The litany of stories of police, prosecutors, and even judges sentencing people to long terms in prison despite being innocent continues to grow. ProPublica reposts one such person Fred Steese who has just been awarded $1.4 million from the state of Nevada for wrongfully convicting him of murder. After having a court rule that he was actually innocent, he was released in 2012 after serving 17 years, with the state just letting him go without even an apology.
There are two features of this story that make it different from the rest. One is that Steese is white, though he shares with other wrongfully convicted people that he was poor, a drifter with little education who had grown up in foster care. The other difference is that in most such cases, prosecutors and police are so determined to get a conviction that they do not investigate cases carefully, using weak evidence in order to force the victim to accept a plea deal. In this case, the prosecutors’ files actually had evidence that Steese had been in another state at the time of the crime but did not reveal it. In other words, they sentenced a man who was innocent to a long term in prison, either through appalling negligence or deliberately hiding exculpatory evidence.
The atrocity does not end there. After a judge ruled in 2012, based on the release of that evidence, that Steese was innocent and should be released, the prosecutors still tried to distort justice.
But like the first time around, the Clark County District Attorney’s Office once again refused to concede it had the wrong man. Prosecutors vowed to retry him.
Then they made Steese a Faustian proposition: He could have his freedom, Assistant District Attorney Pamela Weckerly told him, as long as he agreed to plead guilty. She offered Steese an unusual deal called an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to assert his innocence on the record while still accepting a conviction. Steese, fearful of additional incarceration after being wrongfully convicted once, agreed.
He obtained his freedom but remained, legally, a convicted killer. Steese had trouble getting work. The Clark County District Attorney’s Office, meanwhile, didn’t have to admit it made a mistake and the murder case stayed closed. The tactic is increasingly being used by prosecutors across the country to quietly dispose of cases in which the defendant is likely innocent.
You would think that people who could commit such a horrible act would be severely punished. But no.
The men who prosecuted Steese in 1995, Bill Kephart and Douglas Herndon, went on to become judges. Herndon now serves on the state’s Supreme Court alongside Elissa Cadish, who granted Steese his order of actual innocence when she was a district judge. Herndon testified against Steese at his post-conviction hearing in 2011, not accepting the evidence of his innocence.
But after his college-aged daughter became one of the architects of the legislation to compensate exonerees, Herndon had a change of heart. He testified through tears in support of the legislation at a hearing in 2019 and accepted responsibility. “I think that informs me everyday that I do my job currently about the failings that can occur through our justice system,” Herndon said at the hearing, noting that it weighed heavily on him. (Herndon told his daughter at the time that “errors were made and those were bad. But please believe me, I’m not a horrible person.”) Kephart, who lost his reelection to the district court last year, has maintained he did nothing wrong.
Ah, the ever-popular ‘errors were made’ passive formulation, not identifying who made the errors and why. Sorry Herndon, whatever you may say to your daughter, anyone who could consign a person to lengthy prison terms without weighing the evidence most carefully, is a bad person.
The lesson is that if you are poor and powerless in America, the (in)justice system can do anything they want to you and get away with it.