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TIMESTAMPS
  • 00:02
    And this is James Owens.
  • 00:04
    They were both convicted in connection with the same burglary, rape, and murder case.
  • 00:09
    As you might expect the people on Malvern Street are shocked and horrified by the crime. Colleen's brother and a friend discovered the body last night.
  • 00:17
    But nearly 20 years later DNA evidence from the scene was tested and the results showed neither of the men could have committed the rape.
  • 00:26
    James Owens walked out of prison a fully exonerated man, but James Thompson he's still labeled a convicted felon.
  • 00:34
    Same crime, same DNA results, very different endings.
  • 00:39
    To figure out why, we have to start at the beginning with a knife, a lie, and a plea bargain that altered their lives.
  • 00:52
    It began with the murder of Colleen Wilier in 1987.
  • 00:56
    Thompson, a gas station attendant lived down the street with his wife and their two young boys.
  • 01:01
    There were helicopters and things flying around the neighborhood, searching the top of the building and things looking for murder weapons, bloody clothes, anything of that nature that could be linked to the crime.
  • 01:14
    He'd heard detectives were looking for a knife and were offering a one thousand dollar reward.
  • 01:19
    And I jumped on the first chance I could get to take that. So I goes back in the house and you know I was stupid I guess you'd say, but I went into the bedroom and I got a switchblade knife.
  • 01:35
    And I took the knife out and this was the beginning of my whole situation.
  • 01:41
    Thompson told the police he found the knife in the grass about half a block from the crime scene.
  • 01:46
    They said to me, they said well do you have any idea who this knife belong to?
  • 01:51
    I said the knife was stolen out of my house they said uh you have any idea who took this knife at your home?
  • 01:59
    And I told a lie and I said yes, I do.
  • 02:03
    And I give them the name of a man, his name was James Owens.
  • 02:09
    He and Owens were casual friends, until they had a falling out over accusations of theft.
  • 02:15
    In a burst of vengeance, Thompson implicated Owens.
  • 02:20
    His bogus testimony and that knife became the crux of the entire case.
  • 02:25
    They described it as a mint green dagger an instrument repeatedly used by the person who murdered the 24-year old woman.
  • 02:32
    So at this point and that's all city police have to go on, an unusual murder weapon which they hope leads them to the murderer.
  • 02:40
    James Owens was arrested for the crime.
  • 02:43
    They never did look for any other suspects.
  • 02:47
    But they wasn't happy with the things I was telling them.
  • 02:50
    Thompson's version of the events changed multiple times throughout Owens' trial.
  • 02:55
    He started to look like an unreliable witness.
  • 02:57
    Even the prosecutor admitted his story was "implausible".
  • 03:02
    Worried that they might lose their case against Owens, the detectives found a new focus.
  • 03:09
    A couple months after the crime actually was committed, one of the detectives said wait a minute, Mr. Thompson seemed to know too much to not have been involved in the crime himself.
  • 03:22
    They took a sample of Thompson's hair and tested it against a hair found on the victim. It came back a match.
  • 03:32
    The hair analysis method used would later become known as junk science, but at the time it was enough for the detectives to pin down a theory that both Owens and Thompson were involved in the crime.
  • 03:44
    In what was his eighth version of events, Thompson eventually gave a false confession. Alford plea
  • 03:50
    I testified to exactly what they wanted me to testify to, I said exactly what I was instructed to say.
  • 04:00
    The state convicted Owens for the burglary and murder and Thompson for the burglary, rape, and murder.
  • 04:06
    They were both sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
  • 04:15
    The only thing that could feasibly save them was the emergence of DNA science.
  • 04:21
    Owens first heard about DNA in prison. He saw his friend and fellow inmate Kirk Bloodsworth, become the first American man on death row to be exonerated by DNA testing.
  • 04:32
    And then, the OJ Simpson case popularized the science.
  • 04:36
    The answer will be clear to you as well.
  • 04:38
    I said to myself, wow I wonder if I had any in mine.
  • 04:41
    So a couple my friends in prison that was jailhouse lawyers, helped me. We wrote letters to the coroner's office and it came back there was DNA.
  • 04:49
    Owens was asking for it to be tested ever since he had been wrongfully convicted and had become aware that there was such a thing as DNA testing.
  • 05:01
    But no one would test it.
  • 05:03
    Lawyer Stephen Mercer, who represented both Owens and Thompson in their individual cases, pushed for the DNA testing of two samples.
  • 05:11
    One slide contained sperm taken from the victim.
  • 05:15
    Also tested was the blood that was on James Thompson's shorts, that police collected the day after Colleen Wilier's body was found.
  • 05:29
    I couldn't sleep like two days, three days, I said man, I said I might be going home.
  • 05:34
    And there it was.
  • 05:37
    The DNA came back, said it wasn't mine.
  • 05:40
    The results showed the sperm sample didn't match either of the men.
  • 05:45
    And the blood on Thompson's shorts was his own.
  • 05:48
    granted a new trial. It would likely be months or even years away. The state offered him a chance to go free immediately, if he did one thing: take an obscure deal called an Alford plea.
  • 06:05
    Plea bargains aren't surprising.
  • 06:06
    They're the lifeblood of an overburdened criminal justice system, where 95% of cases are resolved through plea agreements.
  • 06:14
    But the Alford Plea is unique.
  • 06:16
    It began with North Carolina versus Alford in 1970, when a man named Henry Alford was charged first degree murder.
  • 06:24
