Man freed after 17 years in prison when lookalike raises doubts in case

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Richard Jones enjoyed his first weekend of freedom after nearly 17 years behind bars.

Jones always maintained his innocence when police in Kansas City, Kansas, linked him to a 1999 robbery.

Now he has his life back thanks to his faith and the tireless work of wrongful conviction advocates.

Jones' father, Fred, couldn't believe it when he got the news his boy was free.

"She said, 'They let him go' and I said, 'Nuh-uh.' She said, 'Yeah, they let him go. He'll be out first thing in the morning,'" Fred Jones said.

According to independent studies, between 2 percent and 5 percent of inmates in the U.S. are innocent. The Midwest Innocence Project says it takes seven to 10 years to exonerate an innocent prisoner.

"I didn't know what he looked like anymore because he was so young when he went there. I didn't know what he looked like," Fred Jones said.

But nearly 20 years ago, a robbery victim and an eyewitness apparently did know what he looked like.

In court, there was no DNA, no fingerprints, no physical evidence, just testimony. But it was enough to get a conviction and a sentence of 19 years.

"It's not something you wrap your mind around. It's surreal. It's hard to believe you're actually going through it," Richard Jones said.

Maybe harder to believe are a set of inmate pictures.

Another man -- also named Richard -- went to prison, and because of his uncanny resemblance to Jones, the Midwest Innocence Project began to surmise that Jones had been mistaken for him.

Two different men remarkably similar in appearance, they even share the same first name.

It was all part of key evidence brought forward by the Midwest Innocence Project and presented to a judge who ordered Jones' release.

"It doesn't get the type of attention that it should get because it's purely injustice," Richard Jones said. "And that's not right. We're supposed to be able to depend on our justice system."

With no support from courts, Jones said he had to find it somewhere else.

"Believing in God, praying that kept me just that kept me strong," Richard Jones said. "I had my days but it was pretty much just praying."

Jones said his family also kept him going.

"You know, having a support system, that's the only way I got through it," he said.

His support system was in full effect this weekend: Dad, brothers, sister and friends hanging out, basking in his newfound freedom.

"This actually brought our family closer together, you know, but that's what family does in times of tragedy and things of that nature: they come together," Richard Jones said.

"I think he's going to take this, the negative, and turn it into something positive. I think he will," Fred Jones said.

"Everything that happened, there's nothing I can do to change it," Richard Jones said. "I move forward and I look forward to the future and what's going on with me now and I just feel like this is giving me a platform to speak for people who can't speak for themselves."

While most states have laws that compensate wrongful conviction victims, Kansas does not.

A bill introduced this year would have changed that. The bill aimed to compensate people $80,000 for each year in prison. In Jones' case, that would come to $1.36 million.

But the bill wasn't touched after going to a committee in February, according to online Senate records. Without a law like that, Kansas exonerees can still seek compensation through civil lawsuits.

In the meantime, a GoFundMe page has been set up to help Jones get a solid financial footing for his new life on the outside.