Close Close Comment Creative Commons Donate Email Add Email Facebook Instagram Facebook Messenger Mobile Nav Menu Podcast Print RSS Search Secure Twitter WhatsApp YouTube

Video: This Obscure Plea Deal Offers Freedom to the Wrongfully Convicted at a Huge Cost

A confounding case in Baltimore shows just how far prosecutors will go to keep a win on the books — even at the expense of an innocent man.

In 1987, police detectives — who’d later be made famous by David Simon, creator of “The Wire” — used flimsy evidence to pin a burglary, rape and murder case on James Thompson and James Owens. They were both sentenced to life in prison. Then, 20 years later, DNA evidence cleared them of the rape and unraveled the state’s theory of the crime. But instead of exonerating the two men, prosecutors pushed them to plead guilty to the crime in exchange for immediate freedom.

What prosecutors offered was a controversial deal called an Alford plea. This little-known plea allows defendants to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty. Prosecutors pressure wrongly convicted defendants to take it by threatening to retry them, which could take months or even years. For the two Jameses, who’d already spent decades behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit, taking the plea meant they could walk out free men. But, in the eyes of the law, they’d still be convicted murderers. The plea had another catch — it would prevent them from suing for wrongful imprisonment. For prosecutors, such deals keep wins on the books and let them avoid admitting any wrongdoing. But the deals also keep the cases closed, and the real culprits forgotten.

Last year, ProPublica investigated prosecutors’ use of Alford pleas and similar deals in cases of wrongful convictions and found they often cover up official misconduct. Finding these stories is especially difficult. No one tracks how often the wrongly convicted take Alford pleas. In Baltimore City and Baltimore County alone, we’ve found 10 cases since 1998 in which defendants with viable innocence claims ended up agreeing to a plea or a similar time-served deal. Watch the story of the two Jameses to see what happened after the Alford plea was offered in their cases.

This piece makes up the fifth installment in Vox’s collaboration with ProPublica. You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. Subscribe and stay tuned for more from our partnership.

Protect Independent Journalism

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that produces nonpartisan, evidence-based journalism to expose injustice, corruption and wrongdoing. We were founded ten years ago to fill a growing hole in journalism: newsrooms were (and still are) shrinking, and legacy funding models failing. Deep-dive reporting like ours is slow and expensive, and investigative journalism is a luxury in many newsrooms today — but it remains as critical as ever to democracy and our civic life. A decade (and five Pulitzer Prizes) later, ProPublica has built the largest investigative newsroom in the country. Our work has spurred reform through legislation, at the voting booth, and inside our nation’s most important institutions.

This story you’ve just finished was funded by our readers and we hope it inspires you to make a gift to ProPublica so that we can publish more investigations like this one that holds people in power to account and produces real change.

Your donation will help us ensure that we can continue this critical work. From the Trump Administration, criminal justice, health care, immigration and so much more, we are busier than ever covering stories you won’t see anywhere else. Make your gift of any amount today and join the tens of thousands of ProPublicans across the country, standing up for the power of independent journalism to produce real, lasting change. Thank you.

Donate Now

Ranjani Chakraborty

Ranjani Chakraborty is a Vox-ProPublica video fellow.

Portrait of Megan Rose

Megan Rose

Megan Rose is a reporter at ProPublica covering criminal justice.

Latest Stories from ProPublica

Current site Current page