DeMarlo Berry walked out of a Las Vegas prison last summer after spending half of his life behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Dressed in prison blues, he hardly recognized the city that greeted him, a place he’d last stepped foot in two decades before in 1995, when he was sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting a man outside a Carl’s Jr. during a robbery.
At the time, there was no physical evidence linking Berry to the crime: No gun, no fingerprints, and no DNA. However, there was a jailhouse snitch who falsely claimed that Berry had confessed to the crime while they shared a jail holding cell. Four eyewitnesses also provided inconsistent and only general descriptions of the perpetrator—but those descriptions were enough to convince a jury that Berry was guilty. And for years, there seemed to be no hope for Berry, who maintained his innocence.
But in 2011, a group of University of Utah alumni and students, working with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center (RMIC), took on Berry’s case and set out to bring new evidence to light that a jury had sent the wrong man to prison.
The RMIC is a nonprofit organization that partners with the U’s S.J. Quinney College of Law to match students with cases that could potentially prove the innocence of the wrongfully convicted. Students receive not only academic credit but also valuable and unparalleled hands-on legal experience. Once they have completed an investigation and a case is ready for litigation, the center recruits local attorneys to help bring the case to court.
The innocence center agreed to take Berry’s case from the many requests it receives each month because his had several signs of a wrongful conviction—unreliable eyewitness identification, incentivized informant testimony, the failure to investigate alternative suspects, and possible untested DNA evidence. Although it soon became clear that no DNA was available to exonerate Berry, other information pointed distinctly to his innocence. Thus, after the center gathered new evidence in Berry’s case—including a confession from the actual killer—the law firms of Richards Brandt Miller Nelson and Weil & Drage joined in litigating the case and ultimately proved Berry innocent of all charges. A judge signed an order that Berry immediately be released from prison in June 2017.
College of Law Clinical Professor Jensie Anderson BFA’85 JD’93 was among the group of Utah attorneys who began a post-conviction investigation on Berry’s behalf. “It was a long, hard fight for DeMarlo, but he never lost his faith,”says Anderson, who also serves as pro bono legal director of the RMIC. For her—as well as U alums and attorneys Craig C. Coburn BS’77 JD’80, Jennifer Springer BS’09 JD’14, Samantha Wilcox JD’14, and Lynn S. Davies BA’77 BA’78 JD’81—fighting to bring the truth of Berry’s innocence to light and succeeding in freeing him will be forever memorable.
“Upon first hearing DeMarlo’s story, I was horrified by the apparent miscarriage of justice that had sent an innocent man to prison for his entire adult life. As I examined the evidence more critically, I became convinced of his innocence and knew I had to help,” says Davies, who was with the rest of the legal team in Nevada to pick up Berry from prison, fittingly just before Independence Day. “Seeing DeMarlo stand in the sweltering Las Vegas sun, finally a free man, was beyond gratifying—it was a major highlight of my legal career.”
Davies learned about the case from his colleague Wilcox, who signed on to it while a law student at the U. At the heart of Berry’s exoneration were endless hours of work by Wilcox and several other U students who, as part of their clinical experience with RMIC, painstakingly built the case that proved Berry’s innocence. A key part of the evidence that would ultimately persuade Nevada prosecutors to ask that the case against Berry be dismissed was gathered by Wilcox as a student.
“I really believed in him, and I wanted to keep helping him,” Wilcox says of Berry. “I think all innocence stories are intriguing,” she adds. “Students are really exposed to the grittiness of the situation. We get to go visit with the clients and hear their stories. You get to look into their eyes and gauge their sincerity and honesty.”
It was Wilcox who elicited a confession from Steven Jackson, the real killer in the case that landed Berry behind bars. In 1994, Jackson had been a gang leader who police believed had been involved in, but not responsible for, the fatal shooting at the Carl’s Jr. Wilcox tracked Jackson to a California prison—where he was serving a sentence of life without parole for another murder—and traveled there to interview him in person. When she explained she was investigating Berry's claims of innocence, Jackson answered simply, "I've been waiting for you for 15 years."
Jackson eventually confessed to the crime, which led to an a davit that started the proceedings to finally clear Berry. That evidence—along with several witnesses, including a forensic expert corroborating Jackson’s confession, a recantation from the incentivized jailhouse informant, and a close examination of nine additional eyewitnesses—gave the innocence center what it needed to bring Berry’s case back to court.
Springer, who was also a student when she started working on the case and ultimately joined the RMIC as its managing attorney, recalls the powerful emotions of the team members, who had spent thousands of hours working to free the man. “Everyone was just ecstatic. There were many, many tears of joy.”
“Achieving justice for DeMarlo tops everything,” adds Coburn. He recalls first meeting Berry in person at the prison in 2014, when Coburn told Berry he’d one day walk out a free man. The day Berry was released, he shared a moment with Coburn. “Amidst the tears, hugs, and smiles, he reminded me of what I had said to him as we parted ways after our first meeting,” Coburn recounts. “He smiled and said, ‘Here we are.’ For a lawyer, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Berry—now pursuing a career as a barber (a job he held in prison)—says he’s grateful the team from Utah gave him his life back. He also married while in prison and today enjoys a peaceful existence in Las Vegas. “If they wasn’t as thorough as they were, we wouldn’t be here,” says Berry about his attorneys’ efforts. “Nobody would be concerned about me or anything. I’d just be another number in prison.”
—Melinda Rogers is communications manager for the U’s S.J. Quinney College of Law.