    The state offered Alford a deal. If he pled guilty to second-degree murder, he wouldn't be sentenced to die.
  • 06:30
    Alford took it, but in court he insisted that he was innocent and he was only pleading guilty to avoid death.
  • 06:38
    The Supreme Court held that someone who insists that they are innocent on the record, can still plead guilty to a crime and accept the status of a convicted felon.
  • 06:47
    The deal also allows prosecutors to keep a win on the books and admit no wrong doing.
  • 06:53
    To this day, 47 states and the District of Columbia allow the plead. For Owens, who was imprisoned for over 20 years, the Alford plea offered immediate freedom, but at the cost of living with a label of a murderer.
  • 07:09
    I look at it like this: why would I go into court and plead guilty to something I didn't have nothing to do with?
  • 07:16
    I was in prison for 21 years.
  • 07:18
    I'm not taking no Alford plea.
  • 07:20
    He took a chance with the trial, when his day in court came 16 months later, the state dismissed his case.
  • 07:29
    feeling in my whole entire life. Just to get out of jail.
  • 07:32
    And he walked out of that prison with a garbage bag over his shoulder, with all of his worldly possessions, but more important than what was in that bag, was that his principles were intact, because he insisted on his day in court. When confronted with that, the state folded.
  • 07:57
    But for Thompson, things moved much slower.
  • 08:00
    He was still waiting to secure a new trial.
  • 08:03
    In that uncertainty, the state came forward and offered him an Alford plea.
  • 08:10
    It was his ticket out.
  • 08:13
    I was tired being in prison I wanted to go home.
  • 08:18
    And the deal sounded real good at that point, I mean it was like the man was offering me a chance at life again, so I took it.
  • 08:28
    I was released that day, February the 28th 2010, but I didn't know that by taking the Alford plea, that it would still mean that I was guilty.
  • 08:42
    I would still have that on my record for the rest of my life and then there would be nothing I could ever do in regard to my false imprisonment.
  • 08:57
    The lives of Thompson and Owens are case studies in what happens when you take a plea or wait for exoneration.
  • 09:03
    Owens has a steady job with his cousin's company installing gutters.
  • 09:07
    In his spare time he takes care of his cousin's kids.
  • 09:12
    I'm 52 years old. Is it right for me to have kids now?
  • 09:15
    No, because I shouldn't be 70 years old when my daughter graduated from high school.
  • 09:19
    You know? I did 21 years.
  • 09:22
    There was nobody can ever give me that back. Nobody.
  • 09:25
    Not a judge or a jury can give me back the time that I lost.
  • 09:29
    And I feel that I should be compensated for what I went through.
  • 09:34
    He's now suing three detectives for the mishandling of his case and the time he's lost.
  • 09:39
    If I could get a settlement I would probably take $100,000, $200,000.
  • 09:43
    Put it into an account where I can help inmates, other inmates that were in the prison system and they were saying I'm innocent.
  • 09:49
    You know I would pay for the DNA.
  • 09:52
    Just to get this person out of jail, just to prove to the state of Maryland look you're wrong.
  • 09:59
    Then, there's Thompson who lives with the stigma of being a convicted felon and is unable to sue the state for false imprisonment.
  • 10:07
    Need one worker unload box.
  • 10:10
    Box fielders in Salisbury at 6:00 a.m.
  • 10:14
    What I do, I text them back I say this is James I will do it. Right now the only jobs I can get are through a temp agency, because every time I fill out a job application, the first question on have you ever been convicted of a felony?
  • 10:30
    Yes I have been convicted of a felony.
  • 10:33
    I mean it's it's hard. I'd like to have a good permanent job you know, where I could get 40 hours a week.
  • 10:42
    No one will hire me because of my record.
  • 10:44
    Society does not believe that innocent people go to prison.
  • 10:48
    When I went to prison I had two boys, I have not seen either one of them since they were small children and I missed out on having the opportunity to be a father to them and raise them and things.
  • 11:00
    And I've really missed that because now you know I won't ever have the opportunity to be a dad again.
  • 11:09
    Thompson and Owens' lives diverged but are still connected through the same case, a crime that won't be reinvestigated.
  • 11:16
    To this day they have an unsolved murder.
  • 11:19
    They don't feel that way because, they convicted me. The whole case was revolved around me and Mr. Owens and was closed at that point.
  • 11:32
    I'd like to have the opportunity to be able to sit down and apologize to him for what I did and for you know the amount of time of his life that I actually feel that I took from him.
  • 11:45
    I can never give that back, no more than I can give back the 20-some years on my own life, but I think I would feel a little bit better in the heart, just to be able to to say I'm sorry .
  • 12:01
    I mean, for whatever it's worth.
  • 12:12
    Hey guys thanks for watching! Since these cases, one of the prosecutors has died and another prosecutor involved in Thompson's case wouldn't talk to ProPublica about why she thought the Alford plea was a fair bargain.
  • 12:23
    ProPublica has been reporting on cases like these for over a year, but it's especially difficult since no one tracks how often the wrongfully convicted are pressured into accepting an Alford plea instead of being exonerated.
  • 12:36
    For more reporting on cases like these, check out the link below and stay tuned for more in this collaboration.
  • 12:41
    Thanks.

When the only way to go free is to plead guilty

A confounding case in Baltimore shows just how far prosecutors will go to keep a win on the books. Last year, ProPublica investigated prosecutors’ use of Alford pleas and similar deals.






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