By Geoconda Arguello-Kline
Next month will mark two years since DeMarlo Berry was exonerated of a murder he did not commit. His wrongful conviction reveals flaws in Nevada’s justice system that the Legislature has an opportunity to fix before the end of session.
On April 24, 1994, 19-year-old DeMarlo Berry went to get a meal at a fast-food restaurant on Fremont Street. When he got to the parking lot he saw an armed robbery taking place inside the restaurant. The gunman shot and killed the manager and escaped. Police focused on Mr. Berry as a suspect, even though there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Based on shaky eyewitness identifications and false jailhouse informant testimony, he was convicted. Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty, but instead he was sentenced to life in prison.
The truth was finally revealed 18 years later when a man named Steven Jackson confessed to the crime. However, under Nevada’s law new evidence cannot be presented in court beyond two years of a conviction–even if it could not have been discovered in that time. DeMarlo’s lawyers at the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center filed a claim anyway, which was dismissed, appealed, and finally granted a hearing.
By that time, the Clark County District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit agreed to investigate the case and dismissed the charges on June 29, 2017. While justice eventually prevailed, DeMarlo spent an additional four years in prison after the real perpetrator confessed. In another county he would still be incarcerated because there is no other conviction review unit in the state.
Even after his exoneration, the injustice continued. DeMarlo was dropped off in downtown Las Vegas at 6 a.m. alone, with no belongings other than a debit card. Since then, he has gotten nothing from the state that unjustly took his freedom because Nevada is one of only 16 states without an exoneree compensation law.
Our state cannot undo this injustice, but it can still do the right thing now. Assembly Bill 356, sponsored by Assemblyman William McCurdy, would allow the wrongfully convicted to present new evidence of innocence when it is discovered, beyond the two-year time limit. Assembly Bill 267, sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Yeager, would provide exonerees with services and financial payments for each year of wrongful imprisonment.
The Culinary Workers Union Local 226 is advocating for these two bills as part of the “Nevada Coalition for the Wrongfully Convicted,” a group of civil rights, legal, and faith-based organizations. While some may think that this kind of legislation is not a labor issue, the criminal justice system has a real impact on the lives of working families. Wrongful convictions disproportionately impact communities of color. A fair and accountable system protects individual rights and makes us all safer.
AB 267 has passed the Assembly unanimously and now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee. AB 356 passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee, and now it must be approved Assembly Ways and Means Committee. In the remaining weeks of session, we urge Nevada lawmakers to pass these important measures for justice.
Geoconda Arguello-Kline is Secretary-Treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226. She was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and came to the United States in 1979. She has lived in Las Vegas since 1983.