This Obscure Plea Deal Offers Freedom to the Wrongfully Convicted at a Huge Cost


A confounding case in Baltimore shows just how far prosecutors will go to keep a win on the books — even at the expense of an innocent man.

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. They were both sentenced to life in prison. Then, 20 years later, DNA evidence cleared them of the rape and unraveled the state’s theory of the crime. But instead of exonerating the two men, prosecutors pushed 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 while pleading guilty. Prosecutors pressure wrongly convicted defendants to take it by threatening to retry them, which could take months or even years. For the two Jameses, 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. The plea had another catch — it would prevent them from suing for wrongful imprisonment. For prosecutors, such deals keep wins on the books and let them avoid admitting any wrongdoing. But the deals also keep the cases closed, and 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. Finding these stories is especially difficult. No one tracks how often the wrongly convicted take Alford pleas. In Baltimore City and Baltimore County alone, we’ve found 10 cases since 1998 in which defendants with viable innocence claims ended up agreeing to a plea or a similar time-served deal. Watch the story of the two Jameses to see what happened after the Alford plea was offered in their cases.

This piece makes up the fifth installment in Vox’s collaboration with ProPublica. You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. Subscribe and stay tuned for more from our partnership.


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