When evidence of a convicted person’s actual innocence comes forward, we imagine that prosecutors immediately ask a judge to void the conviction and release the defendant. We imagine the judge apologizing on behalf of the state. Later, depending on the circumstances, the defendant might be compensated for the time they spent imprisoned unjustly.
The reality is often quite different. According to a recent report by Reporter Megan Rose, the nonprofit investigative journalism outfit ProPublica, prosecutors across the country are working to keep such convictions intact. This occurs even when — or perhaps especially when — there is evidence that police or prosecutorial misconduct led to a wrongful conviction.
Take the case of Fred Steese. He was convicted of murder in Nevada and spent two decades behind bars. Then, evidence that he was innocent was found in the prosecution’s files. Prosecutors are required by law to turn over all exonerating evidence to the defense, but they had not done so. The evidence? Steese had been hundreds of miles away on the day the murder reportedly took place.
Although there was clear reasonable doubt in his case, the prosecutor didn’t apologize and let the wrongfully convicted man go free. Instead, they offered him the chance to get out of prison immediately if he would accept an “Alford” or no-contest plea. Otherwise, the prosecutor said they would retry the case and Steese would risk another conviction.
The result is extremely troubling in cases where a wrongful conviction seems to have occurred. Both offers leave the underlying conviction intact, leaving someone who may be entirely innocent with a serious felony conviction on their record.
That conviction means losing the right to vote or own firearms. It affects what jobs you can get and what housing will be available. It prevents them from claiming compensation for their wrongful conviction. It changes virtually everything in the defendant’s life.
According to ProPublica, many prosecutors insist they offer these deals because they are sure the defendant is actually guilty. They realize that retrying the case would be difficult after so much time has passed, and often enough, newly discovered evidence provides reasonable doubt. The subtext is that they know they could not obtain a new conviction.
Ethically, prosecutors should not be prosecuting people when there is clearly reasonable doubt — and certainly not to avoid questions about police or prosecution misconduct. Yet judges usually endorse these pleas in order to let the innocent defendants go free immediately.
There appears to be a conflict of interest in letting the same prosecution office that wrongfully convicted the defendant in the first instance decide the fate of their innocence claim. States should consider having a third party, such as an independent miscarriage of justice commission, decide what should be done in each case.