She spent three decades in prison as the outside world moved on.
Her children aged. Grandchildren were born. Friends passed away.
Mary Virginia Jones, who was serving life without parole for murder, did not despair. She told visitors not to cry. An ordained minister, she preached to dozens every week at the interfaith chapel. She directed Bible services, led hymns and was sought out by those who asked for spiritual guidance. They called her “Mother Mary.”
On Monday, she walked into a Los Angeles courtroom in a blue jumpsuit, her hands shackled behind her, her gray hair pulled into a taut bun. The 74-year-old calmly sat down and smiled at her attorneys.
Behind her were four rows of people — some former prisoners — under strict instructions not to speak or interact with Jones. For her son Robert, who was not allowed to visit the California Institution for Women because of a felony record, it was the first time he had seen his mother in 30 years.
They collectively held their breath until Judge William C. Ryan ordered Jones to be released.
“Ahh, thank you, Jesus! Hallelujah!” shouted one woman who began to sob as others clapped.
USC Law School’s Post-Conviction Justice Project has argued over the last several years that Jones’ abusive boyfriend had forced her at gunpoint to help rob and shoot two drug dealers, one of whom died.
Jones expected to be shot and killed and the subsequent trials did not take into account her history as a battered victim, said the justice project’s directing attorney, Heidi Rummel.
Rummel oversaw USC law students Laura Donaldson and Mark Fahey who managed the case. Spurred by their work, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office conducted an independent investigation that led to an agreement to dismiss Jones’ previous convictions. She would have to plead no contest to involuntary manslaughter, but would serve no more time or be on probation.
Jones, using a magnifying glass to help her see, read her response in court: “I did not willingly participate in this crime, but I believe entering a no contest plea is in my best interest to get out of custody.”
Rummel said the win came after a difficult road. “I’m more excited than I’ve been in a long time. We worked so hard on it and Mary’s such an extraordinary woman. We got a reasonable D.A. who was willing to do the right thing.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Hyman Sisman said he would not comment on the investigation except to say “justice was done.”
Jones was 41 when she was introduced to Mose Willis, a man who had been convicted of manslaughter, possession of a firearm and evading arrest, according to court documents.
By then, she had already endured physically and emotionally abusive relationships with men, as well as with her mother and father. When she was young, she was raped by a stranger and bore a son. Later, her 4-year-old daughter was killed when she was nearly decapitated by a drunk driver.
Her relationship with Willis was turbulent. Within a month of meeting through a friend, he moved into the home she owned in South Los Angeles. Once, after an argument, he shot at Jones and her daughter and threatened to kill both of them if they talked to authorities.
On April 3, 1981, Jones’ attorneys said, she came home from her job as an L.A. Unified teacher’s aide to find that Willis wanted to use her tax refund check to buy cocaine for resale. Two men were invited over and Willis ordered everyone at gunpoint into a car. When they arrived at an alley, Jones heard a gunshot when her back was turned. She heard another shot as she ran away. She stayed with a friend until her arrest.
Prosecutors argued that Jones was in love with Willis and would have done anything for him. At her first trial, she was convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping to commit robbery and robbery. The convictions were overturned on appeal.
The jury deadlocked on all counts at the second trial.
The jury for the third trial convicted her only on the two counts of robbery. She was sentenced to 15 years to life.
But the state wanted to retry her yet again. In 1987, Jones was convicted on the remaining first-degree murder count. Willis would die the next year on death row.
Jones soon emerged as a leader and voice of hope for the incarcerated.
“She showed us how to walk the walk with God and be faithful,” said Patricia Elder, 55, who served 11 1/2 years and was released in 2001. “She had a light that just shined.”
Denitra Jones-Goodie, 53, said her mother always believed that some day she would be released. “She’s got strength on top of strength,” she said.
A teenager when her mother was arrested, Jones-Goodie became interested in the law and studied criminal justice at Cal State L.A. She went on to get her master’s degree in public policy and still thinks about becoming an attorney.
On Monday, however, Jones-Goodie said her only dream for the day was to bring her mother to her Long Beach home and cook her a dinner of oxtail.
She grew anxious as Jones’ release was delayed, possibly until the next day. “I’ve waited 32 years for my mother’s release. I guess I can wait a little more,” she said.