Darrell Jones was released 18 months ago after serving 32 years of a life sentence in prison. His murder conviction was vacated after WGBH News partner the New England Center for Investigative Reporting looked into his case, but the Plymouth County District Attorney has moved to try the case again.
NECIR reporter Jenifer McKim and WGBH All Things Considered anchor Barbara Howard spoke with Jones about the case.
This transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Barbara Howard: The judge ruled that the jury selection will be starting for this new trial for you, Darrell. When did you get wind of the fact that you’d be going back to court?
Darrell Jones: Maybe about the last month and a half or more, really, getting the idea that we’re going to move forward with this.
Howard: This must have come as a shock to you, having to go back to court.
Jones: It is and it’s not. I mean, it’s not a shock to me because I understand the system because I was in there for 32 years. And so I have a clear understanding of what justice is supposed to be, and the injustice in my case.
Howard: Well, for those who are unfamiliar with your case, you, Darrell Jones, were 18 years old, living in Boston, but arrested in Brockton in 1985 by the police for a murder outside of a bar. Ultimately, you were convicted of first-degree murder and given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. And it was while you were serving that you met Jenifer McKim from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. She did exhaustive reporting on your case. A juror came forward after all those years, saying that she recalled a racist comment from one of the other jurors. That prompted the judge to bring the jurors back to question them. Many of them said they just couldn’t remember after all these years had passed. Based on that and other issues that were raised in [Jenifer’s] reporting, the case was thrown out, and you were a free man.
So Jenifer, this seems like double jeopardy, I thought you couldn’t be tried twice for the same crime.
Jenifer McKim: Darrell’s case was vacated, so it’s like he’s back at the beginning, and the prosecutor gets to decide to retry the case. So that’s why we’re here at this point.
Howard: Bringing it back after all these years sounds like it’s going to be complicated.
McKim: It’s very challenging for the prosecutor at this time to bring this case back more than 30 years after the original case was tried. We have witnesses who say they don’t remember. There have been several decisions in the court that will not allow the prosecutor to bring certain things into the case, including one of the key investigators whose testimony is not being allowed because of alleged conflicts of interest. There was a tampered videotape that was key to the original conviction that has also been thrown out because of problems with the tape. So there are a lot of challenges to the case coming up.
Howard: But it seems the prosecution team wouldn’t be bringing it up again if they didn’t think they could make a case.
Jones: That I disagree with. It’s not because they can make a case, because if they could make a case, then you don’t make an offer, right?
Howard: So when you say make an offer, [you mean] they’ve offered you a plea bargain?
Howard: They did that the first time. What was the first plea bargain, 30 years ago?
Jones: It was six to eight years. I would have done four back then.
Howard: And you didn’t take the plea bargain?
Jones: No, I wouldn’t take it. No.
Howard: Now take me back to when you got released. You were 18 when you went to prison. How old were you when you got out?
Jones: I was 51.
Howard: So much had changed in the world. Do you remember your first impressions when you first were freed?
Jones: For me, I just could see the sun better. I don’t know if that makes sense, but there’s a different sight of seeing the sun then surrounded by a wall, and you’re not seeing the trees and everything associated with it. I was able to see what the real world was.
Howard: What have you been doing since you were released 18 months ago?
Jones: I like to associate it with living. Just seeing little kids smile and laugh, being able to get near babies, and say hello to say somebody. Having a neighbor who knocks on your door and says, “How you doing?” Just peace. I’ve been enjoying peace.
Howard: Now you’re facing trial again and your life as you’ve known it the past 18 months could disappear if you’re convicted. I understand you were offered a plea bargain this second time around, for this trial that’s coming up. What were you offered?
Jones: It was two offers at the same time. One of them was just time served, period. You know, that was it. And then recently, it was manslaughter.
Howard: So you’d have to plead guilty to manslaughter and you’d be free with time served?
Jones: I’d be free out right now.
Howard: So you’re rejecting the plea bargain?
Jones: Yeah, I’ve rejected it. I made sure the judge understood I’m not doing that.
Howard: You’ve maintained your innocence all along.
Jones: What else can I maintain? That’s all I got. It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen by me. I wasn’t in the vicinity. I didn’t see it happen. I didn’t know the individual. I didn’t know anything about it.
Howard: Many people behind bars say those very words. Are you scared of going back to trial?
Jones: No. If I was scared, I would have probably been more scared when I was younger. What I am is bothered by it, upset by it, confused by it, and a little bit hurt by it. Because I just don’t understand it. I don’t fear prison. What I fear is the idea of lack of justice.
Howard: Of course I have to ask if you have anything to say to the family of the man who was killed, the basis of your case that put you in prison for those 32 years, Guillermo Rodriguez. He is dead. Do you have anything to say to his family?
Jones: Well, I would just say to them that I’m sorry for both of us because neither one of us is seeing justice.
Howard: So Jenifer, it sounds as though the initial case was pretty corrupted. Why does Plymouth want to bring this up?
McKim: I can’t answer that question and they’re not really talking to the media. They believe that Darrell is still guilty of this crime, as far as one would tell.
If you look at a case like his, there are so many areas that sort of show how there were problems with the case back from the beginning. I think his defense attorney only met with him for a couple hours, if I remember correctly, a few times. He was suspended soon after. The fact that he had an all-white jury. There was no physical evidence. There was no motive. There was not one person in court who looked at him and identified him as the murderer. There was just sort of step after step that when you peel apart this case, it shows that he did not have a fair trial.
Jones: Can I just say that the idea that they “believe” that I’m guilty is contradicted by them themselves. When you believe in what you’re doing, it’s at all costs, all sacrifice, like what I’m doing. You don’t come and say, “Hey murderer, I’ll let you go today, you can go free. Now just take this manslaughter.” Sometimes, you’ve got to put yourself on that line of sacrifice in order to get some kind of change. And I hope, out of everything, it will help some students that are going to be lawyers, going to be prosecutors, have something to look at and say, “I don’t want to be doing that to nobody.”
WGBH News reached out to the Plymouth County District Attorney’s office for comment. We did not receive a response.