First, there was the chaotic din of shouting and street noise. Then, David Sparks’ voice crackled onto the 911 recording.

“Somebody got shot. Somebody’s possibly dying — he’s possibly dying on Bouvier Street.”

It was Sept. 4, 2006, Labor Day, and a Nicetown block party was pushing midnight. Teenagers, drunk on the dregs of summer, milled in and out of a corner Chinese takeout, ordering food through the Plexiglas.

There had been a confrontation involving a 19-year-old man named Gary Hall. Someone had pulled a gun, firing at him as he rode away on a girl’s bicycle.

“He might be dead. He might be dying.“

At first, bystanders wondered if Hall had been hit at all, the way he kept pedaling down the block. Then, he fell.

“Please, could you hurry up, please.”

Hall did not survive the night. And Sparks, who was just 16 years old — so young he was initially picked up for a curfew violation — was charged with the murder.

The trial, before a judge, took just three days, the main evidence against Sparks the eyewitness testimony of two teenage cousins whose accounts were malleable over the course of the investigation and trial.

Even so, Sparks was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

Hall’s death and everything that followed traced well-worn contours in this community, which is tightly connected but also irreparably fractured — then, as now, fraught with gun violence that’s insulated by a profound no-snitching culture. Even Sparks himself, staring down life in prison, at the time refused to point a finger.

Over the subsequent decade, with help from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, Sparks has found a handful of witnesses willing to come forward — though he hasn’t yet convinced a court to take up his case.

He does have access to a different source of relief, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled sentences like his — automatic life-without-parole terms for minors — are cruel, unusual, and, therefore, illegal. Since Pennsylvania began resentencing its 514 juvenile lifers in 2016, close to 80 percent have received new sentences. Philadelphia, once home to more juvenile lifers than any jurisdiction in the nation, has fewer than 60 cases left to process.

Yet, those who claim their innocence have been left behind.

Lawyers have likened the situation to a catch-22: Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Kathryn Streeter-Lewis, who is in charge of approving deals for juvenile lifers, says she cannot resentence those still fighting their convictions. Meanwhile, federal judges can’t address their habeas petitions while state-level proceedings are incomplete.

“It’s really saying you have to make the devil’s choice," said Jules Epstein, a Temple University law professor: "Stay in jail because you’re claiming you’re innocent, or bet on a chance at freedom now. That’s a horrible choice.”

For Sparks, 29, that means proceedings are stayed at both state and federal levels.

“It’s like I’m getting ping-ponged back and forth, and nobody’s touching my case,” Sparks said. “I’m saying, ‘Just give me a chance. Just look at it.’ ”

One advocate estimated there are 10 to 20 people trapped in the same dilemma.

It’s led some to contemplate giving up on decades-long quests for exoneration in favor of a plea for immediate parole.

The thought has preoccupied Terrance Lewis, who’s served two decades for a 1996 murder though a federal judge opined that he was innocent. He wrestled with the idea all summer as he watched younger lifers — men he had mentored — resentenced and released.

“They all have less time in than me," he said, “but they are going home because they are guilty.”

A high price to pay

The legal reason cited for denying the resentencing can be traced to a 2001 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, Commonwealth v. Bryant. That was the case of a man whose death sentence had been vacated, while the underlying finding of guilt remained intact. He wished to be resentenced to life without parole while continuing to fight that conviction, but the court wrote that it would be “wasteful of scarce judicial resources.”

Men like Lewis argue that, instead, it’s their lives wasting away. Post-conviction petitions can take years to wind through the courts. Lewis’s son, born after he was arrested, is now a junior in college.

In a letter to the court written by the District Attorney’s Office, then led by Seth Williams, the DA argued adhering to Bryant “prevents piecemeal litigation, avoids delay in the resolution in guilt-phase issues, and eliminates a potential misuse of judicial resources.”

Epstein said that the Bryant case is a poor analogy for the juvenile lifers' situation. In that case, the finding was that the resentencing, to death or to life in prison, could be rendered meaningless if a new trial is granted. "That doesn’t apply here,” Epstein said.

At age 40, Lewis bought a composition book from the prison commissary and started making a bucket list: Put his feet in the ocean, eat a steak, bike Kelly Drive, get a job working nights, and go back to school. Recently, he saw a Papa John’s commercial on TV. The slow-motion close-ups of gooey cheese caught his eye. “I promised myself I’m going there,” he said.

But spending the rest of his life under watch of the parole board with no avenue to clear his name? That’s a high price.

For now, Lewis has hung his hopes on the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which is reviewing his case.

Others are contemplating abandoning their innocence claims altogether.

Frank Grazulis, who was convicted of a 1990 stabbing death just off South Street when he was 16 years old, is considering it, even though a key witness against him recanted, and a detective who took the witness statement has been implicated in other wrongful convictions.

Grazulis, 44, is coming to terms with the fact that as long as he holds on to that claim, he can’t get resentenced. “They’re punishing me, basically, for arguing my innocence.”

Frank Grazulis (right)

Frank Grazulis: ‘I can’t admit my guilt, because I’m not guilty’

Frank Grazulis was a scared 16-year-old in 1990, charged with fatally stabbing 16-year-old Eric Brinkman near South Street during a scuffle between two groups of teens. Police told him there were dozens of witnesses, all ready to testify he had stabbed Brinkman, he says. His lawyer told him a guilty plea was his best option. Two other teens also pleaded guilty, and got 3- to 10-year sentences.

Grazulis later learned that eyewitnesses, and the surviving victims, had identified others as the perpetrators — and that the only statements against him came from two teenagers who were themselves implicated in the case. Only one said he actually saw the stabbing. The teen, Robert Righter, would later say that he had lied in that statement. “The cops kept on saying my brother and I were going to to go to jail for a long time,” he told an investigator.

