Wrongfully Convicted, 42 Years Ago
Exonerated Maryland Man Spends Decades Trying to Rebuild His Life
BY LYNN MOLLER
Editor’s Note: As The Reporters Inc. continues production of its upcoming documentary about wrongful convictions, The Innocent Convicts, we also occasionally publish in-depth accounts of other troubling cases around the nation. Exoneree Leslie Vass, whose life was turned upside down after a crime victim mistakenly identified him as a robbery gunman, reflects on his 42-year battle to gain his freedom, clear his name and rebuild his life.
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“I couldn’t believe it when the judge declared me guilty. Guilty of what?”
The year was 1975. 17-year-old Leslie Vass was a senior in high school and, he says, a star basketball player on the school team. But everything changed, forever, on one fateful February morning when he made a routine trip to his neighborhood pharmacy in Baltimore, Maryland to buy a newspaper for his mother.
42 years later, Leslie recalls, “As I exited the store, I heard, ‘you with the leather coat, put your hands against the wall!’ I saw a police officer pointing a gun at me. I had no idea the officer was talking to me, because I hadn’t done anything.” A delivery driver inside the store had just identified Leslie as one of three assailants who had robbed him at gunpoint months earlier.
Based primarily on this driver’s identification, Leslie was taken into custody. Although initially arrested as a juvenile, he was charged as an adult in the Baltimore criminal courts. He was subsequently convicted of armed robbery at a trial by judge.
Leslie Vass’ mug shot, at the time of his arrest.
Leslie recalls, “I heard the judge say, ‘Leslie Vass, I find the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty of robbery in the first degree, with use of a handgun in the commission of a felony.’ This was not real. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I remember hollering at the judge, ‘What kind of justice is this?’”
Despite having no prior criminal record, Leslie was sentenced to 20 years in prison. “On the way to Baltimore City Jail,” Leslie says, “fellows in the transportation van were talking like they were going away on a vacation. But all I could do was cry. I was guilty–of what? Of being black? Of being naïve enough to think that justice would prevail and I’d be set free? I determined that there was no such thing as justice. My dreams died, my hopes faded, and the will to survive started slipping away.”
Leslie attributes his conviction to four factors: mistaken identification, judicial bias, inadequate defense and old-fashioned racism. Unbeknownst to Leslie, he says his attorney waived his right to a preliminary hearing, thereby preventing Leslie from even knowing the charges against him. Leslie says the attorney never conducted any pre-trial investigation, and never attempted to ascertain whether the other two men who had actually admitted to the robbery knew Leslie.
Leslie never wavered from his insistence that he was innocent.
Leslie today, outside the building where the 1975 robbery occurred.
“My attorney was focused more on making sure his fees were paid than properly representing me,” Leslie claims. “Prior to my trial, I met with him on two occasions and both times his concern was about the payment my mother sent to him. Never did he answer my questions about this case. I remember saying to my mom, ‘This man is going to send me to jail.’ I confronted him after the trial declaring that I was railroaded; he just laughed.”
Leslie was eventually transferred to the Maryland State Penitentiary, in Baltimore, a maximum-security facility. His memories are vivid, and painful. “When the door opened to the housing area, I froze in my tracks because there right in front of me were stacks of cells five stories high, running the length of the building,” he recalls. “All I could hear were fellows screaming and hollering at each other, inmates running around on the lower level, and men standing in front of other cells talking with inmates as if they were on the street corner. I stepped into this mad world of prison life at A-125 top bunk, a drab, dreary cell facing a brick wall. ‘Clink’ went the door, and there I was in my new home.”
He continues, “My wrongful imprisonment occurred at a time in my life when I should have been establishing long term friendships, bonding with others and maturing as we grew together.” He says he was thrown into an environment where predators prowled for weak, unaware individuals. While he woke up every day to the reality of being in prison, he would not let himself fall into the prison mentality. “I knew that I had not committed the robbery I was accused of, while others sat and bragged about the acts they were imprisoned for. That was sickening to me. I refused to become content living prison life. Instead of the daily routine of eating, going into the yard, and watching television, I read and enrolled in available educational programs to better myself and my chances once I was freed.”
Leslie earned his high school diploma through the GED course, and enrolled in the prison’s college program. “I studied psychology and sociology, hoping to help me deal with my own issues of being wrongfully imprisoned,” he says.
