On August 25, Lonnie Jones, 42, came home from fertilizing and aerating lawns for the retirees in the sleepy Florida coastal town where he’s hiding out. There was a call from his lawyer waiting for him.
Jones learned that Court of Claims Judge S. Michael Nadel had ruled that the State of New York must pay him $1,798,691 for the five and a half years he spent locked up in the Elmira, Clinton, and Downstate correctional facilities for a crime he did not commit.
Since his release from prison in 2007, Jones has been up to New York City only twice: Once, he flew up for a few hours to sort out a revoked driver’s license, and then he returned a year ago to testify in his lawsuit against the State. But after the few days that the trial lasted, Jones immediately boarded a flight back to Florida.
Jones avoids New York—where he was born and raised, and where his mother and a daughter still live—because of a man named Willie Hayward, who was in his mid-thirties when he was gunned down on July 2, 2001, at the Sea Park housing complex in Coney Island. Hayward had been the leader of the Brooklyn chapter of the Sex Money Murder Bloods gang. After Jones was arrested for the murder, the gang put a $20,000 contract on his head.
Lawyers from one of the city’s top-tier law firms, working for free, eventually helped Jones prove his innocence and then win nearly $2 million, the third highest judgment for wrongful imprisonment in New York State history.
But the Bloods don’t care. The head of Lonnie Jones is still worth $20,000 in Coney Island. Which is why, after serving five and a half years for a murder he didn’t commit, Jones is still not truly free, as he lives and works and lays low in Florida.
Two months after Hayward’s murder, police raided a small home in the Norwood section of the Bronx. That night—which happened to be the Thursday before the 9/11 attacks—police took Jones into custody for the murder of Hayward. Jones and his wife, Maria, say they were bewildered by the arrest.
Frantic after watching her husband being cuffed and loaded into a police cruiser, Maria says she stayed up the entire night, calling precinct after precinct trying to find out where they’d taken him. Around 4 a.m., she discovered that he was being held at the 60th Precinct in Coney Island, and that he was to be arraigned for murder when the Kings County courthouse opened in the morning.
Maria showed up for that hearing, exhausted. After seeing her husband officially accused of the crime and then taken back to jail—there would be no bail for a man accused of a premeditated murder—she went home, shocked. She waited for him to call. When he finally did, his instructions were brief: “Get me a lawyer.”
She did, for $2,000. The man she hired represented Jones through his post-arrest proceedings, but when it became clear that the case was going to trial, the lawyer asked for $25,000 more. Their savings couldn’t cover the tab, so Jones took on a public defender.
“He was nonexistent,” says Maria of their state-appointed attorney. “During the lead-up to the trial, we were out in Coney Island, doing our own detective work.”
Meanwhile, Jones had other problems. While he was being held at Rikers Island, awaiting his day in court, another inmate told him that word was spreading around the jail that the Bloods were guaranteeing $20,000 to the person who could get to him.
When he heard who he was accused of killing, Jones says, with characteristic restraint, he became “aware of how the situation would play out.” But he admits to feeling real fear when he heard for the first time that the Bloods gang had spread the word about a contract killing.
“[The Bloods] didn’t care that I didn’t [kill Willie Hayward]. It was enough that I was arrested for it,” says Jones. “It’s not like they hire investigators, man. These are people who shed blood just because.”
Now that he was a target, Jones warned his family to get as far out of Coney Island as they could. His mother left Sea Park and moved in with Maria. His sister moved out of New York altogether.
Jones also learned who had put him in jail: A woman named Robin Flood—known as “Tawana” in Coney Island—had told the police that it was Jones who had killed Hayward and injured another man, Terron Savoy. Tawana was Savoy’s girlfriend.
When he heard the name, Jones says he flashed back to an argument that he’d had with the woman just days before his arrest.
In late August, on a Sunday, Jones received a panicked call from his teenage nephew, Markquice, who was still living in Sea Park. Markquice had run into Savoy in the stairwell of one of the Sea Park buildings. Savoy had heard that Markquice knew who had injured him and killed Hayward, but when the boy said he didn’t know who the hit man was, Savoy pulled a pistol and began shooting. Markquice was uninjured, but he ran to a phone and begged his uncle to take him to his house in the Bronx for a while.
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.”
Listening to Pooh Bear’s story in a 27th-floor midtown conference room with floor-to-ceiling windows and striking views of the Empire State Building, Kahn decided to join another attorney at the firm, Chris Withers, and take on Lonnie’s case pro bono. Kahn immediately began poring over the records of the first trial, and was shocked by what he found.
“Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong,” Kahn says.
By the time Kahn agreed to join a team of Davis Polk attorneys working on his appeal, Jones had already been in custody for more than four years. He’d been transferred to different prisons three times, because of threats on his life from Bloods at the Downstate and Elmira facilities. In the showers at Elmira, an inmate came at him with a razor blade, trying to collect on the contract that hung around his neck like a price tag. Jones was able to fight off his attacker long enough for guards to tear the man off him, but it was only a matter of time before the next assault would come.
Along with Pooh Bear’s account, Kahn’s investigators turned up additional witnesses who proved crucial to the case. Acting on a suggestion from Maria, they found three women from Sea Park who all swore that Tawana had to be lying. She couldn’t have witnessed the shooting, they said, because she was out with them having dinner at Nathan’s when the murder had occurred.
