Leslie Vass said he’s not fortunate or blessed to be a celebrity exoneree.
From 1975-1984, Vass spent time in prison for a crime that he did not commit — an experience, he said, that’s negatively affected his life since he was released.
Last year, under a new law called the Walter Lomax Act, Maryland awarded Vass more than $550,000 in supplemental compensation for the time that he was wrongfully incarcerated. He previously received $250,000 from the state in the 1980s.
He was awarded under the same act that will allow Adnan Syed, whose case was chronicled in the podcast “Serial,” to seek about $2 million for the more than 20 years that he spent in prison.
Vass, 65, of Baltimore County, said he’s appreciative of the money and now lives in comfort. But he said he’s still dealing with the collateral consequences of his wrongful conviction and hopes that no one who is exonerated has to go through what he’s experienced.
“There’s not a dollar,” he said, “that you can give me to replace all that I’ve lost.”
‘I’ve been serving a life sentence’
His life changed with a trip to the pharmacy.
On Feb. 15, 1975, Vass said, he was in 11th grade at Southern High School. He was 6 feet 4 inches and skinny. He participated in the Baltimore Neighborhood Basketball League, or BNBL, and played varsity basketball — as a forward — for the Southern Bulldogs under coach Mel Washington.
Vass said his mother, Clara Mae, asked him to buy a copy of the Baltimore News-American that Saturday. So he walked with his friend, Harrison Conyers, from the Westport Homes public housing project in South Baltimore to Westport Pharmacy, on Annapolis Road near Russell Street.
When he went outside to the newspaper box, Vass said, he heard a voice: “You, with the leather coat on, put your hands up against the wall!”
A Baltimore Police officer, he said, told him that he was under arrest.
At first, Vass said, police alleged that he robbed the pharmacy. He said he later learned that a part-time delivery driver, Joseph Chester, had identified him as one of three men who robbed him of $120 in Cherry Hill on Nov. 2, 1974. Next, Vass said, law enforcement put him into the back of a patrol wagon, processed him and brought him to a holding cell.
His attorney, Robert Parlett Conrad Jr., recommended that he request a bench trial. That’s when a judge — instead of a jury — determines whether someone is guilty or not guilty of the crimes charged in a case. “I was a child with a child’s mentality. Not a criminal with a criminal mentality,” he said. “I did not know enough.”
Months after his arrest, Judge James A. Perrott found Vass guilty of robbery with a deadly weapon and use of a handgun in a crime of violence in the Supreme Bench for Baltimore City and later sentenced him to 20 years in prison.
“I was devastated,” he said.
Vass said he was eventually taken to the Maryland Penitentiary. He said he could only see a brick wall but could hear children playing outside and cars driving by the facility. His cell — A-125 top bunk — was below people being held on death row.
During his incarceration, Vass learned that the name of the real perpetrator was a police informant nicknamed Bucky Nutt and obtained a photo of him.
Though it took years of effort, Circuit Judge Robert M. Bell in 1984 ordered Vass to be released from prison.
Chester had admitted that he made a mistake and identified Nutt. He was wearing the same clothes in the picture as on the night of the robbery. In 1986, Gov. Harry Hughes issued Vass a full unconditional pardon and urged him to seek compensation.
“I would like to express my sincere regret for the terrible injustice you have suffered,” Hughes wrote in a letter dated Aug. 20, 1986. “It must have been devastating to spend 10 previous years in jail for a crime which you did not commit.”
The Maryland Board of Public Works in 1987 awarded him $250,000.
But Vass said the state did not keep its promise to provide him with other services such as career help and counseling. He ran through the money and experienced homelessness. “I was still a 17-year-old at 28 years old,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about budgeting, managing or doing anything with money.”
And his wrongful conviction kept showing up on background checks. Vass settled a lawsuit against the state in 1998 for $50,000 for its failure to expunge his record.
He later worked for what was then the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
In 2004, Vass said, he was falsely charged with attempted first-degree murder and later acquitted. He said his wrongful conviction — the one that was supposed to be expunged — had been used to hold him without bond.
As recently as 2020, Vass said, his wrongful conviction showed up on a background check for a job in Oxnard, California.
“I was sentenced to 20 years, but I’ve been serving a life sentence with this sentence,” Vass said. “And that’s crazy.”
‘It feels so fresh and visceral’
David Bazemore never believed that Vass committed the crime.
Bazemore, 64, of Randallstown, said the two spent a lot of time together in their childhood. They met in the fourth or fifth grade at Westport Elementary School.
Today, Bazemore said, they talk on-and-off.
Bazemore said he believes that Vass became a stronger person through his experience. He turned into an activist and helped other people.
For 20 years, Bazemore worked as a correctional officer. The criminal justice system is “designed against us,” he said, and punishes people after they’ve paid their debt to society. “I saw it secondhand,” Bazemore said, “but he saw it firsthand — because he was down on the ground level.”
Neel Lalchandani, an attorney who represented Vass when he sought the additional compensation from the state in 2021, described his client as a resilient, remarkable and positive person.
Vass, he said, has been “such a bright light in the community.”
For his clients who’ve been wrongfully convicted, Lalchandani said, he wants more than anything else for them to be able to live the rest of their lives in comfort and dignity with some amount of peace.
He requested an expedited hearing and petitioned for expedited payment. The state, he said, provided additional money intended to cover the cost of housing for five years.
Lalchandani said he was struck by how Vass’ experience “continues to haunt him to this day.”
“That’s always stood out to me,” Lalchandani said. “Even with the passage of a significant amount of time, it feels so fresh and visceral still.”
“We think about wrongful convictions a lot of times in terms of the number of years that someone served. You’ll hear, 10, 20 or 30 years for a crime he didn’t commit,” he added. “But not as much attention has been paid to the lasting trauma that someone experiences for a lifetime after release.”
People who’ve been exonerated are strong and managed to maintain enough hope and fortitude to help fight for their release, said Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which takes on cases in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
In her observation, Armbrust said, the trauma that people who’ve been wrongfully convicted of crimes experience is “incredibly powerful and damaging.”
“There’s no one way to recover from it, and no one’s experience with it is the same,” Armbrust said. “As with anything, people respond to different things in different ways.”
For some, she said, it’s important to them for the public to know that they are innocent.
‘This is Maryland’s judicial system’
In 2018, Vass posted a 57-page book about his life story on the internet.
He said he has to work four more quarters — one year — to qualify for Social Security. But he was recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease, and is focusing on his health.
He’s kept letters of recommendation, documents about the case and records that affirm his innocence. He said he hopes and prays that no other exoneree has to “go through any of this stuff.”
“This is Maryland’s judicial system and the justice that’s afforded to the exonerees,” Vass said. “My whole life has been taken — from 17 to 65 — I’m still dealing with this foolishness.”