USC law students helped gain early release of LA woman convicted of murder

Mary Virginia Jones
Mary Virginia Jones
Courtesy of USC

Local law students aided in the early release of a battered woman who had been sentenced to life in prison for a first-degree murder conviction in 1982.

Mary Virginia Jones, 74, was charged in a 1981 murder committed by her former lover and abuser, Mose Willis. 

Laura Donaldson and Mark Fahey, law students in USC’s Post-Conviction Justice Project, challenged the conviction with a habeas petition. They argued that the outcome of the 1982 case would have been different had a jury heard expert testimony on the effects of intimate partner battering.

“I picked up a lot of work my previous colleagues had done,” said Donaldson, who's  currently in her second year of law school. “Ms. Jones was sentenced before the law change, so she never had the benefit of having expert testimony on the effects of battering and how that affects decision making and state of mind.”

The Justice Project worked with California Institution for Women and a number of inmates in advocating for new trials for domestic abuse survivors accused of violent crimes. Their efforts ultimately resulted in a law that allows courts to rehear cases with expert testimony.
“If you were convicted prior to the time that courts recognized and admitted testimony and expertise about the experience of battering, you could go back to court,” said Heidi Rummel, a law professor at USC and co-director of the Justice Project.

Following an independent investigation by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, Jones’s convictions were set aside in exchange for a no contest plea to voluntary manslaughter and a time-served sentence.  

Jones had been driving a car under pressure from her then-boyfriend, Mose Willis, according to a statement:  

“Willis kidnapped two drug dealers and ordered Jones at gunpoint to drive a car to a back alley in Los Angeles. Willis shot both men as Jones ran from the scene. She hid from Willis at a friend's house and was arrested a few days later,” according to a press release sent out by University Southern California Gould School of Law.

The case was tried four times until a jury ultimately convicted her of first-degree murder. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Jones is expected to be released Tuesday.

“It sounds like an extraordinary case, but there are many other women behind her and, of course, still in prison under similar circumstances” Rummel said. “We wouldn’t want them to be forgotten.”