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Man Declared “Factually Innocent” of Murder is Granted a Full Pardon

The pardon vote removes any “residual stain” on his record.

A Nevada man who spent 21 years in prison has been pardoned over the objections of Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson.

Fred Steese was convicted in 1995 of the 1992 murder of Gerard Soules, a former trapeze artist who performed a poodle act at the Circus Circus Casino in Las Vegas. Steese, who had briefly been Soules’ assistant and lover, was in Idaho when the murder occurred. But prosecutors argued his look-alike brother was actually in Idaho while Fred Steese killed Soules in Las Vegas.

Steese and his brother, Robert, had been estranged for years and prosecutors never brought Robert Steese into the courtroom or showed jurors a picture of him. Nonetheless, after deliberating for two days, the jury convicted Steese.

The two prosecutors who secured the conviction against Steese are now judges.

In 2012, federal public defenders filed motions to throw out the convictions after discovering evidence in the prosecutors’ files that Steese hadn’t been in Nevada during the days before the crime. They also found proof in those files that Robert Steese had been in Texas at the time of the murder, making it impossible for him to have impersonated his brother in Idaho.

That evidence was never handed over to the defense before the original trial. It led a judge to declare Steese “factually innocent,” by ordering the first ever “Order of Actual Innocence” in Clark County.

“Given everything additional that we now know,” Judge Elissa Cadish noted in her ruling, “I am finding that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt with that evidence.”

But the Clark County District Attorney’s Office continued to insist Steese was guilty and charged him with Soules’ murder again. This led to what Vanity Fair has called “an arcane plea deal,” known as an “Alford plea,” whereby Steese pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to the time he’d already served, while continuing to maintain his innocence. By accepting this deal, Steece remained a convicted felon, and prosecutors did not have to concede they had erred in prosecuting an innocent man. Steece also lost the right to sue the state for wrongful conviction.

“Fred Steese’s case exposed the rot in the system that robbed him of two decades of his life,” wrote Megan Rose in an earlier Vanity Fair story. “Yet even then prosecutors worked to keep it hidden, forcing him into an almost incomprehensible choice: risk freedom to fight for an uncertain exoneration that might take years, or cop to a crime he didn’t commit and walk away.”

Fortunately, Steese’s time as a convicted felon ended earlier this month when the Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners granted him a full pardon. The Pardon Commission is composed of the seven members of the Nevada Supreme Court, Governor Brian Sandoval and Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Sandoval and all seven members of the Supreme Court voted in favor of the pardon.“Let there be no residual stain on his record,” Nevada Supreme Court Justice Lidia Stiglich stated in supporting the pardon.

Laxalt’s was the sole vote against the pardon. He insisted he did so because the district attorney, Steve Wolfson, believed the pardon to be “absolutely unwarranted.”

Kathy Nasrey, Soules’ sister, told Commissioners at the hearing that she believed Steese was innocent, and deserved to be pardoned. “I am simply here to right a wrong and to restore the life of Mr. Frederick Steese, knowing my brother would want this done.”

Nasrey told Commissioners she had long believed Steese to be guilty and had even written an angry letter after learning that Judge Cadish ruled him “factually innocent.” But, over time, she decided that prosecutors had misled her and that Steese had not committed the murder. She also admitted to struggling with the knowledge that her brother’s actual killer was likely free and would never be held responsible.

Although no one has now officially been found to be responsible for Soules’ death, the Clark County District Attorney’s Office says it considers the murder of Gerald Soules to be a closed case.

Steese struggled to find work after he was released from prison because he had a criminal record, and was homeless for a time. He was eventually hired as a truck driver by a company willing to employ convicted felons.

“I’m a new man now,” Steese said in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal after the pardon was made official. “It’s lifted a black cloud over me.”