Man freed after 17 years in prison prompts authorities to reflect on legal system

OLATHE Kan. -- On Monday, the Johnson County District Attorney announced the office has dismissed the case against Richard Jones, the local man who found his Doppelgänger, and in the process, his freedom.

Jones spent 17 years in prison, convicted for a purse snatching in Roeland Park on Memorial Day, 1999. Three men in a car tried to steal a woman's purse. They didn't get the purse, but they did get her cell phone, and in the process, she got a scraped knee.

That led to an aggravated robbery charge. When added to Richard Jones's prior record, that lead to a 19-year prison sentence.

But last week, Judge Kevin Moriarty looked at the new evidence a group of law students (working as the Midwest Innocence Project) discovered. Namely, two side-by-side mug shots of two men, Richard Jones, and Ricky Amos. Judge Moriarty granted Jones a new trial.

On Monday, Johnson County District Attorney Steven Howe announced the case against Jones was dismissed.

"I want people to know that this does happen," Richard Jones told FOX 4 on Saturday.

"It doesn't get the type of attention that it should get," he continued, "because it's purely injustice."

Johnson County DA Howe looked at it another way: he says Jones's exoneration proves the justice system does work.

"From the state's position," said Howe, "we are no longer comfortable to say that we know for a fact that Richard Jones committed this crime. Somebody committed a robbery. Who it is, we don't feel like there's sufficient evidence to move forward with Richard Joness case, which is the reason why today we decided to dismiss his case in its entirety."

Howe stands by Jones' conviction in 2000. "The judge didn't fault anyone for the actions they took, because with the information they had at the time, they felt like that was the right decision to make."

He also stands by Judge Moriarty's decision for a new trial, a new trial Howe's office will not pursue. "We'd rather let a guilty man go," he said, "than convict an innocent man."

Even weeks later, Howe still reacts with surprise when he sees Jones and Amos' photos side-by-side.

"I've been doing this for 27 years," he said. "I've never seen anything like this where an individual comes in and has virtually a twin."

Paul Morrison was the Johnson County District Attorney when Jones' case when to court nearly two decades ago.

While Justice may not be blind, Morrison says eyewitnesses can be.

"You have many, many cases over the years where you have people who would literally stake their lives on what they saw," said the former Kansas Attorney General, "and they were wrong."

The case questions how reliable witness testimony can be.

"I don't have any doubt about the person who tried this case back in 2000 had all the confidence in the world that he was the right guy," said Morrison, who ran the DA office at the time. "All you have to do is look at the pictures and see how this happened. The reality is, sometimes eyewitness identification can be wrong."

Howe, the current DA, produced two mug shots of Jones and Amos taken around the time of the crime. They are not nearly as similar then as they are in the more recent pictures, where they both have long hair and and facial hair.

"Nobody wants to send anyone to jail whose innocent," said Morrison. "Nobody wants to convict somebody of a crime they didn't commit."

As for who committed the crime, we may never know. The statute of limitations on Aggravated Robbery is five years, meaning charges should've been filed by 2004. So there will not be a new trial, even if a new suspect comes forward.