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

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New evidence pointed to innocence in the cases of these four Baltimore men, yet prosecutors would only let them go if they agreed to controversial plea deals.

by Megan Rose

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.”


George Seward

  • Convicted: 1985
  • Released: 2016
  • Type of Deal: Alford plea
  • Crime: Rape
George Seward with his mother on the day of he got out of prison after 32 years. A judge had granted him a writ of innocence, but prosecutors vowed to retry him. He took an Alford plea to guarantee his immediate release.

The Original Case

The white victim identified him 10 weeks after the crime. The victim’s ID of Seward, an 18-year-old black man who had a moustache and goatee at the time of the murder, conflicted with her contemporaneous description after the attack of a clean-shaven assailant. Neither the fingerprints nor biological evidence from the crime matched Seward.

New Evidence Later Discovered

Seward’s employment records as a part-time dog washer, which were discovered 12 years after the trial, showed he’d been at work the day of the shooting. His boss also testified she kept the shop locked and it would have been “impossible” for him to have left.

Prosecution Reaction

Fought for the next 19 years, arguing, in turn, that the records weren’t admissible as new evidence and shouldn’t be given any consideration; that they didn’t provide an alibi because no hours were specified; and that they bolstered the case against Seward because the shop was near the victim’s house. One of the prosecutors on the case, John Cox, also told ProPublica that the records’ discovery so long after the trial meant they couldn’t be trusted.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said recently that because the victim saw her attacker up close, he wasn’t concerned that the case rested on a cross-racial identification. (That type of ID has been shown to be less reliable because people are generally bad at distinguishing facial features of people who aren’t their own race. Of the 351 people exonerated by DNA evidence since 1989, the national Innocence Project found that 41 percent had been convicted on mistaken cross-racial identification.)

How the Deal Happened

Judge said the employment records “thoroughly exculpate[d]” Seward and granted a writ of innocence. The state appealed and eventually lost. “The state’s immediate reaction was to offer a plea,” said Shawn Armbrust, of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and one of Seward’s lawyers.

Shellenberger said that he’d been confident about the case and wanted to go to trial, but the victim didn’t want to testify again. “Keeping something on the record was extremely important to us.”

Why Defendant Agreed to Deal

Seward first turned prosecutors down, but then, as he awaited a new trial, a close friend was stabbed in prison. Seward had nine months before the trial began, so he reconsidered.


Jesse Barnes

  • Convicted: 1972
  • Released: 2011
  • Type of Deal: Time served
  • Crime: Murder
Barnes was convicted of murder when he was 17 based off of nothing more than his uncorroborated confession, which also described a violent rape.

The Original Case

Based solely on Barnes’ confession made after 31 hours in custody. A largely illiterate 17-year-old with a low IQ and no prior record, Barnes’ police-typed statement conflicted with the evidence in the case in major ways, such as how and where the 15-year-old female victim was killed. And he had an alibi for the time of the murder. (Barnes’ confession also incriminated two others, but no one else was charged.)

New Evidence Later Discovered

In 2009, 37 years after Barnes’ conviction, DNA evidence collected from the victim’s body was tested and excluded him from any sexual assault, further undermining his confession, which had described a violent gang rape that included Barnes and another man ejaculating. The DNA, which only came from one male, also excluded one of the other teenagers implicated in Barnes’ statement.

Prosecution Reaction

Prosecutor Sharon Holback said at the time that the state “vehemently and firmly believes that [Barnes] was fairly and properly convicted.” She argued that his confession was sound and that the third person implicated in it must have been the source for the DNA. That man couldn’t be found for comparison testing. (Holback was also the prosecutor who handled the post-conviction hearings in the case of James Thompson, whose rape and murder conviction was undermined by DNA testing, but was offered an Alford plea.)

How the Deal Happened

Judge Yvette Bryant went many months without issuing a ruling on the case, so Barnes’ lawyer took the innocence claims directly to Gregg Bernstein, who recently had been elected as Baltimore City state’s attorney on a reform agenda and had started a conviction integrity unit. The fighting over Barnes’ post-conviction motions had happened under Bernstein’s predecessor, so he had not publicly committed to any position. He was also free of one common concern prosecutors face when dealing with potentially wrong convictions: angry relatives of the victim who don’t want the case to unravel. With Barnes, the victim’s family so believed in his innocence that they had hired a lawyer to defend him.

Bernstein, who said recently that he didn’t recall the case, would concede only that Barnes didn’t deserve to be in prison anymore, seizing on a mistake in sentencing. The judge who had sentenced Barnes had thought wrongly that his only option was life.

Why Defendant Agreed to Deal

Barnes was 57 years old, had been in prison for more than 40 years and was in failing health. “I had to say to him ‘I’m confident in the end we will vindicate you, but it might be 1, 2 years or even 4 to 5 years, and there’s no guarantee,’” said Barnes’ pro bono lawyer, Michael Imbroscio, noting it was “the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had in my 22-year legal career.”


Wendell Griffin

  • Convicted: 1982
  • Released: 2012
  • Type of Deal: Time served
  • Crime: Murder
Wendell Griffin walked out the back door of a Baltimore courtroom on May 23, 2012, free for the first time in nearly 31 years. Griffin, who’d been convicted of murder, was let out on a time-served deal after evidence pointing to his innocence was discovered buried in a police file. 

