10 Innocent People Who Were Executed, Part Seven: Leo Jones

Leo Jones

Executed 1998

On May 23, 1981 in Jacksonville, FL, police officer Thomas Szafranski killed when shots were fired at his police cruiser when he was stopped at an intersection.
Within minutes, police officers busted into Leo Jones’ apartment where they found Jones and his cousin, Bobby Hammonds. Police took both men in for questioning and then charged Jones, who they claimed had confessed.
How the investigation led the police to Jones and Hammond is unclear. With little evidence to go on the police seemed extremely fortunate to find Jones so quickly and that he was so willing to confess to killing a police officer. The irony that this seemed to neat and easy for police, that this was a slam dunk case, never seemed to occur to anyone, much less the prosecutors.
The confession was essential. The reason Jones immediately confessed was never made clear in court. It came out only years after the trial, when people felt safe to speak freely.

This is the seventh installment in the Innocents Executed series from HistoryDojo. Please check out the previous installment here, or start the series at the beginning here.

Hammonds gave a statement, saying he saw Jones leave the apartment with a rifle and return after he heard some gunshots. Why Jones left the apartment with the gun and would fire the shots was not important, it seems. The statement, along with the confession by Jones that he fired the gun corroborated the police investigation and arrest of Jones. So neat and clear cut, this was a case that had no other possibilities.
In 1997, a retired police officer, Cleveland Smith, came forward and said the officer that arrested Jones had bragged that he beat Jones after his arrest. Smith, who described the officer as an “enforcer”, testified that he once watched him get a confession from a suspect through torture.
Smith claimed that he waited so long to come forward with this evidence because he wanted to secure his pension. This is telling of the police culture that enforces a code of silence around police brutality. It is a cancer upon the otherwise honorable police that serve and protect their communities. Fear of not making it to retirement, not being supported by other police, or being left off promotion lists keep police from doing the right thing when it comes to upholding decency.
In the Chicago Tribune, reporter Steve Mills investigated the possibility of police misconduct. He found evidence that the confession was gained through coercion, a fact that should have exonerated Jones immediately.
Mills wrote,

At the same time, a Tribune reinvestigation of Jones’ case has uncovered new evidence that corroborates Jones’ longstanding claim that his confession was coerced after Jacksonville police beat him.

In an interview with the Tribune, the lead detective on the case said he saw another officer attack Jones while he was in custody and had to pull him off Jones. The detective’s admission contradicts his testimony at trial and in later court hearings.

The assistant state attorney who prosecuted the case said in an interview that he suspects that police, angry over the murder of a colleague, physically abused Jones–though he insists Jones was guilty.

“To me, the most disturbing point of the case has always been his confession and the events leading up to his confession,” said Ralph N. Greene III, now an attorney in private practice. “That series of facts always bothered me as a prosecutor.” [1]

More than a dozen people had implicated another man as the killer, saying they either saw him carrying a rifle as he ran from the crime scene or heard him brag he had shot the officer.

Even Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw wrote that Jones’ case had become “a horse of a different color”. Newly discovered evidence, Shaw wrote, “casts serious doubt on Jones’ guilt.”

If you love history, HistoryDojo recommends this excellent title. Give a copy to your favorite history buff this holiday.

Don’t forget to subscribe to HistoryDojo! Sign up below!

Shaw and one other judge voted to grant Jones a new trial.
Steve Mills explained why the new trial was not allowed, as the appeals process is quite different from the initial trial stage of the criminal justice system.

In the U.S. system of criminal justice, appellate courts are reluctant to second-guess jury verdicts and usually defer to rulings by trial judges that involve issues of fact. After all, juries and trial judges observe the demeanor of witnesses and are seen as best positioned to judge their credibility.

Recantations, where witnesses disavow earlier testimony for a new version of the truth, are by law viewed skeptically.

New witnesses are viewed with distrust if they have waited years, or even decades, to come forward, rather than offering their account immediately after a crime.

Rules also have been written to bring finality to appeals–in essence, to balance the demands for fairness with a need for efficiency. Deadlines are in place to keep the justice system manageable and to prevent defendants from appealing indefinitely, although they also can hinder defendants who make legitimate, but untimely, claims.

These circumstances make it difficult for a prisoner trying to prove he was wrongfully convicted. [2]

Jones could not receive a fair trial, because of police misconduct that was not revealed until later.

At that later moment, the fact that the police were sending a guilty man to die was not something that the system was designed to address.

With the guilty verdict, Jones was considered someone for whom “guilty before proven innocent” did not apply. He had already been found guilty; the burden of proof was satisfied. Now it was on Jones to show he was not-guilty.
The issue of newly discovered exculpatory evidence has led the Supreme Court to issue guidance on how to apply these circumstances to death row cases. Conservative judges tend to discount new evidence more than liberal judges, making the system work for police and prosecutor and not as originally intended.
The original design of the judicial system was that “it is better that one hundred guilty men go free, than for one innocent many to be convicted.” Today the opposite it true. More likely we will see one hundred innocent men be convicted before one guilty man goes free.
Again, Mills writes,

Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that the trial was the “paramount event” in a case and the “presumption of innocence disappears” once a defendant has been convicted in a fair trial. [3]

While the conservatives on the Court supported without question the police, their decision carried a larger, more ominous message. It signaled a green light to law enforcement everywhere to violate protections against self incrimination and then cover it up. The Court telegraphed a licence to ignore the law if you carry a badge and a gun.
The dissent of Justice Harry blackmun was even more interesting. He wrote,

“Just as an execution without adequate safeguards is unacceptable, so too is an execution when the condemned prisoner can prove that he is innocent…

The execution of a person who can show that he is innocent comes perilously close to simple murder.”

The ideal of the United States is that freedom and independence are sacrosanct. Unfortunately, over time, the protections of individuals from police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct have been eroded in favor of police supremacy and unquestionable judgement.
This has led to abuse that all lovers of freedom and democracy need to acknowledge and address.
Unfortunately it is too late for Leo Jones. He is gone and we are all Leo Jones, now.
Jones was executed by electric chair on March 24, 1998.


Author: Tyler Rust