For wrongly convicted man, healing begins
Now that authorities have charged a man for a 1985 rape that sent Joe Jones to prison, he's hoping to move on. But questions remain about prosecutors' ability to take the case to trial.
By no choice of his own, Joe Jones’ life has been intertwined with Joel Russell’s for nearly three decades.
Both went to Topeka High School. They missed each other in school by a few years, but Jones’ younger sister was at Topeka High the same time as Russell. The two lived less than a mile apart in Topeka, spent time together at Shawnee County Jail, ran across each other in prison, and it’s even possible they crossed paths on the evening of Aug. 24, 1985.
While Jones walked through downtown Topeka that night, police say Russell was lurking with a knife, looking for a victim.
• Aug. 24, 1985: A Topeka woman is kidnapped at knifepoint in front a club at 916 Kansas Ave., taken to a remote location and raped.
• Aug. 25, 1985: Two eyewitness from the crime the night before spot Joe Jones walking on Kansas Avenue, identify him as the attacker and call police. Jones is arrested and booked into Shawnee County Jail.
• Nov. 11, 1985: A Shawnee County jury finds Jones guilty of the kidnapping, rape and assault. He’s sentenced to 10 years to life.
• Dec. 7, 1985: Joel Russell, Topeka, is arrested by Topeka police and convicted of burglary, assault, robbery and kidnapping. Russell is sentenced up to 30 years in prison for crimes on Nov. 18, Dec. 1 and Dec. 7. All of the crimes involved Russell robbing or kidnapping women at knifepoint.
• March 4, 1987: Jones’ attorneys file a motion for a new trial, arguing that Russell is the real rapist. That motion is denied.
• July 16, 1990: Russell is paroled.
• Nov. 26, 1990: Jones’ attorneys file a motion to have the rape kit tested for DNA evidence. That motion is approved, and the evidence is sent to Forensic Science Associates for DNA testing.
• July/August 1992: Russell is accused of, and later convicted of, several sex crimes against minors in Reno County and sentenced to 35 years to life.
• July 17, 1992: DNA testing exonerates Jones as the rapist, the charges are dismissed and Jones is released from prison.
• 1993: Jones is given $350,000 from the Kansas Legislature for his wrongful conviction and incarceration.
• April 10, 1998: Jones is arrested in Topeka for drug possession and sentenced to one year in prison. The arrest and conviction was the first of several spanning the next decade.
• Oct. 29, 2011: A Journal-World article features Jones and his case, and also identifies DNA evidence that could still be tested.
• Oct. 30, 2011: Topeka police re-open Jones’ case, based on the Journal-World story.
• March 7, 2012: Topeka police are able to retest the DNA from the 1985 crime, and it matches a DNA profile in the national DNA databank.
• April 19, 2012: Topeka Police Chief Ronald Miller announces the DNA test identified Joel Russell as a suspect in the case. The Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office issues a warrant for Russell’s arrest for rape.
• June 2012: Russell’s earliest eligible parole date.
Instead, it’d be Jones, erroneously picked out by witnesses to the crime, who’d be convicted and spend nearly seven years in prison for kidnapping and rape before DNA evidence exonerated him in 1992.
Until recently, Jones had only a strong opinion as to who committed the crimes of which he was wrongly convicted.
Last week, the Topeka Police Department announced that retested DNA evidence identified Russell as a suspect in the rape. Russell was served an arrest warrant in prison on a single charge of rape.
“He must’ve felt, for just a minute, a little like I did … when they gave him the news,” Jones said. “But not quite.”
Between 1984 and December 1985, Joel Lee Russell went from a standout Topeka High athlete to a serial criminal, leaving a trail of victims. Science appears to have caught up with Russell, but it’s possible the legal system never will.
‘Seemed like a nice kid’
In 1983, Russell was a senior wide receiver on the Topeka High football team.
“He was a heck of an athlete,” said retired Topeka High coach Angelo Cocolis. “He was fast. He could run like heck.”
But other than that, nothing stands out, Cocolis said.
“Seemed like a nice kid,” he said. “Never knew him to be a violent kid.”
Russell was awarded a football scholarship to Dodge City Community College and played for the 1984 team. Jerry Cullen, Dodge City head coach from 1979 to 1989, remembers Russell as a “good kid.”
“He gave his very best. Worked hard,” Cullen said. “One of those kids you wanted on a team.”
Nothing in the hundreds of pages of court documents from Russell’s crimes mention any criminal behavior before his spree in downtown Topeka in fall 1985.
Russell later was convicted of various crimes related to three incidents in Topeka between Nov. 18 and Dec. 7, 1985. In all three cases, Russell used a knife to force his way into a woman’s car. All of the victims were able to fight off Russell, and none sustained major injuries. Russell pleaded guilty to several offenses from the November and December incidents, including kidnapping and assault. He was sentenced to 30 years to life, but became eligible for parole in 1990 after serving a fraction of his sentence.
Jones, meanwhile, was sitting in Shawnee County Jail awaiting trial for a kidnapping and rape that occurred on Aug. 24, 1985. In that crime, the assailant — using a knife — forced his way into a woman’s car in downtown Topeka, made her drive less than a mile away, and raped her.
The victim was kidnapped in front of Bare Essentials nightclub, 916 Kansas Ave., the same location as one of Russell’s assaults. The rape occurred on a deserted road between Washington and Chandler streets, a few blocks from where Russell lived at the time.
The similarities of the four crimes didn’t go unnoticed by Jones or his defense team. When Jones heard about Russell’s crime while in jail, he thought it’d be enough to garner his release.