The Original Case

A neighbor testified that she saw Griffin before and after the murder with a gun, and a second neighbor, who was 150 feet away, said she heard Griffin make threatening remarks the night of the murder. A set of keys found about 90 feet from the crime scene was connected to Griffin, who lived in the neighborhood.

New Evidence Later Discovered

In 2011, significant evidence was found in the police’s files that had never been given to the defense: three photo lineups in which eyewitnesses failed to identify Griffin and eight witness statements that either incriminated another suspect or contradicted the testimony used to prosecute Griffin.

One eyewitness pointed to Griffin’s picture in the lineup and said that he looked like the suspect, “but it’s not him.” Griffin’s picture was nine years old, so detectives went back to that witness and showed her another array with a current picture. She still did not identify him. Nonetheless, detectives used her description of the suspect to get a search warrant for Griffin’s home — never mentioning that she’d twice failed to pick him out of a photo array. The warrant also cited a neighbor who saw a man with a gun, but left out that he said the man wasn’t Griffin.

“There was pretty powerful evidence of innocence that was buried by the state,” Steve Mercer, Griffin’s attorney, said.

Prosecution Reaction

Baltimore City prosecutor Michael Leedy denied that the evidence represented a Constitutional violation. (In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the state must turn over all favorable information to the defense in order for a trial to be fair, which has come to be known as the “Brady” requirement.) Leedy wouldn’t agree to a new trial.

How the Deal Happened

When a judge, who called the evidence “earth shattering,” indicated she’d be ordering a new trial, Leedy shifted, saying that although he didn’t believe “there were, in fact, any Brady violations” the allegations were “plausible enough” that he’d “concede to a resentencing on this matter.” This was the “best course,” Leedy said, to “ensure that Mr. Griffin will for the rest of his life remain convicted for the murder of James Wise.”

Leedy also wanted it on record that by accepting the deal Griffin gave up the right to an actual innocence ruling.

Why Defendant Agreed to Deal

Griffin was 61, knew his best years were gone and he might “die in here.” Having spent nearly 31 years in prison, he didn’t have it in him, he said recently, to wait another year-and-a-half for a new trial. But he is now trying to withdraw his deal, so he can clear his name and sue over the Brady violations. Marilyn Mosby, the current state’s attorney who ran in part on a platform of police accountability, is fighting his motion. (Her spokeswoman didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.) A hearing is set for November.


Antoine Pettiford

  • Convicted: 1995
  • Released: 1998
  • Type of Deal: Alford plea (exonerated in 2000)
  • Crime: Murder
Antoine Pettiford was convicted of murder in 1995, but was let out on an Alford plea three years later when a court ruled that the detectives and prosecutors deliberately withheld evidence from the defense. He was fully exonerated in 2000 after more evidence came to light. Pettiford was killed in 2015.

Original Case

Pettiford, 23 and with a record, was identified as one of two shooters by two eyewitnesses and was tied to the murder weapon by a suspect in a related crime. But at trial, the witnesses said they’d been mistaken and the suspect said he’d lied about the weapon. Late in the trial, prosecutors produced a new witness who identified Pettiford. Pettiford had an alibi and no motive.

According to The Baltimore Sun, before the judge sentenced Pettiford to life plus 20 years, he said: “I don't care if every witness that appeared in the trial — including the detectives — come back here and say it was all a farce and it was all false and it was all wrong. I think justice was done.”

New Evidence Later Discovered

A year later, a separate federal drug investigation led to a different suspect in the murder, who pleaded guilty in federal court and told investigators that Pettiford had nothing to do with the crime.

There was also evidence that had never been given to the defense: a three-page statement from a friend of the victim that said he was the intended target and pointed to the same suspect prosecuted by the feds; a police bulletin that named that same suspect in connection to the murder; a statement from an eyewitness who identified the second shooter as someone the federal prosecutors thought was involved; and a police report naming that second person as a suspect.

Prosecution Reaction

Baltimore City prosecutor Nancy Pollack, who had handled the trial, didn’t act on the information federal prosecutors gave her suggesting Pettiford was innocent. Michelle Martz, Pettiford’s lawyer, said she went repeatedly “to beg and plead for [prosecutors at the time] to do something. I was floored the state wouldn’t be more concerned that they might have the wrong guy.”

How the Deal Happened

At the end of a post-conviction hearing, at which a detective revealed the existence of the three-page statement implicating someone else, the judge ordered Pollack to turn over everything in her files. Pollack agreed to a new trial and offered the plea.

Why Defendant Agreed to Deal

Pettiford, scared of what the prosecutors might do during a second round, had only one question: “Do I have to go back to prison if I take it?” He accepted the Alford plea, walked down the courthouse steps and into his family’s waiting car.

How He Was Later Exonerated

A year after the Alford plea, The Baltimore Sun newspaper exposed that the state had suppressed even more evidence and that a detective had misled the defense. In response, the judge vacated the Alford plea, saying it had been “a miscarriage of justice,” and the state declined to prosecute again. Pollack, who declined to comment, had already resigned, but the Baltimore Police Department found that the detective did nothing wrong. That detective was also named in a lawsuit filed by Sabein Burgess, who was wrongfully convicted in 1995 and exonerated in 2014.


See Related Story

What Does an Innocent Man Have to Do to Go Free? Plead Guilty.

A case in Baltimore — in which two men were convicted of the same murder and cleared by DNA 20 years later — shows how far prosecutors will go to preserve a conviction.

Republished with permission under license from ProPublica

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