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Law students help overturn 32-year murder conviction for woman who was domestically abused

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A woman who spent half her life behind bars has been freed from a jail in Los Angeles, after law students successfully argued that her abusive boyfriend forced her to participate in a 1981 kidnapping and murder.

Mary Virginia Jones, 74, walked free from Century Regional Detention Facility in Los Angeles this week, after her conviction was downgraded from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.

In a case of Erin Brockovich-style legal campaigning, students from the University of San Diego (USD) School of Law used a domestic battery law that was introduced since Jones was originally convicted to highlight the abuse she suffered at the hands of boyfriend Mose Willis.

"Courts now allow experts to testify about the effects of being battered," USD law professor Heidi Rummel, of the college's Post-Conviction Justice Project, told reporters. "How that affects your mind, how that affects your decision-making process, what the experience of fear is like."

Mary Virginia Jones was 41 years old when she was convicted of murder

With help from USD law students Laura Donaldson and Mark Fahey, Rummel acted as the Justice Project's directing prosecutor in successfully challenging Jones' murder verdict.

The court heard that prior to the 1981 incident, Jones was an upstanding member of the community who worked as a teacher's aide and had no prior convictions.

She met Willis, a man who had been convicted of manslaughter, possession of a firearm and evading arrest, when she was 41 years old and their relationship was volatile from the outset. Once, after an argument, he shot at Jones and her daughter and threatened to kill both of them if they talked to authorities.

Mary embraces her former cellmate Patricia Elder after being freed

On the night of the murder, Jones' attorneys said she came home from work when Willis demanded to use her tax refund check to buy cocaine for resale. Two dealers were invited over and Willis ordered everyone at gunpoint into a car. When they arrived at an alley, Jones heard a gunshot when her back was turned. She heard another shot as she ran away. She stayed with a friend until her arrest.

The USD lawyers argued that Jones' boyfriend had forced her at gunpoint to take part in the crime and that her subsequent trial did not take into account the fact that she was a victim of domestic violence.

Willis was convicted for his part in the crime and died on Death Row in 1988. Jones faced four different trials (one in which the jury failed to reach a verdict) and had an initial count of robbery changed to first-degree murder in 1987.

Spurred on by the recent work of the Justice Project, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office conducted its own independent investigation of the case that led to an agreement to dismiss Jones' previous convictions. In the latest ruling, she was sentenced to 11 years in jail for involuntary manslaughter - a time she has served almost three times over.

Mary's daughter Denitra speaks to reporters outside court

In emotional scenes on Monday evening, Jones was greeted by tearful relatives and jubilant members of her campaign group.

"We've got a lot of mother days to catch up on," said her daughter Denitra Jones-Goodie, 53. "We've got a lot of Christmas days to catch up on."

"I'm glad to finally have a grandmother in my life," added Denitra's own daughter. "I missed her."

"It's exciting to see her finally vindicated," said Jones' former cellmate Patricia Elder, 55, who served 11 years and was released in 2001. "She had a light that just shined."

Jones herself simply said, "Words cannot express my gratitude to God and to my fellow man."

Watch the story of how Jones was freed in the USD video below:

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: YouTube

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