Kahn and the other attorneys, meanwhile, won a retrial motion. A five-judge appellate panel unanimously agreed that Solano had acted improperly when he promised the trial jury that Tawana was telling the truth. “The prosecutor’s vouching for the eyewitness went beyond the permissible bounds . . . and should not be repeated at the new trial,” they wrote.
Lonnie Jones would have another chance to prove his innocence on January 22, 2007.
For the retrial, Jones’s white-shoe lawyers brought out their big gun: Carey Dunne, a former New York prosecutor, is a Davis Polk partner who regularly tries cases for the likes of Credit Suisse and ImClone—when hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line. He is also fairly cynical, saying that he’s comfortable defending people he doesn’t believe are innocent. But after meeting the three witnesses who swore that the prosecution’s single witness was lying, he was convinced he had a case of “actual innocence” on his hands.
Jones’s retrial stretched for eight days. Again, the prosecution’s only evidence tying him to the crime was the testimony of Tawana. But her credibility crumbled as Dunne called the three new witnesses, one after another, each saying that Tawana wasn’t on her balcony when the shooting happened.
After eight days of testimony, the new jury took only two hours to come back with a verdict of not guilty.
“I am confident that I won’t be able to top this in my career, and I’ve done this for 25 years now,” says Dunne.
The audience erupted as the verdict was announced. Maria and Lonnie’s mother were crying. Jurors were crying. The court officers, among the most jaded actors in the justice system, told Jones to skip the usual required paperwork so that he could leave immediately. One even offered to find a coat for him, since it was cold out that January day.
His lawyers threw a party to celebrate that night, renting out a swank midtown bar with drinks on the house for everyone. It was quite a night. But Jones was conspicuously absent from the revelry.
“He just wanted to go to his mother’s house, sleep in a real bed, and leave town the next day,” says Maria. And that’s what the two of them did.
In 1984, New York passed the Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act, also known as “8-b.” It was radical in its time. Before 8-b, a person who was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit had no cause of action to sue for prosecutors’ mistakes. The best the wrongly convicted could hope for was that the state legislature would approve a specific budget item, to pay them back for the inconvenience of undeserved jail time. These private appropriations were few and far between, requiring pressure from voters and the press to encourage lawmakers to act.
With 8-b, New York was one of the first states to offer the wrongly convicted the chance to file a lawsuit. Today, 25 states have similar legislation, but most either cap damages or mandate a specific formula on how judges should determine the monetary award. In California, a person unjustly convicted of a crime receives $100 for each day spent in prison. Massachusetts has no formula, but limits the amount to $300,000.
New York is one of few jurisdictions in which there is no limit on the sum of money that may be awarded, and judges here specifically reject a formula to compute those damages. If a New Yorker is able to prove that he was wrongly convicted and imprisoned, a judge must award the amount of money that will “fairly and reasonably compensate him,” according to the statute.
Historically, however, 8-b claims are mostly unsuccessful, and damage awards are usually low. According to Irv Cohen, an attorney who has tried more 8-b claims than any other lawyer, establishing a claim is difficult because you have to show that you were affirmatively innocent, meaning the convicted has to prove his own innocence. Until this year, there were only 18 winning 8-b verdicts. And, as Cohen says, awards in excess of $1 million are “exceedingly rare.”
Recently, another 8-b claim was successful, winning $2.1 million, the second highest verdict in state history. That case, Baba-Ali v. The State of New York, was decided just last March, and involved a bitter ex-wife accusing a father of sodomizing his four-year-old daughter. The judge made it a point to award a higher sum because Baba-Ali’s relationship with his daughter was forever damaged by the groundless conviction, and because of the persecution he had suffered in prison after being branded a pedophile.
Lonnie Jones was able to make similar arguments in his 8-b claim. After his lawyers proved that the state should have known that its sole witness, Tawana, was lying, they were also able to show that Jones had suffered much as a result of his conviction. While he was in jail, his father and sister died of illness. He broke an ankle during transport between prisons. He developed a bleeding ulcer, thanks to his constant fear born of being “thrown to the wolves”—his description of being marked as the killer of a gang leader.
Professor Douglas Thompkins is a sociologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied gang dynamics extensively (and was himself once a member of the Chicago-based gang the Black Disciples). He says that Jones was right to continue to fear for his life though he would eventually be found not guilty on a retrial.
“[The contract on Jones’s life] has nothing to do with being found guilty or not guilty by a court of law,” Thompkins says. “This is a mandatory response. Their leader is dead, and someone has to pay.” Particularly while in Elmira—a notorious Bloods prison, where he spent only a few months before being transferred—Jones’s life was in constant danger. After the attack in the shower with the razor, guards segregated Jones from the general population because they were concerned for his safety.
So, for the purposes of an 8-b claim, Jones was undoubtedly heavily damaged by his time in the New York State correctional facilities. He got to a very dark place: “You have to understand that I was in jail for life,” he says. “For me, there was no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Two and a half years later, Jones received word that Dan Kahn had won him nearly $2 million. While Maria says he might now take some time off, Lonnie says he’s not sure what he’ll do—he already has everything he wants. But sometimes, Maria wakes up in the middle of the night to find him sitting alone in the dark, staring at nothing. He doesn’t want to socialize at all anymore.
“These Bloods guys are nuts,” says Jones, “and they’re everywhere.”