Originally posted at 1:51 p.m. March 24, 2014. Edited to add video.
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 ordered to be released but will spend tonight in jail.
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. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan today set aside her earlier convictions and sentenced her to time served in exchange for a plea of no contest to voluntary manslaughter.
However, prison paperwork prevented Jones from celebrating with her family tonight. A representative of USC's Post-Conviction Justice Project, who handled Jones' case, said she expected Jones would go home tomorrow.
The gunman in the murder 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' 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 USC spokeswoman Gilien Silsby.
Denitra was in the courtroom today, 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, 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' release.
"I did not willingly participate in this crime," Jones told Ryan, but "entering a no contest plea is in my best interest."
Ryan noted that Jones 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 just before her mother was escorted back to a holding cell by a sheriff's deputy.
"Words cannot express the way I feel," Denitra said outside the courtroom, still hopeful at that time that her mother would be home for dinner. "It's surreal ... this is a day we've been waiting for all our lives."