After 20 Years in Prison, He Calls State's Bluff. And Wins

Case illustrates reluctance of prosecutors to agree to a formal exoneration
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 8, 2017 1:05 PM CDT

(Newser) – A ProPublica investigation begins with a familiar-sounding tale: A man imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit gets his conviction tossed through DNA analysis. But then comes the twist: State prosecutors in Baltimore still had the option to retry James Owens for the rape and murder of a woman back in 1987, and they threatened to do so unless he accepted what's known as an Alford plea. He would technically plead guilty but be allowed to go free as a 43-year-old after 20 years behind bars. "In a legal gamble in which the prosecution typically holds the winning cards, Owens ... called the state's bluff," writes Megan Rose. He decided to roll the dice on another trial and sat in jail for another 16 months. Then, when the trial was about to start, the state announced it would not proceed with the prosecution.

The case illustrates a larger issue, writes Rose. DNA evidence has made clear that innocent people sometimes get locked up, but "less widely understood is just how reluctant the system is to righting those wrongs." The reasons are myriad. For example, if one person gets formally exonerated, that could lead to a re-examination of other convictions that involve the same detectives and prosecutors. The story looks at the implications of all of that, but it also digs into the details of Owens' case. A man convicted along with him, who later admitted lying, was offered the same Alford plea and accepted it. Both men are free now, but only Owens has the right to sue, and the case is going to federal court next year. Read the full piece, which notes that the detectives involved were made famous by David Simon in his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, later the basis of a TV cop show. (Read more Longform stories.)

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