On February 15, 1975, Leslie Vass was a 17 year old high school senior and basketball player, with no criminal record. All of this would change when he made his daily trip to Baltimore’s Westport Pharmacy, to purchase a newspaper for his mother. Upon entering the store, Vass was identified by Joseph Chester as one of the three men who had robbed him four months earlier, while he was making a delivery to the pharmacy. While it took another week for Chester to contact the police and identify him, Vass was arrested and charged with armed robbery. Vass was tried as an adult in the Baltimore City Circuit Court in a bench trial. The prosecution’s case consisted solely of Joseph Chester’s identification of Leslie Vass as the perpetrator. Despite inconsistencies in his testimony, Chester remained steadfast and made an in-court identification of Vass.
Vass’ defense counsel did not conduct any pretrial investigation and rested his entire defense upon his client’s testimony. The Court credited Chester’s testimony and found Leslie Vass guilty of robbery with a dangerous and deadly weapon and use of a handgun in the commission of a felony. He was given a combined sentence of twenty years imprisonment. On appeal, his conviction was affirmed, with the Court of Special Appeals finding that Joseph Chester’s in-court identification was sufficient to sustain a conviction.
While in prison, Vass was approached by an inmate who claimed to have knowledge of the case. The inmate claimed that his brother, Bucky Nutt, had committed the robbery. He gave Vass a photograph of Nutt, taken around the time of the crime. Vass sent the photograph to the Maryland Public Defender’s Office, who sent an investigator to show the picture to Chester. Upon viewing the photograph, Chester became convinced that he had identified the wrong man and indicated his willingness to testify on Leslie’s Vass’ behalf. Based upon this evidence, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City vacated Vass’ conviction on May 5, 1986. On August 15, 1986, Governor Harry Hughes granted Vass a full and unconditional pardon.
Unfortunately, Leslie Vass continues to be scarred by his erroneous conviction. Upon his release, he sued several state agencies, seeking compensation for his wrongful imprisonment. In 1987, he settled his claim with the State of Maryland for $250,000. Despite this settlement and multiple court orders mandating that his conviction be taken off his record, Maryland officials have not expunged the conviction from Vass’ record. The presence of this erroneous conviction has largely prevented Vass from obtaining a paying job. After fourteen years of fruitless fighting, Vass finally sued the state in 1999, settling for $50,000, though the terms prevent him from seeking future payment.
In spite of all this, Leslie Vass enjoyed a brief period of stability after obtaining a BA in Sociology and a certificate in Paralegal Studies. He was able to acquire a job as a placement counselor with the Maryland Job Service in 1999. Over the next five years, Vass won many awards and commendations. Even so, he lost his job in 2003, when the position was abruptly eliminated.
Vass’ criminal conviction continued to haunt him in 2004, when he was accused of involvement in a stabbing. Although he was ultimately acquitted of all charges, his prior conviction was used as a basis to incarcerate him without bail, prior to trial. Vass eventually lost his home and the state placed his children in foster care.
Today, he continues his efforts to lobby Maryland to live up to the spirit of its settlements and expunge his conviction. While he has yet to succeed in his fight, Vass maintains his optimism by devoting his time to advocacy work with organizations supporting wrongfully convicted persons, including the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project