LAS VEGAS -- After 20 years, prisoner Fred Steese got a judge to listen to his appeal, granting him his freedom, however slight.
Everyone's innocent in prison, or so the old joke goes.
"It's terrible," Steese said. "Nobody believes you."
The surprise for Steese was not that it took him 20 years to prove his innocence -- it's that it didn't take him longer.
"People looked at me and said, ‘Well, you've been found guilty of a jury of your peers, how can you be innocent?' and I said, ‘Well, they made a mistake,'" Steese said.
A jury convicted Steese in 1995 of the murder of Gerard Soules, an entertainer with a poodle act at Circus Circus.
Armed with Steese's own confession, jurors rejected his defense that he was in Idaho at the time of the crime.
Instead, prosecutors convinced the panel that the man in Idaho between June 3 and 4 of 1992 was not Steese, but his younger brother, Robert.
"Even though no one really knew where Robert was at the time," said Steese's attorney, Ryan Norwood of the Federal Public Defender's Office. "The argument was he looked a lot like him and that he must've been the person he saw and that Robert must've been providing a false alibi for Fred."
Steese was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. From his prison cell he appealed his conviction.
In 2011, at the Nevada Supreme Court's direction, District Court Judge Elissa Cadish began a series of hearings to consider new evidence in the case.
"We found Robert and we brought him in to court so that he could testify and he testified that he's never been to Idaho," Norwood said. "He hadn't seen his brother in 30 years since they were separated as children."
To corroborate Robert's testimony, the court heard from eyewitnesses who said they saw Robert in Texas during the week in question.
Records from Texas law enforcement put Robert in the state on May 25, June 1 and June 4 of that year.
"It's pretty clear that Robert was not in Idaho," Norwood said.
But the evidence shows Fred was.
Documents supported by eyewitness testimony trace Fred Steese train-hopping from Las Vegas to Idaho beginning at the end of May.
Steese was also cited for trespassing by Union Pacific Railroad, issued to Steese's alias, Frederick Burke in Utah on May 29 and in Wyoming on May 31.
Idaho records in the name of Frederick Burke, such as a state welfare application and two job applications, were dated June 3 and 4.
Taken together, the evidence exonerates Steese, except for his confession.
"It's hard to understand, because you think if somebody didn't do something, why would they confess?" Norwood said. "But we know it happens and we know it happens a lot. The point of a police confession is to convince someone to admit their guilt and police are really good at that. And sometimes they're good enough at it that they can get people to confess to things they didn't do."
After considering all the evidence, the court questioned the reliability of Steese's confession.
Ultimately Cadish found him "actually innocent."
"Given everything additional that we now know, I am finding that it is more likely than not no reasonable juror would've found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Cadish said.
The decision, however, cleared just one procedural hurdle, meaning Steese had many more in front of him to secure his freedom.
To resolve the case without further litigation, Steese pleaded no contest to second degree murder in exchange for time served.
"Both sides made choices," Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said. "Mr. Steese had already served 20 years, so we felt in the interest of being fair to both sides -- our side and his side -- that to allow him to plead guilty to the charge, knowing that it would cause his immediate release on the Nevada case, was the right thing to do."
Wolfson said that while he respects the judge's findings, it doesn't necessarily mean Steese didn't do it.
Indeed, there's no such thing as an innocent man in prison -- at least not until, like Steese, a court decides otherwise.
"I just kept fighting until somebody listened," Steese said.
Steese's Nevada case is over, but he is now behind bars in Florida.
The Florida Parole Commission insists Steese owes the state another three years for a parole violation from 25 years ago.
A hearing is scheduled for the end of this month for the commission to consider whether he must serve that additional sentence.
Of course, if Steese isn't the killer, that means someone else killed Gerard Soules.
The North Las Vegas Police Department said it's planning an administrative review of the case.
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