Series: Ignoring Innocence
The Wrongfully Convicted Forced Into Plea Deals
For the first time, Fred Steese walked into a Las Vegas courtroom on Monday without reason for trepidation. He was there to be awarded nearly $1.4 million by the state of Nevada for wrongfully convicting him of murder.
“It’s a gigantic day,” Steese said in an interview afterward, noting how odd it felt after decades in which bad things happened to him in courtrooms.
In 2017, in an article titled “Kafka in Vegas,” ProPublica and Vanity Fair investigated Steese’s case and the serial misconduct of the prosecutors who withheld evidence that proved his alibi. The article described how, even after Steese was proven innocent 17 years after his conviction, the Clark County District Attorney’s Office fought his exoneration.
In all, Steese spent more than two decades behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit.
On Monday, the 57-year-old Steese stood, wearing a Las Vegas Raiders facemask and a light blue button-down shirt, as District Judge Jasmin Lilly-Spells approved the state’s payment to him.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Steese told the judge.
Steese is being paid under a new Nevada law that compensates exonerees for each year spent wrongfully imprisoned. Those who served more years receive higher annual payments. Since Steese served nearly 18 years from the time of his conviction to his release, he qualifies for $75,000 for each year, a total of $1.35 million. (The law doesn’t count jail time before trial.) The state will also pay for his health insurance premiums, a monthly housing stipend equal to the national average mortgage cost, which is currently $1,147, and financial counseling.
Lilly-Spells also granted him a certificate of innocence and sealed his records.
Steese’s lawyer, Lisa Rasmussen, negotiated the settlement with the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, which could have fought in court to prevent his payout but agreed he met the qualifications under the law. Part of the documentation for his petition to be compensated included the investigation by ProPublica and Vanity Fair.
After Steese was released from prison in 2012 without so much as an apology, much less any resources, Rasmussen took up his case pro bono. She worked for eight years to get him compensated. More than just a legal advocate, Rasmussen was the person Steese leaned on for almost everything. When he ended up on the streets, he washed his face and hands in her office bathroom. She gave him money and connected him to people in the community.
Under the Nevada law, Rasmussen will be paid $23,000 by the state to cover the fees associated with filing his compensation petition. It’s the first time she has been paid for her work on Steese’s case.
The state’s seven-figure payout caps a nearly three decade odyssey through the legal system for Steese. A poorly educated drifter who had grown up in foster care, Steese was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to two life terms for the murder of Gerard Soules, a casino performer with a costumed poodle act. At the time of the murder, however, Steese was in Idaho, as documents showed.
The proof of Steese’s whereabouts during the murder turned out to be in the prosecution’s files at the time. But only later did federal public defenders take up Steese’s case, discover the proof and dismantle the prosecution’s case. In 2012, a Nevada 8th Judicial District Court judge issued a rare order of actual innocence. 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.
In 2018, Steese was granted an unconditional pardon on the basis of innocence.
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.
For Steese, the compensation, which he will likely receive in a few months, means a stability he has never had. Rasmussen set up a financial literacy program and adviser to help Steese manage his now sizable estate.
He plans to buy a house, perhaps with a swimming pool, and keep working. In his pocket he carries business cards for his handyman and maintenance company, always ready to give one out. He plans to focus more on overseeing his team than doing the work himself.
“In my office I have on my walls my immediate goals, my six-month goals and my one-year goals,” Steese said. “I feel great.”