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A Las Vegas Murder, A National Problem

fred_steese.jpg

Courtesy: KLAS-TV - Channel 8

Mug shot of Fred Steese.

In 1992, a Las Vegas Strip performer named Gerard Soules was brutally murdered in his trailer.

“Gerry was found in his trailer," Megan Rose, an investigative reporter for ProPublica, who unraveled this story in Vanity Fair. told KNPR's State of Nevada, "He was stabbed dozens of times. He was found by his manager at Circus Circus hotel because he did not show up to perform which was really rare.” 

Soules was well known in the circus circuit for an act involving dressed up and trained poodles. His former assistant and lover - whom he knew barely one week - was convicted of the crime in 1995. Fred Steese then spent more than 20 years of his life in a Nevada prison.

There was evidence Steese was nowhere near Las Vegas at the time of the murder. After many appeals and a lengthy legal battle, a judge actually ruled that Steese was innocent in 2012 -- after he spent more than two decades behind bars.

“Our legal system, particularly in the post-conviction setting, is really complicated,” Rose said, "So, although Fred had this order regarding actual innocence where a judge said no reasonable juror would have found you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It wasn’t a get out of jail free card”

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However, to continue to fight his conviction, Steese would have had to prove his innocence which would have been a continuing legal battle. In the end, he took what is known as an  Alford Plea, which allowed him to get out of prison. In an Alford Plea, a person can maintain his or her innocence but the defendant admits the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them. 

“It’s not used often," Rose said, "But there are times where people don’t want to admit guilt but they’re facing maybe very serious charge where there is a death sentence on the table or the prison sentence could be very long and so this allows them this kind of weird area of the law to be able to not have to admit guilt but still what might be better for themselves.”

The plea allows the prosecutors and Clark County to keep a 'win' in their books, but it means Steese is still a convicted felon. 

The Alford Plea is really only part of the story. 

Rose explained that Steese did himself no favors. When he was brought in for questioning by police, following the murder, Steese confessed to the crime. But Rose points out the Steese is the perfect person to admit to a crime he didn't commit. He has a low IQ and police had been questioning him for hours. 

“What Fred said to me after he had been released from prison – decades later – was that he thought it would be so obvious that he was lying that they would let him go the next day," Rose said, "It just wouldn’t be a big deal. But then he spent almost 21 years in prison.”

“What Fred said to me after he had been released from prison – decades later – was that he thought it would be so obvious that he was lying that they would let him go the next day," Rose said, "It just wouldn’t be a big deal. But then he spent almost 21 years in prison.”

But by the time the case went to trial, things had changed. Steese's attorneys had found witnesses and documents that put him on an 11-day journey through Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho.

It wasn't just the defense that found evidence of an alibi. The prosecution also had evidence that Steese was not in Nevada when Soules was murdered.  

“In addition to the alibi evidence that the defense had found, the prosecution had also gotten their hands on extensive phone records and that was of somebody Fred had met along his hobo travels that he had been calling collect from all these places he said he was for his alibi,” Rose said.

That kind of information is known as Brady Material and prosecutors are supposed to turn it over to the defense. The prosecutors in this case William Kephart and Doug Herndon, who are now both judges in Las Vegas, did not turn that material over.

After Steese was convicted, one of his attorneys found out about the records and filed an appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court. The High Court ruled the material was not Brady Material and did not need to be turned over to the defense. 

But Rose says many people feel that it should be a matter of serving justice, not putting another win on the board for the District Attorneys Office.

“Prosecutors have a different duty than most lawyers," she said, "It is their job to seek justice. They’re not supposed to seek convictions or ‘wins’ it is to find truth and make sure justice is served.”

Herndon did tell Rose in an interview that he stood by his work on the Steese case, but if he could do it over again he would give the defense the phone records. 

Those in legal circles say that prosecutorial misconduct, like the kind that many people say was demonstrated in this case, is a problem of epidemic proportions, and it could be responsible for more than half of all exonerations in the country. 

“It is prevalent – particularly what we saw in this case – when it is hiding exculpatory evidence these so-called Brady Violations, that one judge in the 9th Circuit, which oversees Nevada courts, said that there was an epidemic across the land,” Rose said. 

The other prosecutor in the case. William Kephart didn't talk to Rose about the case, but she said when she started researching the case many people spoke up him.

“When I first started reporting on the case, there were lawyers coming out of the woodwork to tell me their own stories about Kephart. It seems everybody had had some sort of run-in with him," she said.

In fact, he was cited for misconduct at least five times by the Nevada Supreme Court, Rose said, for errant comments. In one case, he actually choked a defendant on the witness stand. He said it was to demonstrate what the victim had gone through. Despite that behavior, Kephart has continued to rise in the ranks of the court community in Southern Nevada.

Rose said part of the problem is appellate courts and other entities can cite someone for misconduct, but the prosecutor is rarely called out by name and there are no penalties or ramifications for misconduct. 

As for Steese, he is now working as a trucker, which was what he always wanted to do. Unlike other people who were exonerated for a crime and then received a large amount from the state, he has received nothing.

“He did not get a penny from the state for having to serve 21 years for a murder he didn’t commit,” Rose said.

“He did not get a penny from the state for having to serve 21 years for a murder he didn’t commit,” Rose said.

In the eyes of the law, Steese is still a convicted felon. And, both law enforcement and the District Attorneys Office consider the case closed and they are not looking for the person who killed Soules. 

Guests

Megan Rose, investigative reporter, ProPublica 

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