Living With Freedom | Maryland's first exoneree Leslie Vass talks about justice, PTSD, and starting over from scratch
Living With Freedom is a special series by MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) that explores the lives of those wrongfully incarcerated. Through these stories, we hope to give readers an insight into what it takes to start over.
The first thing that 61-year-old Leslie Vass tells when we approach him for an interview is that he still has every piece of paper that proves his innocence. He is wary of something coming up that would threaten his freedom once more. The first-ever exoneree from Maryland, he's been cleared of all charges for 33 years now and he did it all by himself.
Vass went to prison as a 17-year-old for a crime he had nothing to do with - for an incident that occurred four months before he even knew about it, he tells us. Until the day of his hearing, he had no idea that he was being framed and in spite of the prosecutor's own witnesses saying that it wasn't him - two of them, he had been sentenced to 20 years for armed robbery. He was tried as an adult. When the truth of what had happened hit him, it was already too late.
It had been a regular day for Vass, who was a high school junior at the time. Dubbed the high school basketball star, he absolutely loved playing. He had dreams of going to play it for a long time, even one day become part of the NBA. He remembers how he always followed the rules, came home before dark and truly believed in his dreams. "I had high expectations," he says.
His fate completely turned upside down in February 15, 1975. He was leaving his neighborhood pharmacy with a newspaper in hand when was arrested for an armed robbery, for robbing the drug store. He was held in the cell with adult prisoners because he says, the officers didn't even know his age. "I told them I was just going home," he recalls but no one paid a dime of attention. Later, before his hearing, the driver at the store as well as another worker, who were the prosecutor's witnesses, said he wasn't the one who had robbed them.
He was tried and convicted on the testimony of the victim who identified Vass as the perpetrator. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. A mistaken witness identification and the inadequate legal defense by racially biased attorney Robert P. Conrad Esq, not only took away the most important years of Vass' life and destroyed his dreams but also left him highly qualified and yet unemployed.
Conrad had been a colleague of his mother's and they had paid him a good amount of money to help Vass. Raised single-handedly by Clara Mae Vass, a Southern woman who liked to cook and fight if necessary, Vass had done as he was told by Conrad. "I was told not to have any contact with the drug store or the workers so every time I'd see them, I'd run home," he recalls. They had convinced him that if he had any contact with them, they'd lock him up again.
He was sent to Maryland State Penitentiary, in max security - located at 954 Forrest St. He could hear children outside the wall, he has often said while recalling the time there. During his 10 years in jail, he once saw a man slice open another's head at the dining room with the edge of an old-timey metal tray. "He was actually dead and people just went right on eating," he says. Memories of his mom and his childhood in Westport, Baltimore kept him going in prison.
A lanky 6-foot, 4-inch-tall teen with no priors or any run-ins with the law, his time in prison was a nightmare. He was but shown the light by some very unlikely friends - the inmates who were on death row. They got him interested in a paralegal course. He took it - he found out about his case and became adept with the judicial system. He earned his GED (high school equivalency) in prison. He also learned - for the first time - that he was a co-defendant. There were two more men who had answered the same charges and while one got five years of probation, another was given a concurrent five years in jail. He hasn't met him even to this day. Due to his own efforts, Leslie was able to get the witness to recant his testimony and a man named Bucky Nutt was identified as the third robber in 1984. The Baltimore City Circuit Court vacated Vass’s conviction in May 1986.
He was awarded $250,000 in compensation and even though he was exonerated, his records were not expunged in spite of three orders (1986, 1993 and 1998) from various judges. With armed robbery on his resume, he couldn't get employment. He was arrested again in 2004 for a minor threat charge against his wife after he found out that she had been beating their kids. But because of his still non-expunged record, he wasn't granted bail.
Justice delayed is justice denied, they say. The divorce with his wife, who was charged with child abuse, left him homeless after he had to choose between a roof over his three children's heads or his. His diplomas and work experience from behind bars didn't serve him well.
He was left alone. He didn't have the skills to be able to make friends and have stable relationships with anyone. The people he had grown up with - some had gone over to the dark side, some had been killed in accidents and some by other people and others wanted nothing to do with him. It wasn't like it is now, he says.
It was like a new world to Leslie, who had come home at 28. "I never had the opportunity to - it was taken from me," he says. He used to think behind bars that he would catch up but he thinks differently now. He went back to college even just so he can lead a respectable life when he came out - it was what he knew. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in sociology from Towson State University and became a certified paralegal.
He did work with The Maryland Department of Labor at one point, in licensing and regulation on Utah street for six months. He only started therapy about 7 years ago to deal with his depression and PTSD, because it was only then that his insurance could even cover it. The exonerated life isn't what people believe it is, he says.
"We are victims," he says, "and it doesn't matter how much time they served or the compensation they received or what level they are placed on - anyone who is wrongfully convicted is a victim," he says, his voice almost breaking. Compensation doesn't settle what was taken, he says.
Now that he's finally free, his records have been expunged and he's ready to start afresh in Tampa, Florida, he is too old to be employed. His health has seen better days too. Most of the employers want the younger, able-bodied, fresh-out-of-college employees - who work a lot for less money. "It's not about the criminal record now," he says, "it's about my age."