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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.

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.”

Ditching the Bondsman is Only Part of the Battle for Bail Reform

The five states that have done away with commercial bond outlets still struggle with inequity when it comes to cash bail.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Ditching the Bondsman is Only Part of the Battle for Bail Reform

The five states that have done away with commercial bond outlets still struggle with inequity when it comes to cash bail.

Of the criminal justice system’s many characters, the bounty hunter is perhaps the most cartoonish. Tasked with chasing down and capturing those who don’t — or can’t — pay back their debt to commercial bail outfits, this Old West relic has spawned multiple popular TV series. It’s easy to see why commercial bail and bounty hunters are emblematic of the ills of the cash bail system, which have increasingly come under fire from those pushing for criminal justice reform.

While financial incentives questionably drive many parts of the criminal justice system, the perversity of profiting from incarceration is laid bare in the bond industry, in which people who haven’t yet been charged with a crime pay a nonrefundable fee for their freedom. Five states in the U.S. have done away with commercial bail bonding, either by statute or by changing the way courts collect cash bail: Illinois, Oregon, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin. Getting rid of for-profit bail shops may be an important step toward amending the many facets of the bail system that work against the low-income people who are most likely to be locked up. But organizers in states without commercial bonds are struggling with many of the same issues as those in states where the practice is still legal.

“What we have is a court system that is itself profiting off of the bail program, which creates a perverse incentive for the government,” says Sharlyn Grace, co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which pays bond for those in Cook County jail who are unable to bail themselves out.

While Illinois made bounty hunting illegal in 1963, Grace says “deposit bonds” paid to the court to bail someone out of jail still echo the commercial system. For example, if a judge sets bail at $100,000, a defendant must pay 10 percent to the court to get out of jail. Of that ten percent, the court clerk keeps $1,000 whether or not the person shows up for their court hearing. In states where they are allowed to operate, bail bondsmen do the same thing.

“There’s no large insurance companies in the background making profits, but the fact is that the court is deriving part of its budget from collecting money from people pretrial, and people are forced to pay or sit in jail,” Grace tells In Justice Today.

In February, an Illinois lawmaker introduced legislation that would do away with cash bail for any person charged with a nonviolent offense. The proposal, which ultimately failed, faced significant pushback from county court clerks, according to Grace. They argued that the courts relied on the funds from deposit bonds to function. “[Getting rid of commercial bonds] doesn’t eliminate the fact that someone’s collecting money, and those entities may protect their interests,” says Grace.

In Wisconsin, Nino Rodriguez, an organizer with Free The 350 Bail Fund, struggles with many of the same issues faced by bail fund organizers in states that still have commercial bail. In states that have abolished for-profit bail bonding, Rodriguez says that “bail amounts tend to be lower … but that doesn’t mean they’re affordable.”

Rodriguez and his fellow organizers estimate that 1 out of every 5 people in Dane County Jail are there only because of unpaid money bail. (Nationally, three out of every five people in jail are there because of their inability to pay their way out.) Though the fund has only existed since August 2017 and has bailed out 3 people, Rodriguez has already witnessed firsthand the challenges facing those who are unable to pay their bail. Judges and commissioners who assign bail are mandated by Wisconsin state statute to consider a range of factors, including a defendant’s ability to pay. Rodriguez and his collaborators have recently begun court-watching to see if the process is unfolding as it should during a defendant’s initial appearance in court.

“I don’t recall seeing a serious inquiry [by the court] into ability to pay,” says Rodriguez.

Dane County’s justice system is also a stark example of the racial disparities found in local jails throughout the country — particularly when it comes to who winds up sitting in jail because they are unable to pay their bail. A 2015 study found that black Madison residents were over 10 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts, even though they make up just 7 percent of the city’s population.

Amanda Liepold, a member of the Madison, Wisconsin National Lawyers Guild chapter who works with Free The 350 Bail Fund, echoed Rodriguez on this point. “Don’t assume that simply because you’re going to abolish bail bondsmen that your bail programs are now going to be just and free of bias and disparity,” she says as a word of warning to states that might consider following Wisconsin’s path.

