As a Nevada Supreme Court Justice, Michael Douglas worked to ensure that everyone, no matter their level of wealth, could use the civil legal system.
Now retired, Douglas is a founding board member of the Innocence Center of Nevada, which is expected to start examining claims of innocence in criminal cases next month.
The project, which has been quietly in the works since January, announced its launch this week, naming prominent figures of the legal community who will sit on its board alongside Douglas.
“Folks who have been wrongly accused and are stating ‘I’m innocent’ deserve an opportunity to have their case reviewed one more time,” Douglas said, pointing to a need for a local review of convictions. “If it’s one person out of 100, we need to do that. We need to have true justice. Justice should not be just for the rich. Justice should not be just for individuals who can afford the best attorneys, the best investigators. Everyone deserves equal justice.”
Veteran criminal defense attorney Robert Langford serves as the project’s board president. Nearly 60 percent of innocence claims handled by the Salt Lake City-based Rocky Mountain Innocence Center are Nevada cases, Langford said.
“It seemed prudent that the caseload of Nevada should be accomplished by a Nevada innocence center,” he said, adding that he often does not have time to spare from his private practice to personally investigate claims he regularly receives from prisoners. “As we’re sitting here talking, there’s someone in prison who’s innocent.”
Toni Ann Jones, executive director and founder of the center, estimated that 250 to 550 people sitting in Nevada prisons have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. In the past 20 years, she added, 20 people have been exonerated of felonies in Nevada after they had served a combined total of 255 years behind bars.
The Innocence Center of Nevada plans to examine major felony convictions, except for those involving sex crimes on children, she said.
“Criminal justice reform is the next step in our civil rights process,” said Jones, who moved to the state last year.
The group operates on donations and received its first from Fred Steese, who spent nearly two decades behind bars for a murder he did not commit. The amount was not disclosed.
This year, Steese received a seven-figure settlement from Nevada for the time he served in prison.
Defense attorney Lisa Rasmussen, vice president of the project’s board, represented him through his appeals, and it was not until November 2017 that the Nevada Board of Pardons cleared Steese of the wrongful murder conviction.
Rasmussen said Steese’s 1992 confession to police was coerced and beaten out of him after he had driven three days without sleep to talk to investigators about a friend who had been killed.
She said a well-funded center could pore over trial transcripts and witness statements and uncover original documents to examine cases.
“It means a lot to defendants in Nevada who have actual innocence claims,” Rasmussen said.
More than five years ago, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson won approval for a special unit to investigate claims of actual innocence. Wolfson did not respond to phone and text messages seeking comment for this story.
Those involved in the project expected to take on cases that Wolfson’s unit might reject, said Kristina Wildeveld, another founding board member, who also represented Steese and others who have been wrongly convicted.
Wildeveld worked with DeMarlo Berry, who became the first person in the state to receive a certificate of innocence under a law passed in 2019. Berry’s case also was investigated by the Clark County district attorney’s conviction review unit.
“I think it’s really important to get their cases a fair review, independent of the DA’s office,” Wildeveld said. “There was a significant need for us to open a center in Las Vegas.”