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When the Only Way to Go Free is to Plead Guilty

A Baltimore case shows just how far prosecutors will go to keep a win on the books.


In 1987, police detectives — who’d later be made famous by David Simon, creator of The Wire — used flimsy evidence to pin a burglary, rape, and murder case on James Thompson and James Owens. Both men were both sentenced to life in prison. Then 20 years later, DNA evidence cleared each of them of the rape and unraveled the state’s theory of the crime. But instead of exonerating the two men, prosecutors dangled the prison keys, pushing them to plead guilty to the crime in exchange for immediate freedom.

What prosecutors offered was a controversial deal called an Alford plea. This little-known plea allows defendants to maintain their innocence despite pleading guilty. Prosecutors can pressure wrongly convicted defendants to take it by threatening to retry them, which could take months or even years. For Thompson and Owens, who’d already spent decades behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit, taking the plea meant they could walk out free men. But in the eyes of the law, they’d still be convicted murderers and unable to sue for wrongful imprisonment. For the prosecutors, the Alford plea keeps wins on the book and lets them skate by without admitting any wrongdoing. The deals also keep the cases closed, with the real culprits forgotten.

Last year, ProPublica investigated prosecutors’ use of Alford pleas and similar deals in cases of wrongful convictions and found they often cover up official misconduct. Uncovering these stories is especially difficult. No one tracks how often the wrongly convicted take an Alford plea. In Baltimore City and Baltimore County alone, they’ve found 10 cases since 1998 in which defendants with viable claims of innocence ended up agreeing to a plea or a similar time-served deal. Check out the story of the two Jameses above to see what happened after the Alford plea was offered in their cases.

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