Milton Jones has fought to prove his innocence since 1976, when a jury relied on flimsy evidence to convict him of second-degree murder in the robbery of a Roxbury bar.
He served more than 15 years in prison, won parole in 1990, and has since turned his misfortune into a force for good, working with men freshly released from prison.
Now, 70-year-old Jones is gray, standing on the precipice of his nearly half-century quest for justice. Earlier this month Judge Michael D. Ricciuti threw out Jones’ conviction largely because of problematic eyewitness testimony.
“A part of me was obviously elated,” Jones said in an interview. “And then I realized how long it’s been. You want to say, ‘I told you I didn’t do this in the first place.’”
In a ruling on Nov. 10, the judge granted Jones a new trial and noted that prosecutors have made it clear they intend to dismiss the case. Suffolk District Attorney Kevin R. Hayden did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In his push for justice, Jones worked with the Boston College Innocence Program, led by attorneys Sharon Beckman and Charlotte Whitmore.
“We are thrilled that Mr. Jones finally has the long-awaited justice that he deserves,” Whitmore said in a press release.
Beckman added that as Jones endured 45 years of injustice, he supported families recovering from trauma and loss. “With his wrongful convictions vacated, now his own healing process can begin,” Beckman said.
Since his 1990 release, Jones has lived with the fear of being sent back to prison. He has a life sentence, but has been free on parole, which for the rest of his life required him to check in regularly with a parole officer, ask permission to leave the state, pay an $80-a-month fee, agree to random alcohol and drug testing, and more.
“It’s quite demeaning,” Jones said, “to have someone come into your house and send you in your own bathroom with a cup that they brought with them.”
As Jones described being ”traumatized for so many years” during his time in prison and decades on parole, he acknowledged that his joy at the judge’s ruling was tinged with anger.
“This shouldn’t have happened,” Jones said. “Fortunately, I’m able to let that [anger] go because you can’t stay there. You gotta get in with the joy.”
The crime reaches back more than a generation. On Aug. 30, 1975, two men — one with a gun, one without a gun — burst into a Roxbury bar named the Golden Cafe and announced a robbery. They jumped behind the bar and shot and killed the owner, Albert Dunn.
Three women were in the bar during the killing, but only one — Rita McLellan — was initially able to describe the culprits. At first, McLellan told a police officer that the gunman was 5 feet 6 inches tall.
A Boston police detective then interviewed all three women together, a tactic the judge described in his ruling as problematic. Witnesses are interviewed individually because they can influence each others’ recollections. As the women talked, McLellan “changed her mind” about the height of the gunman, according to court records.
The height of the gunman mattered. Jones is over 6 feet tall — not 5 foot 6 inches.
Police arrested Jones on Sept. 23, 1975, and he immediately professed his innocence. He was the only person ever charged with the crime. There was no physical evidence tying Jones to the killing and the case against him was based entirely on witness testimony.
Almost three weeks after the crime, McLellan picked Jones out of an array of photographs, but she didn’t identify him in person until Jones was alone in court and she had been told that police had arrested one of the culprits, according to court records.
The second witness, McLellan’s daughter, didn’t identify Jones until after she saw her mother pick him out in court. The same was true for the third witness.
In his ruling vacating Jones’ conviction, Ricciuti, the judge, described the eyewitness procedures as “plainly suggestive.”
One of Jones’ attorneys noted in an interview the scientific understanding of memory and eyewitness identification has advanced tremendously over the past decades. If Jones’s jury in 1976 had access to modern research, they would have had ample reason to determine the witnesses’ testimony was not credible, the lawyer said.
In a court filing in April 2021, former Suffolk district attorney Rachael Rollins’s office argued that Jones’ conviction should be vacated because the “thin evidence at trial was exacerbated” by prosecutors’ failure to turn over material to Jones’s defense. Rollins’s office discovered grand jury testimony and other evidence that showed the witnesses heard the shooter refer to the man without the gun as “Larry,” not Milton.
Rollins’s office wrote that the “flawed and weak identifications” by the witnesses in combination with the reference to Larry, “cast real doubt on the defendant’s convictions.” During Rollins’s tenure, her administration helped unearth a number of decades-old wrongful convictions.
The final decision in Jones’s case will now rest with Hayden, who succeeded Rollins earlier this year as Suffolk district attorney. It was unclear when Hayden will take action.
After his release, Jones rebuilt his life.
For the past 15 years, he has worked as director of reentry services at the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, which works with families and communities that have lost loved ones to violence. Jones assists men coming home from prison, some of whom have committed violent crimes.
“Milt deals with them very well because he is a humble, fair, respectful person,” said Kamal Oliver, who works for Jones at the institute. “He’s able to show up and be there for guys because he’s been in their shoes.”