PHILADELPHIA — A city judge ruled last year that Philadelphia prosecutors had “sanitized” evidence that led to a 1986 death sentence.
This summer, a federal judge said “shaky eyewitness identifications” had condemned another city man to death row in 1992. And last week, a third judge in Philadelphia called the 1998 trial evidence that sent two teens to prison for life “terribly weak.”
Together, the judges have overturned three murder convictions and a death sentence in the past year.
“I think there was just a really great pressure at that time to clear cases,” Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. “Now, there’s certainly pressure to clear cases, but I think there’s a much greater appreciation for clearing cases with the right guy.”
Innocence Project lawyers want Philadelphia prosecutors to launch an internal review of challenged cases from an earlier era, as their peers in Chicago and Brooklyn have done. However, prosecutors here say that’s not their job, and they typically fight to uphold the conviction or sentence.
“Sometimes I expect the Innocence Project wishes we would investigate for them and come to the same conclusion as them,” said Assistant District Attorney Robin Godfrey, who heads the Post Conviction Relief Appeals unit. “If we see anything (troubling), believe me, it will be brought to the right people’s attention. The process is working.”
Her unit is appealing the 1986 and 1992 rulings, believing the judges erred, and weighing an appeal in the third case, which came in a packed courtroom Wednesday.
Eugene Gilyard and Lance Felder were 16 when a restaurant owner was shot dead while leaving work in 1995. The chief evidence came from the victim’s daughter, who glimpsed the shooter through a fan in an upstairs window that night — and picked Gilyard out of a lineup two years later.
The Innocence Project challenged discrepancies between her initial description and its client. The group also obtained a confession from another inmate. Prosecutors say he was bribed.
“We can’t have these inconsistencies in a case based solely on identification,” Common Pleas Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi said, ordering a new trial as the inmates and their families cheered.
Scores of murder cases have been reversed or remanded on appeal in Philadelphia in recent years, along with many more around the state, according to a 2011 Philadelphia Inquirer review. Forensic science, police investigative techniques and defense work in capital cases have all improved markedly in the past decade.
District Attorney Seth Williams, who took office in 2010, seeks the death penalty far more sparingly than his predecessor. Veteran prosecutors now weigh those decisions and allow defense lawyers to present mitigating evidence from the start, before the case goes to court.
Bluestine acknowledges the reforms but believes more should be done to fix what she calls the injustices of the past.
In one dramatic case last year, a judge threw out the death sentence of a former star high school quarterback just days before his scheduled execution.
Terry Williams admitted killing a sports booster and church deacon as a teen but now contends both men had sexually abused him. Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina found that authorities withheld evidence that might have led jurors in 1986 to a life sentence. Prosecutors have appealed her ruling.
“I don’t think we hid anything from him,” Assistant District Attorney Tom Dolgenos said Friday. “We’ll see what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has to say.”
In some cases, the office has negotiated a reduced sentence rather than retry an inmate — most notably, Mumia Abu-Jamal, now serving a life sentence in a policeman’s 1981 murder instead of getting a new sentencing hearing after his death sentence was thrown out in 2011. On the other hand, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with prosecutors this year in another prolonged death-penalty appeal, Dolgenos said.
The case of death row inmate James Dennis has likewise been lengthy.
Dennis, 41, has spent half his life on death row in the 1991 killing of a teenager fatally shot for her gold earrings. Her friend identified Dennis as the shooter, but Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody in August called the conviction “a grave miscarriage of justice” marked by shoddy police work. She ordered prosecutors to retry Dennis within six months or release him from prison. The office has appealed her decision.
“Judge Brody accepted defense allegations — unproven allegations — as fact,” Dolgenos said. “I was surprised and disappointed by (her) language.”