Wrongfully convicted: Exonerees get fresh start in Tampa

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A Maryland man who served 10 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit is now getting a fresh start in Tampa, partially thanks to a new program helping exonerees rejoin society and find housing.

Leslie Vass is finally getting the help he's needed for decades.

"I'm at peace," Vass said. "I am truly at peace."

It's peace that didn't come without years of struggle. In 1975, at just 17-years-old, he was arrested and charged with armed robbery.

At the time, he was a star basketball player at his Baltimore high school with no previous criminal record.

"It's something that you can't describe when someone is telling you that you did something," Vass said. "And you're saying you didn't do it."

Vass was convicted based on the victim's testimony and sentenced to 20 years behind bars. Nine years in, a man reached out to Vass, telling him he knew the real person who committed the crime.

The original witness whose testimony put him behind bars later called into to a Baltimore television show, where Leslie was a guest, to apologize.

The actual perpetrator was never arrested or charged. Vass was released from prison in 1984. In the years that followed, he started a family and tried to rejoin society, but had struggles.

"You're not going to ever forget where you went and what happened, but you need to know how to deal with it In a positive constructive manner," Vass said.

Dealing with it was something he didn't learn how to do until he moved into to his new home and started receiving counseling and other services from the Sunny Center, an organization that provides housing and other services to exonerees.

Dorothy Bort, with the Sunny Center, says the organization is filling a major need. Right now, a handful of programs help recent parolees find housing, but exonerees don't qualify for any of them.

Now, Bort has purchased a property in Tampa and created four separate homes for exonerees.

"The Sunny Center is awesome," Bort said. "Tampa is awesome. We worked really, really hard to find the right property.

"I'm truly grateful for the opportunity they have afforded me," Vass said.

The Sunny Center relies heavily on donations, volunteers, and support in order to provide homes to exonerees. For more information on how you can help, visit www.thesunnycenter.com.

This story has been edited to reflect the perpetrator was not arrested.