The Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners granted a full pardon on Wednesday to a man who spent 21 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, delivering a clear rebuke to the Las Vegas prosecutors who had refused to recognize his innocence.
“Let there be no residual stain on his record,” Nevada Supreme Court Justice Lidia Stiglich said, announcing her motion in support of the pardon, which was joined by her six fellow justices and the governor. The state’s attorney general, who is running for governor, voted against.
The case of Fred Steese, and the serial misconduct of the prosecutors who pursued him, was the subject of a lengthy investigation by ProPublica and Vanity Fair published in May.
“Day one I told everybody I was innocent,” Steese, now 54, told the pardons board during the hearing in state Supreme Court in Carson City. “No one would listen to me.”
Steese, a young, poorly educated drifter, was arrested in 1992 for the grisly murder of Gerard Soules, a Las Vegas performer with a costumed poodle act at the Circus Circus casino. At the time of Soules’ death, Steese was several states away. But prosecutors didn’t reveal that they had evidence that Steese was telling the truth, instead telling jurors that Steese had fabricated his alibi with the help of his look-alike brother. During the trial, the prosecutors also concealed the nature of several photo lineups pointing to Steese’s innocence and accused the defense of manufacturing evidence.
Steese was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to two life sentences. The men who prosecuted him, Bill Kephart and Doug Herndon, are now district court judges in Las Vegas.
Decades later, federal public defenders took up Steese’s case and proved that his brother, estranged since childhood, couldn’t have helped with Steese’s alibi. They also discovered the proof of Steese’s whereabouts during the murder in the prosecution’s files.
In 2012, a Nevada Eighth Judicial District Court judge issued a rare Order of Actual Innocence, the first of its kind in that court, essentially declaring that Steese didn’t kill anyone. But the Clark County District Attorney’s Office refused to concede it had convicted the wrong man. Instead, prosecutors vowed to fight Steese’s exoneration and to retry him.
Assistant District Attorney Pamela Weckerly told Steese she’d agree to release him from prison under one condition: he plead guilty. She offered Steese an unusual deal called an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to assert his innocence on the record while still accepting a deal. Steese, skittish after being wrongfully convicted once, agreed. But the deal had significant consequences: Steese was free, but remained a convicted killer. The Clark County district attorney, meanwhile, didn’t have to admit it made a mistake and the murder case stayed closed. Prosecutors across the country are increasingly using the Alford plea and similar deals to quietly dispose of likely innocence cases.
At the pardon hearing Wednesday, Steese’s lawyer, Lisa Rasmussen, described how law enforcement’s pursuit of Steese was riddled with misconduct at every step: From the beginning at his trial when his constitutional rights were “violated in a huge way” to the end when he was “coerced” into the plea. What happened was “an embarrassment and a black mark on Clark County and the state of Nevada,” said Rasmussen, who has worked pro bono on the case since 2013.
After signing the Alford plea, Steese left prison in 2013 and struggled to put his life back together with a murder conviction on his record. He went through stints of homelessness before finding a job as a cross-country trucker with one of only two companies that accept drivers with a felony.
Rasmussen told the board it was difficult for Steese to explain what had happened and to persuade people that he was really innocent. “Thank god for the Vanity Fair article, because now he can hand them a story.”
Sitting before the pardon commissioners Wednesday, dressed in a new gray shirt and striped tie from Walmart, Steese said he wanted them to understand “the horror I got released into” without any help from the state. Many jobs, he said, require computer skills, for example, and after two decades locked away “I couldn’t even pump gas” because of the technology. As a result, he said, he ended up living on the streets of Las Vegas.
Rasmussen described how he’d show up at her office to wash and shave in the sink.
“It was real, real hard for me,” Steese said.
His original trial lawyer, Nancy Lemcke, who’d fought for years to get Steese help after his conviction, watched on video from a courtroom in Las Vegas and sobbed.
After Steese testified, a petite, 67-year-old with short auburn curls stepped up to the podium, her hand shaking with three pages of yellow legal pad paper covered in capital letters and underlined phrases. Her name, she told the commissioners, was Kathy Nasrey and she was Soules’ sister. She had flown in from Michigan to speak on behalf of Steese.
“I am simply here to right a wrong,” she told the board, “and to restore the life of Mr. Frederick Steese, knowing my brother would want this done.”
Nasrey said she’d long believed Steese was guilty and had felt misled by the prosecution when she realized he wasn’t. Now, she said, she grappled with the knowledge that “the murderer was free and will never be held responsible for this crime.”
Her experience, she told the board, had given her “doubts about the sincerity of the Nevada legal system.”
Steese’s case and the behavior of the Clark County district attorney had prompted the statewide defense attorneys organization, Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, to donate $700 to help Nasrey attend the hearing. It was a first for the group, which typically uses its annual dues to fund scholarships for law students and put on networking events.
