** Please note, some readers may find language in 27th paragraph objectionable.
RAWLINS — Nathan Earl Jones has spent more than half of his life locked behind bars.
Part of his incarceration, in fact, was occupied inside the “Old Pen,” the same Wyoming Frontier Prison on Rawlins’ north side that used to execute its prisoners by hanging them to death. The cold, medieval-looking building of beige stone and iron bar is now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. It even has a gift shop.
Jones, now 69, was 24 when he was first clanked inside that archaic institution for allegedly carrying out a heinous crime some Carbon County residents may still remember: first-degree murder.
He’d later be transferred to the new Wyoming State Penitentiary when it opened some time in the 1980s. Perhaps more notable than his long-winded stint of danger, fear and hopelessness, however, comes by way of the courts. And, because of this, Jones, who’s since been released from prison and lives in Rawlins with his wife, Carolyn, has had a tough time finding closure.
“I just want to clear my name,” Jones told the Rawlins Times late last month.
But what Jones discovered while still locked up has hindered his ultimate goal for some time.
In 1996, Jones submitted motions in Carbon and Sweetwater county district courts for the release of preliminary transcripts of his original case. What was seemingly routine turned to utter disbelief, however, as both counties failed to produce those records. Meanwhile, not one other physical item linking him to his case was found, said Jones.
“I sat 42 years in prison without finding out that the exhibits were destroyed,” Jones said. “Where’s the guns, where’s my clothes, where’s everything I had?”
In response to Jones’ motion, Carbon County wrote in a court record “that the District Court of Carbon County has no records of the preliminary hearing or trial in this matter.”
“All of the records for case number 3297 were transferred to Sweetwater County,” the court record went on to note.
Once Jones motioned in Sweetwater County, they responded with similar disconcerting news.
“All of the tapes of hearing including the Preliminary hearing are destroyed,” Sweetwater wrote in the court document. “The only hope was that a typed transcript was prepared at the time and filed in the archives.”
On July 30, 1974, Jones allegedly committed first-degree murder in connection with a shooting that left a service station attendant dead. The attendant’s name was William Johnson, who was 41 at the time of his death. A subsequent coroner’s report revealed that Johnson suffered gunshot wounds to his chin, his upper right chest and his right ear lobe.
That fateful day, according to old Rawlins Daily Times newspaper clippings, Jones was headed to a party near an undisclosed river with two other suspects, Paula Cason, 15, and Gary Richmond, 24, when they stopped at the Half Way House service station between Rawlins and Sinclair.
Richmond, who died in prison in the late 1970s, would tell authorities following his arrest that Cason had suggested they rob the place and that Jones opposed the idea. Richmond also told authorities that it was him who shot Johnson, while Jones was “behind the building the entire time.”
Carbon County Sheriff ’s deputies would later unearth during a subsequent investigation two pistols buried near the crime scene, .22 and .38 caliber; however, the guns were reportedly mishandled after confiscation.
Those pieces of evidence are currently unavailable, Jones says.
Even back then the entire case drew questions.
James Young, at the time Justice of the Peace for Carbon County, dropped the case all together. He ruled that the state had “failed to prove probable cause, which was necessary to bind the defendants over to district court for trial.”
“Probable cause has to be more than mere suspicion,” Young said during his ruling.
The only witnesses in the case were Union Pacific Railroad workers, who were nearby on the day of the shooting. They said they only heard gunshots and later Jones and Richmond “trotting and walking east.”
Outraged by the outcome, Carbon County Attorney Oscar Hall told the Rawlins Daily Times that the state would re-submit the charges, hoping they’d reverse Young’s decision. And on the very same night following Jones’ discharge, they did just that: he was recharged.
In a change of venue, Jones was found guilty by a Sweetwater County jury of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
But Jones didn’t just lay down on the tracks. Later, in 1975, he and his lawyers filed for an appeal. They argued that Sweetwater prosecution was “erred.”
Jones’ attorneys, according to reports, claimed the prosecution “failed to turn over about 92 exhibits and other information the defense had sought prior to the trial for use in its case.”
Jones’ attorneys also argued the case be sent back to district court because of “alleged suppression of evidence” and that, based on Richmond’s affidavit, Richmond acted alone when he shot Johnson.
But nothing came to fruition. Even though Jones, a black man in Wyoming, made a motion alleging for discrimination, including the dismissal, they were overruled by Carbon County District Court.
“I feel race had a lot to do with it,” Jones said. “People get prejudiced in many ways. It’s just something that happens.”
What came next for Jones was a life of incarceration and hardship, prison war stories unsurprising when conjuring a lifetime behind bars.
“I’ve seen some wild shit,” Jones said recently.
Jones witnessed rape unfold before his eyes. As a janitor, he had fended off bacterial outbreak. And, some years before he was released in 2016, he fell victim to sexual assault at the hands of a WSP correctional officer, a story covered in February by the Rocket Miner of Rock Springs.
Now, Jones, who was originally born in Bryant, Tex. and attended school at Rawlins High School, still seeks to find out why he was incarcerated for so long without any evidence backing his stay.
He says, along with his wife, Carolyn, he’s an activist. He’s currently writing a book about what he believes is something that needs to be changed.
“The mechanism needs fixed,” he said. “It’s not the people – it’s the mechanism.”
To this day, testimonial transcripts are supposedly in court archives, while nothing else has been produced.
“Just give me the exhibits,” Jones said. “That’s all.”