Las Vegas Sun

June 17, 2019

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Guest column:

When the justice system gets it wrong, Nevada can do better to make things right

At age 19, I was sentenced to two life terms in prison for a robbery and murder I did not commit.

The crime occured April 24, 1994. That evening, I went to get food at Carl’s Jr. on Fremont Street. Through the restaurant window, I saw a known gang member named Steven Jackson standing inside, so I stayed in the parking lot. Before I knew it, Jackson ran out pointing his gun and fled. Inside, Charles Burkes, the store manager, was shot to death.

Law enforcement focused on both Jackson and me as suspects, and my photo was put into a lineup. A restaurant employee wrongly identified me and I was arrested. This is just a mistake that will get cleared up, I thought.

But things got worse.

I had to spend 14 months in county jail before and during my trial, and there another inmate claimed that I confessed to him. Based on shaky evidence, I was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Unless you have gone through it, you cannot imagine what it’s like to be in prison when you are innocent. For 23 years, I was subjected to inhumane treatment day in and day out. The struggle to prove my innocence and gain my freedom began the day I was convicted; it wouldn’t be easy because like most wrongful convictions, there was no DNA evidence.

Finally, a big break came in 2013. Jackson, who had gone on to be convicted of another murder in California, admitted that he killed Burkes. Then, the jailhouse informant revealed he had lied about my alleged confession. I was elated and thought I would finally go home after this long nightmare. I was wrong.

In Nevada, the law only allows a person to present new, non-DNA evidence of innocence up to two years after conviction — even if there is no way it could have been discovered within that time. The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center took my case and our only option was to allege that my constitutional rights had been violated.

That claim was dismissed, appealed, and finally granted a hearing. Still, three years after Jackson’s confession, the process of my exoneration had hardly begun.

The Clark County District Attorney’s new Conviction Review Unit decided to work with the Innocence Center to review the case, and dismissed the charges June 27, 2017. That day, I was dropped off in downtown Las Vegas alone, without a single belonging. It was surreal, exciting and confusing. Since those early days of freedom, there have been ups and downs, but spending time with my family, especially my wife, has been incredible.

Still, it is hard to understand how Nevada could keep me in prison for years after the actual perpetrator confessed, and why it hasn’t given me a dime to rebuild after taking more than two decades of my life.

This legislative session, lawmakers have an opportunity to make things right for the wrongfully convicted.

Assemblyman William McCurdy, D-Las Vegas, is sponsoring a “factual innocence” bill that will allow the wrongfully convicted to present new, non-DNA evidence whenever it is discovered. Modeled after laws in Utah and Wyoming, it would expedite the process for the innocent to get justice and for law enforcement to identify the actual perpetrators. 

Assembly Judiciary Chair Steve Yeager has introduced legislation to provide compensation for each year an innocent person spends behind bars. Nationally, 33 states and the federal government have adopted laws to provide financial resources to help exonerated people get back on their feet.

There is no way to get back the time taken from me, but I’m hoping something positive can come from my story. Nevada can do more to deliver justice to the wrongfully convicted by passing the factual innocence and compensation bills.

DeMarlo Berry lives in Las Vegas with his wife.