“Everybody knows about Fred’s case,” Rasmussen said. “A victim that wants to come to testify in support of a pardon is so unusual.”
Nasrey, who still keeps a room filled with memorabilia about her brother’s circus career, had met Steese for the first time the day before the hearing.
Grabbing Rasmussen’s hand she sped across the parking lot of a local hotel to where Steese waited by his parked semi-truck and threw her arms around him. “I’m so sorry,” she said, hugging him tightly and crying.
“We’re going to make this right.”
Nasrey told Steese that meeting him was “life-changing.” Twenty-five years after her beloved brother’s death, the encounter, she said, had brought her peace. “I blamed you all these years. I’m so sorry.” Pushing up onto her toes one more time to hug Fred, she told him, “we’re gonna give ‘em hell.”
At the hearing, Nasrey pressed the commissioners on the consequences for those responsible for Steese’s conviction: “Now that it was clear that certain lawyers and detectives helped convict an innocent man … will they be held accountable for taking away 20 years of his life?”
As detailed in a separate ProPublica story, Kephart, the original trial prosecutor, later was chastised numerous times for his misconduct in other cases from the Nevada Supreme Court. Neither he nor the other prosecutor, Herndon, faced consequences for their behavior in Steese’s case. Kephart has now been sanctioned by the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline and rebuked by the state Supreme Court for his conduct as a judge.
As she ended her testimony, Nasrey read from a card Steese had given her after they met, while Steese and Rasmussen wiped away tears. “I wanted to see you so bad my whole life. To have you look in my eyes and know that I never harmed your brother,” he wrote.
“Just right this wrong,” she said. “It’s so simple.”
The pardon board, which had been given a packet that included the story by ProPublica and Vanity Fair, asked few questions. Gov. Brian Sandoval, who heads the board, asked Rasmussen for her reaction to the Clark County district attorney’s letter opposing Steese’s pardon.
“The position of this office is the pardon should be reserved for exemplary individuals under extraordinary circumstances in cases of lesser gravity,” the letter read.
Rasmussen pointed out that the letter was filled with errors, stating incorrectly, for example, that Steese pled guilty twice to the crime. And, ignoring 18 months’ worth of evidentiary hearings that led up to that order, the letter said that Steese “chose [not] to provide evidence of his alleged innocence but took a plea.”
Justice Mark Gibbons said he read the entire 17-page innocence order and that never in his whole legal career had he ever seen anything like it. Judge Elissa Cadish, who wrote the order, sent the board a letter supporting his pardon.
Fearing a rejection, Rasmussen had originally asked for a conditional pardon, which restricts the right to bear arms. But Stiglich, moved by the facts of the case, recommended that Steese get a full and unconditional pardon, which the chief of the parole and probation division agreed was proper.
Thousands of people, including inmates seeking clemency or parole eligibility, appeal to the pardons board each year. At Steese’s hearing, the board had accepted 39 cases for review. Most of the pardons granted to those who had served their time already — what Nevada calls “community pardons” — are for offenses such as drug trafficking, drunk driving, theft and domestic violence. Since 1996, the earliest year for which data is available on the board’s website, there have been no pardons for murder.
The board typically considers pardons only for those who have taken responsibility and expressed remorse for their crimes. Innocence cases are exceedingly rare. The board warns on their website that people “seeking a pardon on grounds of innocence or miscarriage of justice bear a formidable burden of persuasion.”
When Steese’s case came up for a vote, each justice of the Supreme Court voted “yes” without hesitation. Then came attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt. For most of the day he had voted “no” on pardons. In this case he asked to abstain. When the governor wouldn’t allow it, Laxalt paused and then leaned into his microphone and voted “no.”
It didn’t matter. Steese simply needed a majority and the governor’s vote. Sandoval voted yes and Steese’s pardon was granted.
Both Rasmussen and Nasrey had asked the board to compensate Steese somehow for his lost years, but the governor said that he lacked the funds. The pardon might open legal doors, however, for Steese to sue the state for his wrongful conviction. The state legislature could also choose to compensate him.
Nevada is one of 18 states that doesn’t have a statute providing compensation for the wrongfully convicted, according to The Innocence Project. Among states that do, there is a wide range — New Hampshire caps payouts at $20,000 and Washington gives $200,000 for each year. But many states offer $50,000 per year of incarceration, which for Steese would be owed just more than $1 million.
After the case concluded, the court’s chief justice, Michael Cherry, came over to shake Steese’s hand, as did Justice James Hardesty. Steese was gleeful, bouncing on his toes, his face wide with a gap-toothed grin — his missing teeth a lingering reminder of the poor prison dental care.
Outside he shouted, “I’m not a felon anymore!”
Steese said that it was the best day of his life.
“Are my feet even on the ground?”