Leslie’s initial legal appeals were denied. “I was totally devastated,” he says. “I had never even met my appellate attorney, and did not know what he had filed in regards to my appeal. Attorneys failed me, so it became clear that the only way to regain my freedom was to understand the legal system and laws that had put me behind bars.”
Leslie opened up to other inmates about his conviction, and some of them were instrumental in helping Leslie obtain documents, file motions, and submit requests for information that he hoped would help with future appeals. Leslie also started studying law. Materials at the penitentiary were limited, but inmates were able to order materials through the library system.
Leslie met Walter Lomax, a fellow prisoner who also claimed to be wrongfully convicted. They became friends over their common desire to prove their innocence. Walter recalls, “I found out he was there for something he didn’t do, and I was there for something I didn’t do. We connected almost immediately. When you communicate with someone that you have a shared experience with, you immediately develop a special bond. Leslie and I were involved in a legal class there together. He was a remarkable young man. So much was taken away from him, yet while dealing with his own adversity, he was able to assist other inmates along the way. He used his experience and knowledge to help others.”
Leslie expanded his legal knowledge by taking a paralegal training course offered in prison, obtained the pertinent case records concerning his case, and began to research, prepare, and submit more post-conviction motions. “I was done with lawyers, period, as they were merely taking my mom’s money and putting me deeper into prison,” he says.
In the meantime, Leslie became eligible for parole. Yet he knew that each meeting with board commissioners was futile; in order to be granted parole he would have to admit guilt and express remorse. Like so many other innocent prisoners, Leslie fell into what he calls the parole paradox—either compromise his principles and admit to a crime he didn’t commit in order to gain his freedom, or stand by his innocence and be denied parole. “I was not going to admit to committing a crime I had nothing to do with and that was that,” he says. “I had prepared myself to serve the mandatory sentence because I refused to say I did this when I did not.”
In 1982, after seven years behind bars, a previously silent witness to the delivery driver robbery came forward with a photo of the man he believed actually committed the crime. Two years later, the delivery driver would admit to his mistake; he positively identified the man in the picture as having committed the crime—instead of Leslie. The driver even said he believed the actual robber had been wearing the exact same shirt he had on in the photo.
This turn of events activated a flurry of legal action. Leslie’s conviction was vacated and he was released two days later. (According to The Innocence Project, mistaken eyewitness testimony is the leading cause of wrongful convictions.)
“The fellow I was mistaken for, although properly identified, was not charged because the seven-year statute of limitations had expired,” Leslie explains. “This man was actually an informant for the very detectives in charge of investigating the robbery that I was charged with!”
Maryland’s governor at the time of Leslie’s release, Harry Hughes, approved Leslie’s application for a pardon and urged him to seek compensation for his time served. In a letter he wrote to Leslie, he stated, “I would like to express my sincere regret for the terrible injustice you have suffered. It must have been devastating to spend ten precious years in jail for a crime which you did not commit.”
The letter from Maryland’s governor, granting Leslie a full pardon.
Leslie says, “I appreciated the governor’s gesture but his words were hollow at best. At a time when I should have been making connections, contributing to society, and learning valuable life lessons, I was stuck in prison, fighting for the freedom that most people take for granted.”
Leslie was the first Maryland exoneree to petition the state for compensation for his years spent wrongfully imprisoned. He received $250 thousand from the State of Maryland in 1987 (far less than his requested $5 million), paid in installments over eight years.
Leslie in 1987, petitioning the state of Maryland for compensation for his wrongful conviction.
Ironically, had Leslie been released on parole, he would have qualified for support in areas such as job training, counseling, and housing assistance. But since he was released after an overturned conviction, there was no such support available. And while Leslie may have been 28-years-old upon release from prison, he says he was essentially 17-years-old emotionally, having missed 10 years of critical life development.
Suspended in an adolescent mindset and trying to make up for lost years, Leslie says he squandered his money. “I had no knowledge of how to budget or invest funds because they did not teach you those lessons in prison,” he explains. “If I had had someone who actually cared for me and wanted to help me with financial matters, I would not have given away money as I did to so-called friends and greedy family members. I admit my errors in monetary decisions, yet the majority of my funds went to others, not on frivolous items.”
