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The Breakthrough: A Reporter Finds a Man Proven Innocent, But Still Guilty in Eyes of the Law

ProPublica’s Megan Rose tells the story of a Las Vegas circus performer, a drifter and an ambitious prosecutor tangled in a case of wrongful conviction.

Fred Steese and his lawyer in the Las Vegas courtroom where he was tried for first-degree murder in 1995. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun)

For five days, ProPublica reporter Megan Rose hunkered down in a very small, very hot conference room in Las Vegas, surrounded by boxes brimming with legal records. She took notes and scanned documents one page at a time. The grind of investigative reporting, personified.

But in those pages lay a big payoff: a story of murder, misadventure and injustice.

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Rose had come searching for details about the remarkable case of Fred Steese, a drifter wrongfully convicted of killing a circus performer in 1992. It took nearly 20 years for Steese to get out of prison, even though prosecutors had evidence showing he wasn’t guilty, and that he was likely in another state when the murder happened.

In October 2012, a judge declared Steese innocent. But Steese wound up pleading guilty nonetheless through something called the Alford plea, an increasingly common, perplexing arrangement where a defendant maintains his innocence, but accepts the status of a convicted felon, and forfeits the right to sue.

Rose put it all together in “Kafka in Vegas,” which ran in the May 2017 issue of Vanity Fair.

“If you had been a TV writer, somebody — your producer, director — would be like, ‘This is too outlandish. You have to tone it down,’” Rose said, recalling the records from Steese’s original trial.

On today’s episode of The Breakthrough, she tells us all about it: how she first met Steese in the parking lot of a rundown Vegas apartment complex, how she persuaded veteran prosecutors to talk to her about a high-profile, highly sensitive case, and, of course, what it was like to be in that conference room.

“God, there was just so much,” Rose said. “It’s hard to express just how many pieces of paper that I was going through.”

Tune into The Breakthrough, the podcast from ProPublica where investigative reporters reveal how they nailed their biggest stories.

Have an idea for an episode? Email us your suggestions at [email protected].

Listen to this podcast on iTunesSoundCloud or Stitcher.

The music for this podcast is from Blue Dot Sessions and Dana Boulé.

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