A television campaign ad for District Attorney Steve Wolfson asserts that Wolfson’s “conviction integrity unit freed” a wrongfully convicted man.
DeMarlo Berry, who served 22 years for a murder he did not commit, is the first and only person to be exonerated via Wolfson’s Conviction Integrity Unit, created in 2016.
“My goal in creating the CRU was to provide a way for certain cases to be reviewed independently and evaluated on a variety of factors, including new evidence,” Wolfson said in a 2016 news release.
But new evidence wasn’t enough to win over Wolfson when it came to Fred Steese.
The new evidence in that case, buried in files and never turned over to Steese’s defense attorney, impugns the integrity of two former prosecutors who are now Clark County judges, William Kephart and Doug Herndon.
This week Wolfson told The Nevada Independent of Steese “I do believe he’s guilty, yes,” he said. “He pled guilty.”
Attorney Lisa Rasmussen represented Steese before the Nevada Pardons Board this year.
“Steve Wolfson forced a man who he knew was innocent to plead guilty to second degree murder to avoid civil liability on the part of the state,” says Rasmussen. “Judge Elissa Cadish wrote an order finding Steese innocent. The evidence revealed Steese wasn’t even here the day of the murder. He was in Idaho.”
“Wolfson threatened to keep Steese in prison another three years while he appealed the judge’s ruling. Wolfson said if Steese wanted to get out he had to take an Alford plea and admit to second degree murder,” Rasmussen says.
After 22 years in prison, Steese opted for the Alford plea, a twisted legal maneuver requiring defendants to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.
Entering an Alford plea prevented Steese from suing the state for wrongful prosecution and imprisonment and from possibly collecting a judgment in excess of a million dollars.
“The D.A. knew that,” says Rasmussen.
Rasmussen says unlike Steese’s case, Berry’s case lacked evidence of prosecutor misconduct, and “was not conducive to a lawsuit.”
Thirty-two states have compensation plans for the wrongfully convicted. Nevada is not one of them. In California, a wrongfully imprisoned defendant is entitled to $140 for every day incarcerated.
Attorney General Adam Laxalt relied on a letter from Wolfson in voting against Steese’s pardon this year. The Pardons Board consists of the governor, the attorney general and the state Supreme Court justices. All voted to pardon Steese, with the exception of Laxalt, who initially tried to abstain, then voted no.