Last November, Mr. Harris was released from a Connecticut prison after being exonerated of a sexual assault. Unfortunately he was forced to make a Hobson's choice between entering an Alford plea to the accompanying kidnapping and robbery cases or sitting in prison and waiting.
The sexual assault conviction went the way of the dinosaurs when DNA testing revealed exculpatory evidence that ruled him out as the attacker. An investigation by the Innocence Project also turned up evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.
Mr. Harris was given the choice to stand in front of a judge and plead guilty even though everyone - the defense, the prosecution and the judge - knew the plea was a legal fiction. Unfortunately the state still held some of the cards after the DNA test results came back. They had the option to retry the case which meant Mr.. Harris would have to sit behind bars awaiting a new trial - a new trial in which the state would not have some of its critical evidence admitted.
“Given the egregious misconduct that denied Mr. Harris a fair trial combined with the fact that the identification evidence presented against Mr. Harris would be inadmissible at trial today on due process grounds, it is deeply disappointing that he has been put in the untenable position of taking a plea to gain his freedom." -- Vanessa Potkin, Innocence ProjectSo, Mr. Harris took the deal and entered an Alford plea. Now he would be free and the state would keep its conviction.
But why did prosecutors insist on his pleading guilty before agreeing to his release from prison? He had served almost 30 years. Evidence turned up during post-conviction appeals clearly demonstrated that he was the victim of a wrongful conviction in the sexual assault case. It would stand to reason that if was innocent of the sexual assault that he would also be innocent of the kidnapping and robbery charges.
But prosecutors have a hard time letting cases go - even when they know it's the right thing to do. The often must be dragged kicking and screaming into court when faced with exculpatory evidence that they either failed to turn over or did their best to keep from being admitted into evidence.
Maybe it has something to do with a victim of wrongful conviction having the right to sue the state for compensation for the years and experiences that were taken away from him. But that money is paid out by the state under a statutory scheme, not the county in which he was convicted.
Maybe it has to do with the god complex some prosecutors possess. You know the ones - every conviction is the result of the jury doing the right thing and every acquittal is the result of the jury getting it wrong. These are the same prosecutors who fight every attempt to conduct DNA tests on untested biological material. The same prosecutors who raise their arms to the sky and ask the court when is enough enough?
For all of those who say cases like that of Mr. Harris show how the system works (albeit in a very imperfect manner), I would point out that there are other innocent men and women behind bars who can't turn to DNA testing or examples of prosecutorial misconduct to reverse their wrongful convictions. For every Leroy Harris there is another poor soul who is stuck in his own private hell because a jury just got it wrong.
Here's hoping that Leroy Harris and his mom have the greatest Mother's Day ever.