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Leslie Vass

Convicted of armed robbery in a bench trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court in 1975, Leslie Vass was exonerated ten years later at the age of 28.

The victim of the robbery, who initially identified Vass, later admitted he had been wrong in his identification after a Maryland public defender reopened the case and showed him a photo of another alleged perpetrator. The victim then positively identified that person as the robber, stating that he had been mistaken in his earlier identification of Vass.

Vass’s ordeal began on November 2, 1974, when three armed men robbed Joseph Chester, a deliveryman, in Baltimore. Two of the three were caught that night and subsequently pled guilty.

Three months later, Leslie A. Vass, a 17-year-old junior and star basketball player at Southern High School with no prior record, was walking out a drugstore when Chester saw him.

Chester called police and identified Vass as the third armed robber. Vass was arrested and prosecuted as an adult for armed robbery.

In July 1975, Vass went to trial and chose to have the case decided by a judge without a jury. The prosecution’s case was based on the Chester’s identification of Vass. Prior to trial, Vass’s defense counsel did not conduct an investigation. Instead, the defense lawyer relied solely on Vass’s denial that he was involved.

At the end of the trial, Vass was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to twenty years in prison. Because he was a first-time offender, he should have been eligible for parole on the robbery conviction after six years, but inexplicably, that did not happen.

Acting without a lawyer, Vass filed a post-conviction petition seeking a new trial that was unsuccessful.

Then, in 1984, an inmate approached Vass with a photo of the inmate’s brother, referred to by the nickname of Bucky Nutt. The inmate told Vass that Nutt was the third armed robber.

Vass sent the photo of Nutt to the Maryland Public Defender’s Office, but nothing happened for two years. Vass later said he was informed by the public defender’s office that he was procedurally barred from filing another petition for post-conviction relief.

Ultimately, an investigator re-opened the case and took Nutt’s photo to Chester, who identified Nutt as the true perpetrator. Chester admitted his identification of Vass was a mistake.

“There ain’t no doubt in my mind,” Chester said. “I got the wrong man. I made a mistake.” Chester said that in the photograph of Nutt, he was wearing the same shirt he wore on the day of the robbery.

In October 1984, based on Chester’s recantation of his identification, Vass was released from prison. The Baltimore City Circuit Court vacated Vass’s conviction in May of 1986. Governor Harry Hughes granted him a pardon based on innocence in August of that year.

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Edward Silver then ordered the robbery case expunged from state police, court and prison records, including references to it on Vass’s rap sheet.

In March of 1987, the Maryland Board of Public Works awarded Vass $250,000 in compensation.

For twelve years, Maryland failed to expunge the armed robbery conviction from Vass’s record, despite orders to do so from Judge Silver in 1986 and Judge Joseph McCurdy in 1993.

In 1998, the Washington Post newspaper chronicled Vass’s struggle to clear his record, noting that after McCurdy’s order, the conviction was erased from his rap sheet at the Maryland Criminal Justice Information System. However, the conviction remained in Baltimore City Circuit Court records, as well as at the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, until April of 1998. Vass filed a lawsuit against the state of Maryland seeking damages for failing to remove his false conviction from his record. In December 1998, he settled the lawsuit for $50,000.

In addition, records of Vass’s 1976 appeal of the robbery conviction to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals were are still available for public inspection in the State Archives building in Annapolis.

Vass had earned his GED while incarcerated, but during the years after his release he struggled to find work, hampered by his criminal record. He was homeless for a time.

He earned a Bachelor’s degree in sociology from Towson State University and became a certified paralegal. He has worked extensively to lobby and advocate for exonerees locally and across the nation.

In January 2022, Vass was awarded an additional $806,787 in compensation and other benefits, including health care for five years.
Researched by Megan Neunan

County:Baltimore City
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1974
Sentence:20 years
Age at the date of crime:17
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense