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.
This story was co-published with The Atlantic.
On Oct. 15, 2008, James Owens shuffled, head high despite his shackles, into a Baltimore courtroom, eager for his new trial to begin. Two decades into a life sentence, he would finally have his chance to prove what he’d been saying all along: The state had the wrong man.
Owens had been convicted of murdering a 24-year-old college student, who was found raped and stabbed in her home. Then he’d been shunted off to state prison until DNA testing — the scientific marvel that he’d watched for years free other men — finally caught up with his case in 2006. The semen that had been found inside the victim wasn’t his. A Maryland court tossed his conviction and granted Owens a rare do-over trial.
State prosecutors balked, insisting they still had enough evidence to keep Owens locked away and vowed to retry him. But they had also offered him an unusual deal. He could guarantee his immediate release from prison with no retrial and no danger of a new conviction — if he’d agree to plead guilty. The deal, known as an Alford plea, came with what seemed like an additional carrot: Despite pleading guilty, the Alford plea would allow Owens to say on the record that he was innocent. The Alford plea was an enticing chance for Owens, by then 43, to move on as a free man. But he’d give up a chance at exoneration. To the world, and legally, he’d still be a killer.
Owens refused the deal. He told his lawyer he wanted to clear his name, and he was willing to take his chances in court and wait in prison however long it took for a new trial to begin. It was a startling choice for an incarcerated defendant — even those with persuasive stories of innocence typically don’t trust the system enough to roll the dice again with 12 jurors or an appellate court. Most defendants, lawyers say, instinctively and rationally, grab any deal they can to win their freedom back.
The decision cost Owens 16 more months behind bars. Then, on that fall day in 2008, when the trial was set to begin, the prosecutor stood and, without a glance at Owens, told the judge, “The state declines to prosecute.”
In a legal gamble in which the prosecution typically holds the winning cards, Owens had called the state’s bluff. He walked out that day exonerated — and with the right to sue the state for the 21 years he spent wrongly imprisoned.