DeMarlo Berry was 18 years old and walking to a Carl’s Jr. in Las Vegas while a robbery was in progress that led to the death of restaurant manager Charles Burkes.
Being in the wrong place at the wrong time that day in 1994 — plus false testimony from a jailhouse informant who said Berry confessed to the crime — led to a death sentence and more than 22 years in prison for Berry. It wasn’t until 2017 when, after being exonerated when the actual offender confessed to the crime, Berry was dropped off unceremoniously in downtown Las Vegas with almost no possessions to his name and became a free man.
“Everybody familiar with the Bible, right? Lazarus. It felt like coming back from the dead,” testified Berry, wearing a crisp red, white, and blue polo shirt emblazoned with the word “USA.” “For half of my life it was like I’m in a coffin, but I’m living. You’re just waiting to die … to me that’s what it felt like — rebirth.”
Berry’s case took center stage on Thursday during a hearing for AB267, which would allow people who were wrongfully convicted to collect payments from the state to compensate for the time they lost. The pay scale is graduated starting at $50,000 per year imprisoned, but people like Berry who spent more than 21 years in prison could be paid $100,000 for each year they lost behind bars, plus non-monetary services such as tuition, post-incarceration re-entry programs and counseling.
The bill requires a court to seal any records related to the original charge and conviction and sets limits on the amount that individual can collect from the state if they bring a civil lawsuit related to their wrongful conviction.
Only 17 states do not have some sort of system to compensate people for time they wrongly spent incarcerated. The state considered a model for the law is actually conservative-leaning Texas, which pays wrongfully imprisoned people a lump sum of $80,000 per year of incarceration and a monthly annuity payment for the rest of their lives.
A database of exonerations shows that there are 13 people since 1996 who have been exonerated in Nevada of crimes carrying sentences ranging from four years in prison to the death penalty.
Berry’s testimony drew tears and earnest apologies on behalf of the state from lawmakers of both parties.
“This breaks my heart that there are these breakdowns, and we just have to own it,” said Republican Assemblywoman Alexis Hansen, who said she was the daughter of a prosecutor. “We have to own it and do better, and I see this as a way of doing that.”
Lawmakers also thanked Berry’s wife Odilia, who stood by his side throughout the process and married him in a prison visitation room in 2010. She had prayed for years that the real killer would not die before he confessed, and she accompanied her husband at the hearing.
The only opposition came from district attorneys, who said they wanted a higher standard of proof for people to demonstrate they did not commit the crime. Washoe County Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Noble prefaced her testimony by saying that she too was moved by Berry’s story and her own professional nightmare would be wrongly convicting someone.
She said that in Berry’s case, false testimony, rather than prosecutorial misconduct, was to blame.
Berry is driving trucks to make ends meet, but he told lawmakers that his dream is to eventually own his own barber shop and cut hair. At this point, he doesn’t have the funds to pay for schooling.
It’s been difficult to transition back to normal life, he said. Berry said when he’s stopped by police, he’s extra careful to turn on all the lights and put his hands out of the window to show he has nothing to hide, and turns over papers documenting his freedom. Police are often stunned when they see what’s on his record.
There’s a stigma when people run background checks on him for a job. And he said it was tough to reconnect with family members and open up emotionally after so many years away.
“You have to learn to take away the ice that’s around your heart because you have to be emotionless in prison,” he said. “Your feelings have become numb.”
But he didn’t express bitterness about his ordeal. Asked what he wants to give back to society, he said he wants people to recognize the humanity of others, including those in prison.
“I would like for everybody to realize that we all are human,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes but at the same time, don’t take it away from them.”