74-year-old woman freed after serving 32 years for murder she did not commit

A 74-year-old woman who served 32 years for a murder she did not commit was released from jail early Tuesday after students from USC's law school convinced the district attorney to reopen her case.

On Monday, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge agreed to exchange Mary Virginia Jones' first-degree murder conviction without possibility of parole for a no contest plea to voluntary manslaughter with a time-served sentence.

“Words cannot express my gratitude to God and to my fellow man,” Jones said after her release from Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood.

Jones and the students argued that her abusive boyfriend, Mose Willis, forced her to participate in the 1981 murder.

Willis was convicted of kidnapping, robbing and shooting two men — killing one — in Los Angeles. Jones, who drove the men to an alley where the crime was committed, fled the scene. It took four trials, including a reversal on appeal and two hung juries, to convict Jones.

"I did not willingly participate in this crime," Jones said in court Monday. "But I believe that entering a no contest plea is in my best interest to get out of custody."

Jones' daughter, Denetra Jones-Goodie, testified that before the 1981 slaying, Willis "threatened not only to kill me, but to kill her and anybody else that came to our aid. He pulled a gun on me and shot at me, and my mother witnessed that."

The law students argued that Jones, known as "Mother Mary," would not have been convicted if the jury had heard expert testimony about the abuse she suffered.

"Courts now allow experts to testify about the effects of being battered," Heidi Rummel, co-director of USC’s Post-Conviction Justice Project, said in a statement. "Willis forced Jones at gunpoint to participate in the robbery and kidnapping — she ran down the alley fully expecting him to shoot and kill her, too."

The students, members of USC’s Post-Conviction Justice Project, asked the DA's office to conduct an independent investigation into Jones' 1982 conviction. On Monday, the office accepted Jones' plea.

“My mother never wavered on her belief of her innocence," Jones-Goodie said.

Driven in part by advances in forensics, a growing number of wrongful convictions have been overturned in the United States.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there were a record 87 in 2013.

Of the 1,337 exonerations tracked by the registry since 1989, nearly half — 619 — were wrongful homicide convictions.