She spent nearly half her life in prison for a crime she didn’t willingly commit. Now, at 74 years old, Mary Virginia Jones was released from prison early Tuesday after serving 32 years for a murder committed by her then-boyfriend.
Jones, also known as "Mother Mary," appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court Monday and asked a judge to exchange her first-degree murder conviction without possibility of parole for a no contest plea to voluntary manslaughter with a time-served sentence.
"I did not willingly participate in this crime, but I believe that entering a no contest plea is in my best interest to get out of custody," Jones said in court.
Students from the USC Post-Conviction Justice Project challenged Jones’ 1982 conviction, claiming she would not have been convicted if the jury was allowed to hear expert testimony on the effects of "intimate partner battering."
"Courts now allow experts to testify about the effects of being battered," said Heidi Rummel of the USC Post-Conviction Justice Project.
According to a statement released by USC Gould School of Law, Jones was in an abusive relationship in 1981 with her then-boyfriend, Mose Willis.
"Mr. 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," Heidi Rummel, co-director of USC’s Post-Conviction Justice Project, said in a statement.
Willis had Jones drive a car carrying two kidnapped drug dealers to a back alley in Los Angeles. He then shot at both men as Jones ran away.
Jones ran from the alley to a friend’s house, where she hid for several days before police arrested her, according to the statement.
Willis was later convicted of shooting both men and killing one of them. One week before the crime, Willis shot at Jones' daughter and threatened to kill them if they went to the police, according to the statement.
"He pulled a gun on me and shot at me, and my mother witnessed that," said Jones' daughter, Denetra Jones-Goodie. "He threatened not only to kill me, but to kill her and anybody else that came to our aid."
Before the 1981 slaying, Jones owned a house in South LA, was a full-time teacher’s aide for LAUSD and an active member of her church.
Although only knowing each other a short time, she invited Willis, who was homeless at the time, into her home and church under the pretense that he wanted to "live a clean life," according to the statement.
It took four trials, including one reversal on appeal, to convict Jones in 1982.
“The procedural history of Mary’s case gave me a great application for the pitfalls of the justice system,” Laura Donaldson, a USC law student working on the case, said in a statement.
Jones family joined her in court Monday and awaited her release.
"She knew this day was coming, even when we doubted it, she knew this day was coming," Jones-Goodie said of her mother's release. "I'm so excited, emotions can't express the way I feel right now."
Robert Jones Jr. burst into song after his mother was ordered released from prison. Because he was convicted of a felony in 1979, he was not allowed to visit his mother in prison. He saw her for the first time in more than three decades on Monday when she appeared in court.
But the family will have to wait to see Jones outside of a courtroom until Tuesday as court officials review Jones' paperwork.
"Nobody is bitter, nobody is angry, Jones-Goodie said. "I'm just grateful at the fact that she's being released and that she's getting the chance to come home."