Newport News man’s release from prison sparks discussion about wrongful convictions

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - News 3 recently looked into the case of a man who spent 25 years behind bars for a crime he says he didn't commit. When we looked deeper, we realized his story isn't rare.

A Newport News jury convicted Nathaniel Pierce of the 1994 murder of 19-year-old Steven Smith. He was released Thursday at 48 years old.

Martin Tankleff was exonerated after spending almost 18 years in prison for the murder of his parents.

Nathaniel Pierce & family

Related: 10 witnesses admit to lying in a Newport News murder case

"When a prosecutor puts an innocent person in prison they are not only prosecuting that person in prison, they not only victimize the family, but they victimize the entire community,” Tankleff said.

“Once you looked at it, it was so clear it was the business partner, yet law enforcement said, 'No, we’ve got our guy, we don’t admit we made mistakes,'" said Georgetown professor Marc Howard. "And this is what happens over and over and over again in wrongful conviction cases - they refuse to say they were wrong."

Tankleff recently passed the New York bar exam and is now working to become an attorney. He hopes to stop what happened to him from happening again.

In the meantime, he has teamed up with Howard to teach an experimental class, "Making an Exoneree." Students take on cases of jailed people who claim they are innocent.

One man has been exonerated through their hard work.

“We were able to be successful in the Valentino Dixon case. We uncovered new evidence, we shared it with his lawyers, his lawyers shared it with the D.A. and on September 19, Valentino was freed,” Tankleff said.

“We are using students and their energy, their social media skills, their savvy, their fearlessness to take on a system that so far has been unwilling to challenge its mistakes,” Howard said.

The United States leads the world in incarcerations of its citizens, with approximately 2 million people behind bars.

“Last year, there were approximately 160 exonerations nationally. That translates to about one in every two and a half days,” Tankleff said.

Tankleff says those are just the few who have been successful.

"I'd like to help change the mindset and the mentality that people have in this country that people have about punishment for crime and about the overuse of prisons. There is so much work to be done," Howard said.

They have used Pierce’s story in their classroom to inspire their students, and they hope to ignite change in today’s society.

“There are a lot of people out there who are desperate for relief, because they are not getting help from law enforcement, from the prosecutor’s office or from the criminal justice system in general,” Howard said.

As Howard and Tankleff remind us, this is just one story of freedom, but there are many more waiting to be shared.