Pictures of Jones and Russell from the time don’t show a strong resemblance. Both are black men. But Jones has a darker complexion and is four years older than the muscular Russell.
But in the rape case, there were the confident witnesses: the victim and her two friends — all white women — who had seen the abduction. A day after the rape, the two friends saw Jones on Kansas Avenue, identified him as the rapist and called police.
Topeka resident Ed Rotz, who was on the jury in Jones’ 1985 trial, said the eyewitness testimony was “powerful.”
“It was pretty compelling,” Rotz said.
The jury deliberation was easy and quick, Rotz remembers.
Convicted and sentenced to life in prison, Jones ran into Russell shortly after trial in a Kansas prison.
“I was sick,” Jones said of seeing Russell. “It turned my stomach.”
They never spoke, and Jones rattles off questions he’s dwelled on for years.
“It’s pretty hard to grasp that he knew someone else was doing that time,” Jones said.
Can they prosecute?
Though the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office charged Russell with rape, there remain questions about whether he could go to trial.
The statute of limitations on rape — five years — has long passed on Russell, but a 2001 Kansas law allows for an additional year to prosecute cases once DNA has identified a suspect. Under that law, prosecutors would have until early 2013 to charge Russell.
But there could be a catch, said Washburn University law professor John Francis.
The law can’t be applied retroactively in cases prior to 2001 in which the statute of limitations had already expired. Francis cited a 2007 Kansas Supreme Court case — State vs. Garcia — which resolved that issue. Because the crime occurred in 1985, the statute of limitations would have run out by 1990. However, Francis noted the law provides for “tolling,” or pausing, of the statute of limitations under several circumstances.
One such circumstance occurs when someone leaves the state. That was the case in Kansas’ only other DNA exoneration case. In that case, Eddie Lowery spent 10 years in prison for the 1981 rape of a Riley County woman, but was exonerated in 2003. The DNA profile was entered in CODIS, the national DNA databank, and produced a hit on Daniel Brewer, who had moved to New York shortly after the crimes. Brewer was successfully prosecuted last year because he hadn’t been in Kansas for more than five years during that time span.
Lee McGowan, spokesman for the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office, however, says officials in his office believe they can prosecute Russell.
“It’s something that we talked about before the case,” McGowan said.
The defense will probably fight the charges based on the expiration of the statute of limitations, and that will be something decided by the courts, McGowan said.
But even if Russell can’t be prosecuted, he could still spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Russell was paroled in 1990, but just two weeks before Jones was exonerated and released from prison in July 1992, Russell was arrested and charged with the rapes of a 13-year-old and 14-year-old in Reno County. Russell was convicted and sentenced to 35 years to life in prison.
He’s eligible for a parole hearing in June.
Though he couldn’t comment on any particular case, David Riggin, head of the Kansas Prison Review Board, said evidence of past crimes — even if someone wasn’t prosecuted — could be considered along with numerous other factors in a parole decision.
The victim in the rape case, who now lives out of state, has been in contact with the Journal-World since October. Citing concerns that it could hinder the prosecution, she declined an interview request. Instead, she wrote a letter to the Journal-World detailing the painful emotional journey she’s been through; from mistakenly identifying Joe Jones as her attacker in 1985, to recently learning the news that Russell was identified through DNA.
Very little is known about the psychological toll inflicted on victims who wrongfully identify an attacker, said Paul Cates, spokesman for the New York-based Innocence Project.
“We don’t know a whole lot about the victims,” he said. “A lot of them don’t speak to the press.”
Jennifer Thompson-Cannino misidentified her attacker in a 1984 rape in North Carolina. Thompson-Cannino said the tables turned on her once her mistaken attacker, Ronald Cotton, was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1995.
“The victim becomes the offender. That’s something that’s really tough,” said Thompson-Cannino, who eventually befriended Cotton and co-wrote the New York Times best-selling memoir “Picking Cotton.”
“I was paralyzed with the guilt and the shame and the fear,” she said. “This is what I did to another human being.”
Thompson-Cannino’s case bears several similarities to Jones’ case, as Thompson-Cannino’s cross-racial identification spurred Cotton’s conviction. Cotton also ran into Bobby Poole, a serial rapist later identified by DNA as the attacker, when the two were incarcerated in a North Carolina prison.
Thompson-Cannino said she initially feared Cotton would want to harm her for her mistake. Cotton, however, forgave Thompson-Cannino, and the reconciliation between the two led to a friendship. The two have travelled the country together speaking about the causes of wrongful convictions.
Jones said he also long ago forgave the woman who picked him as her rapist so many years ago.
It’s all part of a much larger healing process, said Jones, as he mentions the depression and anxiety that have plagued him since his conviction. Three years sober, Jones said he’s given up the life of petty crime he began after his release from prison.
He works as a handy man in Topeka and lives in a small, rent-subsidized apartment.
He’s less forgiving of Joel Russell, and said his hope is Russell gets convicted of the rape and never sees the free world.
“I would like to know that Joel got what they gave me,” Jones said. “It would be part of my healing.”
Last Christmas — in his first communication from the rape victim who wrongly identified him — Jones received a card. Inside was an apology letter.
Jones said he stared at the card, unopened, for hours. He’s read it just once.
His face lights up with a smile when asked about the letter. He fishes it from his bedroom. It begins simply with the name that the victim had for years — but no longer — associated with a violent rapist.
“Dear Joe ….”
— Reporter Shaun Hittle can be reached at 832-7173. Follow him at Twitter.com/shaunhittle.