, addicted and homeless people,” the chaplain said. “They’re coming in fresh. They’ve made a decision that they want to do something different, but they don’t know where ‘different’ is…. What’s it look like, functioning in this society on the outside of the walls, and maintaining that?”

The arrangement is that those who come in have to invest in their own future, to find work and, eventually, their own place to live. Richardson said it’s like placing an 800-pound bag on the floor with two handles, and both the mentor and the mentored have to lift together: “If he sets his end down, we drop ours.”

Richardson believes Jones can make it, on his own, eventually.

“He really does want this. I can’t imagine what it’s like to go into the system at 14 and come rolling out at 23. I mean, driving here, Columbus doesn’t look the same as it did nine years ago. I mean, this place is different, but interestingly enough, he said, ‘I’m different.’”

Whether Jones stays at Grace House or moves in with family, he’ll have someone to call on for help.

Over the past two months he spent in the county jail, he told some Columbus teens of his experience, hoping they’ll wise up before they wind up in prison.

“Being in the county jail, I done talked to probably like five or six people, and I been telling them what’s going on: ‘Y’all here running around. Y’all laughing, hee hee, ha ha. This here ain’t nothing. The county jail is just the first part of it.’”

Living free won’t be easy, but he looks forward to the challenge.

“I done went from people fighting and people stabbing to being here,” he said. “It’s a different kind of hard. I’m ready for it.”



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