Freed after 32 years for murder; USC team calls woman ‘extraordinary’

Mary Virginia Jones, right, appears in Los Angeles County Superior Court Monday to plead no contest to voluntary manslaughter with Laura Donaldson, middle, a USC certified law student, and attorney Heidi Rummel, left, a director in USC's Post-Conviction Justice Project.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The attorney who oversaw USC law students in their efforts to free 74-year-old Mary Virginia Jones, convicted for her role in a 1981 murder, after 32 years behind bars said the the win came after a difficult road.

Jones walked out of Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood around 11 p.m. Monday after Judge William C. Ryan ordered her release earlier in the day. USC Law School’s Post-Conviction Justice Project argued that Jones’ abusive boyfriend had forced her at gunpoint to help rob and shoot two drug dealers, one of whom died.

Attorneys for the justice project argued that Jones had expected to be shot and killed, and that the subsequent trials did not take into account her history as a battered victim at the hands of Mose Willis, who was sentenced to death row. Prosecutors argued that Jones was in love with Willis and would have done anything for him.


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 plea in court Monday: “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.”

The USC justice project’s directing attorney, Heidi Rummel, said that although the case was long and difficult, it was the right outcome for an “extraordinary woman.” Rummel oversaw USC law students Laura Donaldson and Mark Fahey who managed the case.

“I’m more excited than I’ve been in a long time,” she said. “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.”

At her first trial, Jones 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.”

Elder was there waiting for Jones as she walked out of the prison to big hugs from family and friends.


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