By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
An hour later, when Jones pulled into the housing complex, there was a basketball game going on. As he was walking through the courtyard to find his nephew, he spotted Tawana. Angry, he confronted her, demanding to know why her boyfriend,
Savoy, was taking shots at his nephew. Jones says that Tawana screamed right back at him, saying that if Markquice didn't give up Hayward's killer, Jones and his entire family were going to be sorry. Security guards eyed the two as they argued. They eventually parted, and Jones got Markquice and they drove back to Norwood.
Later that afternoon, Tawana called the police and told them that on July 2, 2001, at around 10 p.m., from her ninth-floor balcony, she had watched Lonnie Jones murder Willie Hayward.
To Jones, it was obvious that Tawana had simply followed up on her threat by lying to the police and saying she had seen him shoot Hayward and Savoy. Surely, he thought, in a courtroom, the truth would come out. He turned down an offer from the district attorney to plead guilty for a shorter sentence.
"It was never an option," says Maria. "At that point, we had faith in the system. We thought that if we just had a chance to tell the truth, it would all be over."
So the case inched toward a November 2002 trial date, and all the while, Jones languished in jail on Rikers Island, where he'd been put under protective custody because of threats from other inmates. On the outside, Maria packed up the Norwood house and moved in with her mother in Florida, partly because of her fear of the Bloods and partly because she just couldn't make the rent anymore without Lonnie's income.
Prosecuting Jones would be Assistant District Attorney Javier Solano, who had recently been promoted to handling homicide trials. There was no physical evidence linking Jones to Hayward's murder, so the case would come down to whether the jury believed the testimony of Tawana or the testimony of the witnesses for the defense (Maria, one of Jones's daughters, and two of his daughter's friends would all testify that Jones never left his house in the Bronx the night Hayward was killed).
For his part, Solano, who has since moved on to private practice, says that he had no reason not to believe Tawana when she told him she'd seen Jones commit the crime. "Could she have lied to me? Of course," he says. "But in this case, I had every reason to believe her, and I did." (Tawana has left New York City and could not be reached for comment.)
In the trial, Tawana cried on the stand when describing the shooting and, by all accounts, made for a very convincing witness. Even after Jones's public defender brought up the argument she had had with his client just before she accused him of the murder, it seemed to have little effect on the jury. Watching in the audience, meanwhile, were Jones's family members, but also numerous gang members. "The place was crawling with Bloods," Jones says.
Concerned that her husband's public defender appeared unprepared, Maria contacted a Legal Aid attorney she knew, Michelle Fox. Maria asked Fox to come watch the proceedings, saying that she didn't think Jones was receiving a fair trial. Fox agreed to come, and soon came to the same conclusion. She then began helping the family with their legal ordeal.
"In my experience, the wrongly accused just don't get out without a tireless personal advocate on the outside," says Fox. In this case, that advocate was Jones's wife, Maria.
Maria refused to give up even after the jury convicted Jones of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 37 years to life. Fox, meanwhile, persuaded her husband, David Crow, a Legal Aid attorney who handles appeals, to see what he could do. It was Crow who then approached an attorney at one of the richest law firms in the United States.
"I'd like to say that from the minute I joined the case, I thought [Jones] was not guilty," says Daniel S. Kahn, a young attorney for Davis Polk & Wardwell, one of the top-grossing law firms in the country. "But for me, I became absolutely certain of Lonnie's innocence when we first interviewed Pooh Bear."
Dwaughn Sherrod Jones—or "Pooh Bear," as he's known in Coney Island—was sitting on a bench next to Willie Hayward in the Sea Park courtyard on the night of July 2, 2001, when a tall, thin man with gold teeth rounded a corner 40 feet away, pulled out a semi-automatic handgun, and opened fire. Pooh Bear and the others in the group scattered, but not before he had a chance to get a look at the hooded man popping off shots at them.
Later that night, Pooh Bear was in the emergency room at Coney Island Hospital, holding hands with Hayward's mother as hospital workers tried to stop the bleeding from the five bullet holes in Hayward's back and legs. Pooh Bear had been best friends with Hayward since childhood.
It was that childhood friendship (corroborated by ER records and Hayward's mother) that sold Kahn on Jones's innocence. "Here was a guy with absolutely no reason to lie," the attorney remembers. "And he's swearing to me that Lonnie Jones couldn't have fired those shots in Sea Park that night." Pooh Bear was certain because the person he saw kill Hayward couldn't have looked more different from Jones, whom he knew because they grew up in the same neighborhood. (Though they share the same last name, they are unrelated.) As Pooh Bear testified during Jones's civil suit against the state, "the shooter was thin, and Lonnie is thick."