SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Mark Jones says he and two of his Army buddies were out for an impromptu bachelor party when Savannah police arrested them in a drive-by slaying that would land them behind bars for more than 25 years. Now prosecutors are dropping the case for good, sparing the men from a new trial after Georgia’s top court threw out their convictions.
“We spent the better part of three decades in prison for something we didn’t do,” Jones told The Associated Press on Thursday from his home in Port Aransas, Texas. “We’re finally completely free.”
Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap said she won’t seek a new trial against Jones, Kenneth Gardiner and Dominic Lucci for the Jan. 31, 1992, slaying of Stanley Jackson.
The three men were released from prison in December after the Georgia Supreme Court threw out their murder convictions, saying in a unanimous ruling that prosecutors improperly withheld a police report that would have helped their defense.
“Based on the age of the case, witnesses no longer being available and other issues, it just could not be retried,” Heap said Thursday.
The three soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Stewart were in their early 20s when they were convicted in the slaying of Stanley Jackson. Prosecutors said the crime was racially motivated. The defendants were white, while Jackson was black.
The men endured “25 and a half years of being in hell” while imprisoned, said Jim McCloskey, founder of Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey nonprofit which works to free innocent people and took up their case in 2009.
“I will say this until the day I die — there’s no doubt in my mind that these three men had absolutely nothing to do with this crime,” McCloskey said.
The three Army buddies spent the evening of the 1992 slaying at a wedding rehearsal dinner for Jones and his fiancee, who planned to marry the next day. They headed to nearby Savannah for a bachelor party around 9:30 p.m. that night.
Dawn Barnett, Jones’ then-fiancée, told the AP previously that she recalled a half-joking warning as they headed off: “Don’t you dare call me and tell me you’re in jail at 3 in the morning because of drunkenness.”
Around 10 p.m. that night, Jackson was gunned down while standing on a street corner in a high-crime part of Savannah. The three soldiers were arrested a short time later.
No physical evidence tied them to the shooting, and their lawyers called the evidence against them extremely weak. After leaving the rehearsal, there was no way they could have made it to the scene of the killing at the time it happened, one of their attorneys, Peter Camiel, has said.
An eyewitness, James White, later admitted that he hadn’t gotten a good look at the shooters and was pressured to identify the soldiers at trial.
In November, the Georgia Supreme Court found that prosecutors failed to give the defense a police report describing an incident several hours after the men were arrested. A witness said white men with military style haircuts and semi-automatic weapons drove through a public housing project threatening “to shoot blacks who hung out on street corners.”
Heap said her chief assistant prosecutor reviewed the case “with a fine tooth comb” before deciding against a new trial.
“You didn’t realize how big a weight was sitting on your chest,” Jones said from Texas. “Now that it’s over, it’s like I can breathe.”
Martin reported from Atlanta.