Recently, Clatsop County, Oregon District Attorney Josh Marquis boasted on Twitter that his state was the first in the country “to abolish cash bail.” Marquis inaccurately conflated the elimination of commercial bond companies with doing away entirely with the state’s cash bail system — two vastly different reforms. While the bald profiteering of bail outlets makes them an obvious target for the reform movement, what’s happening on the ground in states like Wisconsin and Illinois illustrate that eliminating commercial bond is only a partial fix. (Of the states without commercial bail, Oregon appears to be the only one without a community bail fund movement.)

“There are still definitely injustices in the system even though we don’t have bondsmen [in Wisconsin],” says Liepold. “There are still folks sitting in jail who shouldn’t be.”

Thanks to Burke Butler.

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Louisiana Man Ordered Released From Jail After Waiting Almost Eight Years For Trial

Case called an “embarrassment to criminal justice system.”

Orleans Criminal District Court

Louisiana Man Ordered Released From Jail After Waiting Almost Eight Years For Trial

Case called an “embarrassment to criminal justice system.”

Kevin Smith of New Orleans had been locked up for almost eight years on a non-violent drug charge awaiting trial. District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier finally ordered his release earlier this month after an appellate court ruled in June that his right to a speedy trial had been violated. According to The New Orleans Advocate, Smith spent more time in jail — 2,832 days — for a non-violent offense without being tried than any other individual in New Orleans.

“I think it’s an embarrassment to the criminal justice system,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. MCC has been critical in the past of the length of time it takes for individuals accused of crimes to come to trial.

According to Matt Sledge of The New Orleans Advocate, all involved officials are denying responsibility for the delay. “No one can guarantee it won’t happen again.”

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro agreed that Smith shouldn’t have been locked up this long without being tried, but he deflected blame away from his office. Rather, Cannizzaro criticized Smith and his defense lawyers for repeatedly attempting to delay a trial.

“How do I feel about it? Why didn’t the case go to trial? Well, because the defendant did a masterful job of continuing the case over and over again,” Cannizzaro insisted.

But defense attorney Martin Regan rejected Cannizzaro’s argument, countering that the prosecutors were responsible for the delays. “They knew they could not convict him, so the matter drug (sic) on and on and on. Mr. Cannizzaro, do not blame the defense for this.”

Smith was arrested by state police and federal officers in February 2010 after crack cocaine was found in a safe in his home. He was charged with one count of felony possession with intent to distribute. Smith had previously been convicted of drug offenses and was on parole at the time of his arrest. He faced up to 20 years in prison as a habitual offender.

Bail was set at $50,000, more than Smith could afford, so he was confined until trial.

Smith’s trial date was scheduled and postponed numerous times. It was originally set to begin in August 2011. During jury selection prosecutors claimed to discover new evidence. The original charge was then dropped and refiled, giving prosecutors another two years to take Smith to trial.

One year later, in August 2012, the day before Smith’s trial had been rescheduled to start, Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans. Prosecutors then evoked a law passed after Hurricane Katrina to argue for another two years to bring Smith to trial.

The case was reassigned in November 2012 to a new judge. It seemed to drop away entirely until a judge took the case in May 2013.

Smith’s lawyers raised questions about his mental state in 2014, and requested that he receive a mental competency determination. After Smith was judged to be sane, he filed a motion to proceed to trial, but his own lawyers requested another delay. During this time, prosecutors offered him a 10-year plea deal, which Smith rejected.

Smith filed another motion on his own behalf in December 2016, arguing that his right to a speedy trial had been violated. His lawyers supported his motion. Flemings-Davillier rejected the motion in April 2017, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal overruled the district judge in June. The Louisiana Supreme Court declined to consider the case, and Flemings-Davillier finally agreed to order Smith’s release on November 13.

According to a search of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office jail database, Smith was no longer locked up on Thursday, Nov. 16.

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