Exonerated, but still not free
Summary of a Lawrence Journal-World investigation into an old rape case:
• Based primarily on eyewitness testimony, Joe Jones was convicted of kidnapping and raping a woman in Topeka in 1985.
• In 1992, with the help of a lawyer at Kansas University, Jones was exonerated by DNA evidence in one of the first DNA exoneration cases in the country.
• No one else was ever arrested for the crime, though Jones’ defense team had a suspect they believe was the real rapist.
• The scientist who tested the DNA in 1992 said his office may still have some testable DNA evidence that could potentially produce a match in the national DNA database.
• The Topeka Police Department Cold Case Unit has started an investigation into the case.
The Topeka Police Cold Case Unit has started an investigation into whether DNA evidence from 1992 — stored in a cooler in California — might be able to solve a decades-old rape case, said Sgt. Rich Volle, head of the Cold Case Unit.
A Lawrence Journal-World investigation identified the existence of the DNA as part of a special feature on the case of Topeka resident Joe Jones, who was released from a Kansas prison in 1992 after DNA evidence exonerated him of a 1985 rape.
No one else was ever arrested for the crime, in which the victim was kidnapped at knifepoint in downtown Topeka. Jones’ conviction was based primarily on the eyewitness testimony of the victim and two other witnesses.
Volle, who said he had not previously known about Jones’ case, said his agency couldn’t locate any evidence in the case.
But Ed Blake, the scientist who originally tested the DNA and testified at Jones’ 1992 release hearing, said his DNA testing firm — Forensic Science Associates — has leftover material that could still possibly be tested using today’s technology.
Using early DNA technology, Blake initially performed what is known as a test of exclusion on the DNA in Jones’ case. While it showed Jones couldn’t have been the rapist, the testing wouldn’t have been able to positively identify the real rapist. But with today’s advanced testing, finding a match could be possible using the national DNA database, Blake said.
The DNA remnants have been sitting frozen in a cooler for the past 19 years, since authorities never requested it from his lab, Blake said.
Kevin Brewer, DNA technical leader at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Criminalistics Laboratory, said that it’s certainly possible for such DNA evidence — despite the time lapse — to yield useful results. The key is temperature, Brewer said, as heat can degrade DNA over the years. But with advance testing methods, his office has had success testing DNA from the 1980s that was stored at room temperature.
“If this stuff has been stored in a freezer, even better,” Brewer said.
Calls to the detective assigned to the case were not returned, and Volle said there wasn’t any other information to release on the investigation yet.
Why police had never followed up on the case until recently, or attempted to retest the DNA evidence, is unclear.
Janis McDonald, director of the Cold Case Initiative at Syracuse University, said police action in solving cold cases is often dependent on pressure from victims or their families.
But in Jones’ case, there wasn’t pressure from the victim, who told the Journal-World that she still believes Jones attacked her.
“There’s nothing in the system that keeps reminding people” about cold cases, McDonald said. “The system has a flaw in it when there’s no one fighting for it.”
And Jones’ case is probably not unique, McDonald said. “I’m fairly certain that there’s hundreds of other cases” like his, she said.
Jones, who struggled with drug addiction following his release from prison, said an arrest and conviction of the real perpetrator would help bring him some closure in the case.
“Definitely, it would for me,” said Jones, who’s spent the past decade in and out prison for a variety of nonviolent crimes. “I’m focusing on it.”