EJI client Lydia Diane Jones was pardoned by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles last week, 11 years after she became the first woman in Alabama to be released from Tutwiler Prison for Women after initially being sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
In 1997, Diane Jones was charged with drug trafficking after drugs were found in an apartment she had recently vacated. The drugs belonged to Ronnie Cook, who was awaiting trial on trafficking charges in federal court. Ms. Jones’s lawyers were also representing Cook, and they advised him not to testify at Ms. Jones’s trial even though his testimony would have exonerated Ms. Jones. Ms. Jones was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole for a crime she did not commit.
Ms. Jones’ harsh sentence was mandatorily imposed because of Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA). One of the most severe laws of its kind in the nation, the HFOA leaves no sentencing discretion to judges in cases where prosecutors choose to invoke earlier felony convictions. In Ms. Jones’s case, the Jefferson County District Attorney chose to invoke two 17-year-old convictions for forging checks to buy groceries. Even though Ms. Jones never spent a day in prison on those convictions, the District Attorney’s decision to invoke her prior convictions triggered a sentence of life imprisonment without parole under the HFOA’s mandatory sentencing scheme.
In July 2003, with just days remaining before she would be permanently barred from challenging her conviction, Ms. Jones reached out to the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI lawyers took her case, and in 2005, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Ms. Jones’s conviction and ordered a new trial. EJI continued to represent Ms. Jones, and ultimately the trial court dismissed the trafficking charges. She was released on August 17, 2006.
Since her release, Ms. Jones has lived with her children and her mother in Birmingham, Alabama. While working full-time and raising her family, Ms. Jones pursued her bachelor’s degree in administrative office management and obtained her degree in September 2012. EJI assisted Ms. Jones in petitioning the state for a full pardon, and on September 27, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles issued her a formal pardon. The Board’s decision, which was unanimous, restores Ms. Jones’s voting rights.