Fred Steese spent 21 years in prison for a murder that he did not commit. He was granted an Order of Actual Innocence in 2012, but was released from prison only upon entering an Alford plea—not admitting guilt but acknowledging that there is sufficient evidence to prove the charges. After entering the plea demanded by the prosecution out of expediency, he left prison a factually innocent man with a murder conviction on his record.
That changed in November 2017. The Nevada Board of Pardons commissioners granted Steese a full pardon, freeing him from the stain of a felony murder conviction.
Steese was convicted of the 1992 murder of Gerald Soules, Steese’s former lover and a trapeze artist who performed at Circus Circus on the Las Vegas Strip. At trial, prosecutors presented Steese’s confession to the crime, which attorney Lisa Rasmussen says was coerced and beaten out of him after he had driven three days without sleep to talk to investigators. In his defense, Steese presented numerous witnesses to establish his alibi—he was in Idaho at the time of the murder. Prosecutors argued that the person in Idaho at the time in question was Steese’s estranged brother, not him, and that the alibi was manufactured. Steese was convicted and given two life sentences.
But it turned out that prosecutors had sat on evidence that supported Steese’s alibi. Two decades after his wrongful conviction, federal public defenders discovered phone records in the prosecution’s files that proved he was in Idaho at the time of the murder. And according to Vanity Fair, prosecutors also concealed several photo lineups that pointed to Steese’s innocence. Armed with this damning information, federal public defenders went to court and obtained the first ever Order of Actual Innocence issued by Nevada’s Eighth Judicial District Court.
In keeping with the belief in prosecutorial infallibility (or never admitting error under any circumstance) held by far too many prosecutors, Assistant District Attorney Pamela Weckerly refused to honor the Order and only agreed to permit Steese’s release if he entered an Alford plea. Steese signed the plea and was released, but he had difficulty finding work or a place to live with a murder conviction on his record.
After a Vanity Fair/Pro Publica story on the many injustices visited upon Steese was published, he decided to pursue a pardon. At the hearing, Rasmussen observed that Steese’s constitutional rights had been “violated in a huge way” throughout his interaction with the criminal justice system, from the initial interrogation through his eventual release from prison. She rightfully condemned the prosecutorial misconduct in the case, describing it as “an embarrassment and a black mark on Clark County and the state of Nevada.”
The Nevada Board of Pardons commissioners had never pardoned a convicted murderer. However with the help of Rasmussen, the Vanity Fair/Pro Publica exposé, and the facts, Steese was granted a pardon by an 8-1 vote.
Justice Mark Gibbons of the Nevada Supreme Court sits on the board and voted in favor of the pardon. According to Vanity Fair, he read the entire 17-page innocence order and proclaimed that he’d never seen anything like it in his entire career. The other seven “yes” votes came from the remainder of the Nevada Supreme Court and Gov. Brian Sandoval. The lone “no” vote came from attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt.
The victim’s sister, Kathy Nasrey, abstained from political grandstanding in her comments, which supported Steese’s pardon application. She told the board that she was “simply here to right a wrong and to restore the life of Mr. Frederick Steese, knowing my brother would want this done.”
Nasrey also admitted that she felt misled by prosecutors, who had convinced her of Steese’s guilt. She noted that the real “murderer [is] free and will never be held accountable for this crime.” That is the flip side of convicting an innocent person and obstinately refusing to admit it; the real perpetrator is never caught. Finally, Nasrey asked a question that observers of prosecutorial and police misconduct have been asking for years: “Now that it [is] clear that certain lawyers and detectives helped convict an innocent man, will they be held accountable for taking away 20 years of his life?” Unfortunately, the answer is almost always “no.”
Sources: www.reviewjournal.com, www.vanityfair.com, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org, https://theappeal.org/
Originally published in Criminal Legal News on February 16, 2018.