What Does an Innocent Man Have to Do to Go Free? Plead Guilty.
This is Part 4 of a 4-part series on the wrongful conviction of James Owens, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1988 for a murder he didn’t commit. A case out of Baltimore — in which two men were convicted of the same murder and cleared by DNA 20 years later — shows how far prosecutors will go to preserve a conviction.
Mercer worked to make it the best deal he could. If Thompson took the plea, it meant the state would let him go, but the deal had some risky strings attached. Any charge that carried a life sentence had to come off the table, because in Maryland, a probation violation — even something as relatively minor as a DUI — sends the defendant back to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence. The two sides agreed to second-degree murder, which carries a maximum of 30 years. That way if Thompson violated probation, he’d only have seven and a half years over his head, since he had served more than 22.
Gregg Bernstein, Baltimore City state’s attorney from 2011 to 2015, oversaw at least two similar deals. He couldn’t remember the details but said he’d thought a lot about whether it was okay for an innocent man to take an Alford plea. In the end, he said, most cases lack black-and-white certainty, regardless of evidence suggesting innocence. “It’s not that simple to say yay or nay,” he said. “Pleas are a way to resolve them.”
Former prosecutor Vignarajah, though, told me he wonders if that kind of resolution only looks like a win for everyone on paper. “In reality everyone lost,” he said. “The victim sees no justice. The defendant is walking away with a conviction. And the prosecution didn’t get anyone to take responsibility [for the crime].”
On July 29, 2010, when Thompson left prison under the Alford plea, Holback got the last word: Thompson “is in no way exonerated.”
Since their releases, Thompson and Owens have led dramatically different lives.
Thompson thought he could go back to the person he was almost 23 years earlier, before the murder rap, but society didn’t look at him that way. When he applied for a job, he put a question mark where the form asked if he’d been convicted of a felony.
“I tried to explain I was wrongfully convicted, but people don’t want to hear that,” Thompson said. “There’s no reasoning with somebody. ‘Innocent people do not go to prison’ is just the motto.”
Thompson held onto his freedom for only a little over a year. In October 2011 he was arrested after his ex-girlfriend claimed that he had molested her young daughter. Thompson, who’d recently kicked the girlfriend out of his apartment, denied the charge, saying he’d spanked the girl’s bare butt to discipline her. The state reduced the charges to a misdemeanor for touching the girl’s buttocks and gave him time served for the five months he’d been in jail.
It didn’t end there, though. Because the misdemeanor violated his probation attached to his Alford plea, Thompson went from a local jail to a state prison to serve the remaining seven and a half years.
Mercer said he believes the Alford plea made it very difficult for Thompson to defend himself. “It was a question of credibility,” Mercer said. “Who’s going to believe him? He was stuck having to do damage control.”
Owens has fared better. He has been embraced by what little family he had. He has moved into a cousin’s house and has begun working with him cleaning gutters and doing landscaping. And he has grown close to his nieces and nephews, a bittersweet feeling for someone who’d had no chance to build a family of his own. Owens told me he has tried not to let the anger sink him, but he struggles. His exoneration came without compensation or even an apology. “What’s striking in these cases is a total lack of accountability,” said Michele Nethercott, of the Innocence Project in Baltimore. “Nothing ever really happens” to the police and prosecutors whose actions led to wrongful convictions.
Owens wonders today if his prosecution became all about keeping the win. “Instead of focusing on me and getting me to take a deal for something I didn’t do, they need to focus on the victim. Her murder has never been solved,” he said. “I think they should go back and look and do something for this girl.”
In 2011, Owens found a lawyer, Charles Curlett, to sue Baltimore. Curlett determined that there were several issues of misconduct involved in Owens’ conviction. First, his lawyer had been told nothing of the changing stories Thompson gave the detectives. The information could have been used to undermine Thompson’s credibility and failing to share it was likely a violation of Owens’ due-process rights. Such failures are known as Brady violations, after a 1963 Supreme Court case in which the justices determined that withholding favorable information from the defense is unconstitutional. Also, one of the jailhouse snitches who testified that Owens had confessed had been a police informant for years and said he recruited the other snitch. This, too, wasn’t revealed to the defense, nor were the informant’s letters asking for favors in exchange for his testimony.
Brady violations had become so prevalent in Baltimore’s courts that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently admonished the city’s prosecutors to remember their legal obligations: “Only this practice ensures the fair trial that our justice system aspires to provide” and makes it so “no one has to worry after the fact whether the jury convicted the wrong person.”
The city furiously fought Owens. Dodging such suits, many defense lawyers contend, is part of what drives these plea offers. “If not expressly that, it’s implicit in a lot of decisions made in this setting,” said Michael Imbroscio, an attorney who had a client in Baltimore City take a time-served deal. The city won dismissal of Owens’ suit against the state’s attorney’s office and Brave, who the court ruled had immunity, and the Baltimore Police Department. But the case is going to trial in federal court, likely early next year, against detectives Pellegrini, Landsman and Dunnigan as individuals. There’s millions in compensation at stake for Owens and a public airing of misdeeds for the city.
Civil litigation is “so important,” Mercer said. “Often, that’s the only time there’s scrutiny into what wrongs were done.”
The type of misconduct alleged in Owens’ case is echoed in nine more of the 14 exonerations out of Baltimore City and County since 2002, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The 2014 exoneration of Sabein Burgess, for example, came after it emerged that Baltimore detectives never revealed a key detail to the defense: that a young witness had told them he saw the murder suspect and it wasn’t Burgess. The detectives even submitted a report falsely stating that the witness had been asleep during the crime. Like Owens, Burgess is suing, claiming that detectives “cut corners and rushed to judgment.” His trial is set for this fall and names a different group of detectives.
Misconduct can also be found in the cases of some of the remaining exonerated defendants who, like Thompson, aren’t officially considered exonerated at all but who were released under Alford pleas or time-served deals after questions were raised about their initial convictions. Curlett is representing one such man, Wendell Griffin, who was convicted of murder in Baltimore in 1982. Decades later, it came to light that three detectives — two also featured in Simon’s book and a third who is Landsman’s brother — had buried photo lineups and witness statements pointing to Griffin’s innocence. He was let out on a time-served deal in 2012.
The detectives named in the Owens and Burgess lawsuits have denied allegations of misconduct. Michael Marshall, who represents the detectives in Owens’ and Griffin’s suits, declined to comment, referring questions to the chief of legal affairs for the Baltimore City Police Department, who didn’t return several calls.
Thompson, whose parents died while he was in prison, has been abandoned by the rest of his family. He was released early for good behavior in February after serving a little more than five of his remaining seven and a half years, and as much as he blames himself for his mistakes, he now thinks his plea was a “bum deal.” He wishes there was a way to prove to his loved ones that “although I served 30 years … I didn’t commit the crime.”
The strain of the Alford plea proved too much for one of Baltimore’s wrongly convicted. Chris Conover left prison under the plea in 2003 after DNA called into question his murder conviction in Baltimore County. On the outside, he suffered from severe panic attacks and depression, but his wife told the local newspaper that he couldn’t face in-patient treatment, which meant being back behind locked doors. His petition for a pardon from Maryland’s governor was turned down in 2012. Three years later, Conover killed himself.
“Having been convicted really defines who you are — it becomes itself a prison,” Mercer said. “Once out, with a conviction still on your shoulders, having maintained your innocence in a Alford plea is of little comfort and of very little practical benefit.”