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The Freedom Plea: How Prosecutors Deny Exonerations by Dangling the Prison Keys

Baltimore men, yet prosecutors would only let them go if they agreed to controversial plea deals.

Jesse Barnes at home with his wife, Mabel, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A childhood friend, she stood by him the entire 40 years he was in prison, and they wed after new evidence led to Barnes’ release in 2011. (Lexey Swall, special to ProPublica)

Despite new evidence undermining the convictions of at least eight men for violent crimes in both Baltimore City and County over the last two decades, none were exonerated. Instead, they left prison only after agreeing to plea deals with state prosecutors. In each case, the men took either Alford pleas, in which defendants can maintain their innocence for the record, or were given time-served arrangements. With these deals, the defendants were granted their freedom, but gave up the right to clear their names. (Two additional men took similar deals but years later were fully exonerated after more exculpatory evidence was found in the police files.)

ProPublica’s examination of these cases reveals a troubling pattern — one that legal experts say plays out across the country. Persuasive innocence claims were met with refusals by the state’s attorney’s office to reexamine the cases, sometimes despite — or perhaps because of — discoveries of official misconduct. Prosecutors often fought for years to prevent the consideration of any new evidence or the testing of old evidence for DNA. Or they accommodated contrary new facts by stretching their theories of crimes. If the DNA in a rape case, for example, didn’t match the defendant, prosecutors would assert that another unknown assailant was involved, too. When judges ordered new trials or granted writs of innocence, prosecutors started bargaining for plea deals that would maintain the convictions.

Over time, prosecutors have defended their decision to seek deals, claiming in each case that they still believed in the defendants’ guilt. They also argued that given the amount of time passed, the cases would be difficult to retry.

But Michele Nethercott, the head of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said with these cases, “often, the truth doesn’t seem to matter much.”

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