Of course, with a pardon from the governor, Leslie would be able to move on with his life, obtain employment, and reintegrate himself into society, right?
Leslie says that the armed robbery conviction became a barnacle of sorts, permanently attached to him. Despite the pardon, he says his criminal record was not expunged; the state failed to erase the erroneous conviction. Leslie says a judge signed an Order for Expungement “but the assigned court clerk told me he felt the judge made a mistake and he wasn’t processing the Order. Yes, this really happened!”
Leslie says that while he later obtained subsequent “certificates of compliance” from state agencies claiming they complied with the court orders to erase his conviction from the record books, “they never did.”
Potential employers and anyone investigating Leslie would discover his conviction during background checks, and improperly conclude that Leslie was a violent ex-con. In 1998, Leslie filed and won a lawsuit against the state of Maryland for its non-compliance in expunging his record. He received an award of $50 thousand. “These funds did not last long, but were spent wisely and sparingly,” he says, “on a used vehicle and supplies for my children.”
Fortunately, also at this time, a job materialized with Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulations; Leslie was hired to place at-risk clients, most with criminal records, into employment opportunities. Who better than Leslie to understand the problems facing ex-convicts attempting to find work? Leslie says he received stellar reviews and commendations for his efforts in this capacity. “It was an honor to work at DLLR,” he says. My co-workers, many who had been there years before me, would refer their clients to me because they trusted my ability to obtain gainful employment for people they couldn’t. It was actually great to go to work and know your efforts to help someone made a real difference.” Sadly, for both Leslie and those he helped, this position ended in 2003 when that office was eliminated.
Leslie speaks on a panel about wrongful convictions.
Leslie’s paralegal training then secured him positions within Baltimore’s Office of the Public Defender, where he acted as a process server, conducted client intake and investigations, and performed legal research. “I really enjoyed the work with the OPD,” he says. “That motivated me to form my own business, Legal Wizard, Inc.” Leslie continues to operate his business, providing the Baltimore area with process service and other court-related functions.
Leslie’s goal now is to help young people avoid prison–the kind of life that he endured behind bars. He works with Maryland’s Just Kids program, a statewide advocacy campaign working to stop the automatic prosecution of youth as adults in Maryland. “My goal is to have Maryland’s law changed. I was a 17 year-old charged and convicted as an adult,” he explains. “An arrest and conviction as a juvenile will follow you for the rest of your life. I’m tired of seeing youth get charged as adults when they’ve never had a life.”
Nevett Steele, Jr., who helped start the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, speaks highly of Leslie. “Our goal with Just Kids is to curb the Maryland statute that automatically puts juveniles in the circuit court,” he says. “If this hadn’t been in place for Leslie, he would have had a totally different outcome. Nevertheless, it amazes me how Leslie has emerged from this experience. I have horrible views of prison, and how Leslie came out of that is close to being a miracle. He has a strength of character, has an innately good temperament, and refuses to allow bitterness to ruin the rest of his life.”
Leslie is also assisting a program called Life After Exoneration, and is hopeful that the legal advocates for the wrongfully convicted he’s working with will be able to soon pass new bills that help exonerees deal with the complicated legal, financial, physical, and psychological aftermath of their convictions and imprisonment.
Leslie today, filming a documentary for Maryland’s Just Kids program.
Now age 60, Leslie refers to himself as the “grandfather of exonerees.” No one could fault him for feeling angry and resentful about the injustices he has endured, but he says he’s risen above those acrimonious emotions, using his experience as a springboard to help others. He’s an activist and speaker on wrongful imprisonment with both Life After Exoneration and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, presenting to law students, before other innocence organizations, and at legal conferences.
“I’m not bitter,” he says. “I use my experience as a stepping stone to help others. I was wronged, but my message is to stay as focused as possible. You can still achieve what you set out to do.”
Lynn Moller can be reached at email@example.com
Lynn Moller enjoyed a 25-year career as a preschool teacher before the mistaken perception of a young child in her care shattered her life. Wrongly accused and convicted of child abuse in 2010, Lynn now seeks to help others avoid similar nightmares. She returned to school to earn a paralegal certificate and advocates for the wrongly convicted. Her upcoming book, Injustice Is Served, chronicles her ordeal and the failings of our criminal justice system; it will be published later this year. Lynn lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her family.
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