News 02.22.18

The Harms of Alford Pleas When There Is Strong Evidence of Innocence

Over the past several months, ProPublica has published a series of stories that take an in-depth look at how wrongfully convicted people in Maryland are being pressured by prosecutors into taking Alford pleas in exchange for their freedom. Today, as part of that series, ProPublica released a video in collaboration with the Vox that examines the story of two Maryland men—James Owen and James Thompson—whose wrongful conviction case illustrates the ways in which these unjust plea deals are being offered in place of actual exoneration.

Thompson’s and Owens’ case started in 1987 with the murder of a woman named Colleen Wilier. Thompson was one of the victim’s neighbors.  He became a suspect when, in an effort to reap the money being offered by police in exchange for information about the murder, he produced false evidence—a knife from his house—that he said he found near the crime scene. He lied to police that the knife had been stolen from his house by Owens.

Owens was arrested and after several months of investigation, police said that Thompson knew too much about the crime to not be involved. Thompson falsely confessed. Based on Thompson’s false testimony, both Owens and Thompson were wrongfully convicted of Wilier’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. Owens insisted in court that he was innocent and had no involvement in the crime.

After years in prison, the two men secured an attorney who got DNA testing of other evidence. Both men were excluded. Owens was granted a new trial. Prosecutors also offered an Alford plea, which would have provided him immediate release but carried with it myriad consequences, including a conviction on his record. Owens insisted on his day in court. At trial, his case was dismissed.

Thompson was also offered an Alford plea. Tired of spending decades in prison, he accepted the “bargain.”

The video by Vox and ProPublica reveals how Owens’ and Thompsons’ lives post-prison have headed in very different directions a result of the choices they made to secure their freedom. Watch the compelling video here

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