The Baltimore Sun paid tribute to former Innocence Project client Chris Conover, who took his own life in late February.  Conover was 60 years old.  He was free from prison, but never free from post-prison struggles.  He died a free man, but still living under suspicion.  Conover was convicted of taking part in a drug-related double homicide in 1984.  He was sentenced to life in prison.  He spent 18 years wrongfully convicted in a Maryland prison before DNA testing excluded him as the perpetrator.  His conviction was vacated in 2003.  DNA from two strands of human hair found at the scene, a key piece of the prosecution’s evidence against him, proved to be someone else’s.

Despite the DNA tests imploding the state’s case against him and numerous alibi witnesses who had seen him at a birthday party at the time of the murders, the state insisted he was guilty. They vowed to retry him, so Conover took an Alford plea (a plea of no contest), in 2003, to armed robbery, in order to prevent the risk of more prison time.  He did not want to await trial in a prison and his attorneys knew that his county had a high conviction rate.  In a no contest plea, a defendant maintains their innocence, but concedes that a jury or judge could be persuaded to convict them.  Lawfully, they are treated as if they were found or pled guilty.  The bargain was not ideal, said Lee Rubin and Kevin Ranlett, attorneys for Conover.  However, Conover was spared the stress and unknowns of a trial and could move on with his life.  Rubin and Ranlett worked the case pro bono for the Innocence Project.

“It would not have been worth it to put my mother and my loved ones through another trial,” Conover told the Sun.

Conover moved back to his hometown and married his high school sweetheart, Susan.  They moved to North Carolina and set up a pet-care business.  The recession took its toll on the family’s finances.  Conover was never officially exonerated and was ineligible for compensation.  His business faltered and he began to suffer from depression, panic attacks, and anxiety.

“He knew that, to get help, he needed to commit himself,” Sue told the Sun, “But he didn’t want to be locked up again.”

He never recovered.

“He would do anything for anybody…He couldn’t fight his demons any longer.  He felt like he was disappointing everybody…”

Conover applied for a pardon, which was rejected in 2012.  The Innocence Project was in the process of revising the pardon in the hopes that the new governor, Larry Hogan, would grant Conover the closure he deserved when he committed suicide.

The attorneys said they were shocked and saddened to learn of Conover’s death.

In the first application for pardon, the lawyers were optimistic and thought they had a solid case.  The DNA test undermined the prosecution’s theory of the case and the testimony of an FBI expert who told the jury that the hairs were Conover’s (based upon a microscopic analysis).  Plus, in a separate trial, Conover’s alleged accomplice was found not guilty.  The pardon would have made Conover eligible for compensation in some capacity, which would have stabilized the family’s finances.

He never saw any recompense for his years of suffering in prison or afterwards from the effects. Rubin said what he remembers most about Conover was “an ebullient, positive person who had an unbelievable perspective on life for someone who’d had so much of his life stolen…” Kirk Bloodsworth, the first death row inmate in the U.S. to be exonerated by DNA evidence, attended Conover’s funeral.  He had met Conover while they both were in prison together in Maryland.

Bloodsworth said that he would like to see a posthumous pardon for this good man.

Others left family condolence messages online including, “God’s blessings on him,” “Your warm heart, love of animals, and loving soul will be greatly missed,” “There aren’t enough words in the language or hours in the day to speak the words in my heart which is broken…,” “I wish the trail had ended farther on and some other day. You are a great friend and human being.  No past tense…”

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