Maleek Jones hugs his mom, Denise Jones, outside federal courthouse. Laura Glesby / New Haven Independent

After nearly three decades behind bars for a now-overturned murder conviction, Maleek Jones found a first taste of freedom in a cheese pizza slice from Modern — a taste ​“better than any other pizza from the last 30 years,” he said.

He took his first steps out of incarceration on Thursday, as the state appeals a judge’s decision that he was wrongfully imprisoned for all those years.

More than a month had passed since federal Judge Janet Hall overturned Jones’ conviction for the 1992 murder of Eddie Harp, declaring Jones’ imprisonment for close to 31 years ​“unconstitutional.”

Jones has always maintained his innocence.

On Thursday, he hugged his mom for about the fifth time since he was first imprisoned the day after his son was born in 1995.

He ambled through the New Haven Green for the first time in decades, after glimpsing the iconic park through images on TV news stations over and over again.

He celebrated his release with a quick pizza party involving family and friends, before taking a trip down to North Carolina, where he’s agreed to live with his sister while still under federal supervision.

“I’m soaking it all in,” he said in disbelief.

Hours earlier, he had been sitting in an orange uniform beneath a federal courtroom’s golden chandelier, uncertain of whether he’d sleep next in a prison cell or a bedroom.

The court had convened to respond to an emergency motion from lawyers representing Jones advocating for his release. 

The presiding judge was the same Judge Hall who overturned Jones’ conviction in mid-August. She had made this decision on the basis that Jones had ineffective legal representation, and that the trial court’s decision to exclude testimony from someone to whom one of the perpetrators of the shooting confessed, led to an unconstitutional conviction.

[RELATED: New Haven courthouse protest targets wrongful convictions]

The only surviving witnesses of the shooting — bystander Sheila McCray and confessed perpetrator Tyrone Spears — both say that police pressured them to identify Jones as one of the people who shot Eddie Harp. 

Spears initially caved to this pressure and implicated Jones as one of three shooters that night, including himself, before ultimately recanting this narrative years later. (Ballistic evidence, as Judge Hall noted, did not support the notion that three people had been involved in the murder.) 

Meanwhile, McCray, who had been a friend of Harp’s, has always maintained that Jones was innocent. Despite being the only neutral witness to the crime, she was never interviewed by Jones’ lawyer or called to testify at his trial.

The state has decided to appeal Hall’s decision, meaning that Jones’ freedom is in the hands of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. That case remains pending. The state’s attorney’s office declined to comment for this story.

On Thursday, Hall released Jones from state custody and permitted him to move to North Carolina with his sister under federal supervision.

During the hearing, Hall praised the feedback she received on Jones as an employee in prison as ​“extraordinary,” noting ​“how hard a worker he is, how capable he is.” 

She observed that he had not received a disciplinary ticket since 1997. ​“To me, that speaks volumes.”

Hall additionally commended Jones’ unofficial ​“sister,” Sabrina Mack, as an ​“outstanding candidate” to live with Jones and serve as his ​“custodian,” the person who will inform the court about any violations, for the duration of his supervised release.

Jones has already secured a job as a quality assurance and quality improvement specialist at Carolina Family Alliance, a mental health services organization where Mack is the executive director. While incarcerated at Garner Correctional Institution, Jones had worked as a tutor and in other capacities with people who have mental illnesses.

“There’s not a high level of concern” that Jones would pose a ​“danger to the community or flight risk,” said Hall. Her main concern, she said, is the duration of time he has spent in prison.

Jones was 19 when New Haven police arrested him for Harp’s murder; he’s now 50 years old.

“The world has really changed,” Hall said. ​“The adjustment is extremely difficult.” 

As a result, she decided to release him under a fair degree of supervision. Per her order, he’ll have to wear a GPS device and adhere to a 9 p.m. curfew for at least 60 days, among other requirements. After two months, Hall will review reports from a North Carolina-based probation officer in order to decide whether to alter the conditions of Jones’ release.

As she announced this decision, Jones’ mother and sister wept.

“Thank God the innocent prevailed,” said his mother, Denise Jones, outside the courtroom. 

“I can’t wait to feed him some good food,” she added. ​“Imma see what he wants.”

After hours of wading through the logistics of transferring from state custody to federal supervision, Maleek Jones was finally able to leave the federal courthouse on Church Street with his family and friends.

The group walked to the Temple Street office of the Full Citizens Coalition, where the nonprofit criminal justice reform organization’s founder — Jones’ friend and advocate James Jeter — hosted a pizza party.

There, Jeter screened a short documentary about Jones, ​“FREE MALEEK,” which was directed by Wesleyan student Eliot Kimball and released this past summer. Jones had participated in the documentary by way of ten-minute phone interviews. He had not yet seen the final product.

He nodded stoically through narrations of his criminal case, but teared up at his mother’s words to the camera: ​“He’s been in there 30 years, my child has been locked up for 30 years … I want justice for my child.”

This story was first published Sept. 28, 2023 by New Haven Independent.