The statement was taken by Frank Jastzrembski, the same Philadelphia Police detective who was accused of suppressing evidence in the case of James Dennis, whose murder conviction was overturned in 2016, and who testified in the case of Anthony Wright that he had searched Wright’s home and discovered the bloody clothing he’d worn during the rape and murder of Louise Talley. After 24 years, Wright was exonerated in 2016, after DNA testing showed the clothes were actually worn by Talley, and the semen on them belonged to a different man.

A Philadelphia Inquirer clipping document's a teen's surrender in the 1990 murder, to which Frank Grazulis pleaded guilty.
File
A Philadelphia Inquirer clipping documents a teen's surrender in the 1990 murder, to which Frank Grazulis pleaded guilty.

Nearly three years after Pennsylvania began the process of resentencing juvenile lifers, Grazulis' case remained stayed in federal and state courts as of November. Now, he’s seeking to withdraw his innocence claim so he can be resentenced.

Grazulis admits he was in the area when the crime occurred, one of a group of kids who wandered toward South Street after a party nearby was shut down. But he had drunk a six-pack in the space of an hour, making him a poor eyewitness for his own defense.

Still, there’s plenty in the police investigation file to exonerate him, his lawyer, Jay Feinschil insists: One surviving stabbing victim named a different perpetrator, who was African American, by name and from a photo array. And a woman who lived upstairs told police she looked out her window and saw a boy with shoulder-length blond hair hunched over Brinkman’s body, wiping blood off a knife and saying, “I got the one on the steps.” Grazulis, who is white and had short dark hair, didn’t fit either description — but those leads were never followed, Feinschil said.

A new sentence could make Grazulis immediately eligible to go before a parole board that typically looks for remorse.

“I can’t admit my guilt, because I’m not guilty,” he said — but he is remorseful. “To think of the stupid stuff I did as a kid, that the younger kids seen me doing: partying, getting high. I contributed to the fights, the hostilities in the neighborhood. Could it have been avoided? It bothers me to this day. I feel responsible for that."

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Some have been waiting for years to get a response from the courts.

Aleem Williams, 32, serving life for a 2004 murder, filed new eyewitness evidence four years ago that he believed was the break he’d been waiting for: the final, crucial proof of his innocence.

“The courts still have not answered my new evidence claims, which I can’t understand,” he wrote in a letter this summer.

Aleem Williams: ‘The way they put it, this is my only way out’

Today, Philadelphia Police have a detailed policy for presenting photos to identify eyewitnesses: six identically formatted photos must be shown, in succession, by an officer who doesn’t know which one is an image of the suspect. But as recently as 2004, it was a different story. That’s when police showed a 12-year-old witness, Khalif Nixon, just a single photo of Aleem Williams, clearly marked “Philadelphia Arrestee Database.”

Instead of a photo array, an eyewitness was shown this single photo of Aleem Williams for identification purposes. That would violate current policy in several ways.
Instead of a photo array, an eyewitness was shown this single photo of Aleem Williams for identification purposes. That would violate current policy in several ways.

Based on that identification, Nixon became a star witness against Williams, who was convicted of holding 15-year-old Malik Upchurch by the arms while another teen, Jermaine King, shot him in the back on a South Philadelphia Street.

Nixon later admitted in an affidavit that he didn’t witness the crime at all and could only identify Williams’ photo with police prompting. He said he told the police and the prosecutor the truth at the time, but remains wracked with guilt. “I know that my bad dreams are because I helped convict an innocent person,” he wrote.

Tyrek Upchurch, Malik’s older brother, who says he actually did witness the crime, also submitted a statement that Williams was innocent. “I was so bent on getting the real people that killed my brother that I didn’t care about the fact that Leem got arrested for it, but the true [sic] is Aleem Williams was not one of the two guys that murdered my brother,” he said an affidavit.

That was five years ago. Those statements did not earn Williams a new hearing.

Williams, who says he was at a bike shop with friends when his mother called to let him know the shooting had taken place right in front of their house, also had alibi witnesses at trial. And, he found other witnesses that pointed to a different perpetrator, a guy named only as “Kev" in the trial transcripts. Over the years, he’s also received letters purportedly from his codefendant, Jermaine King, apologizing to Williams for being punished for “something you didn’t have anything to do wit.” King did not respond to requests for comment.

Williams is not sure what more he can do to clear his name. In recent years, he said, he’s gotten legal advice that he should focus on his resentencing, and that admitting guilt may be his best hope. “They saying I have to say that I did it," Williams, 32, said in an email. “They want me to write letters to the victim family just so I can get a better sentence. The way they put it, this is my only way out.”

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Similarly, Theopholis Wilson, 47, who was convicted on the testimony of a single witness to a 1989 triple murder in Brewerytown, has seemingly strong exonerating evidence but no court date in sight. The eyewitness, serving six life sentences for murder, has admitted he lied because prosecutors had secretly promised him a lighter sentence, involving commutation after just 15 years. Wilson’s co-defendant, Christopher Williams, already has a new trial pending, but Wilson’s identical claims have languished for seven years without a hearing.

For those who do get evidentiary hearings, the outcome is far from certain. Robert Outlaw, who was convicted of a 2003 murder, is currently in Common Pleas Court with his innocence claim.

Outlaw, 35, knows that if the judge rejects his petition, his last option is to seek relief in federal court, which could take years. But he’s not backing down, even if it would get him out of prison sooner.

“I’m going to have to exhaust my remedies, and that’s that," he said. "I’m passionate that I didn’t do it, and whatever hardships I’m going to face with that, that’s what it’s going to be. At the end of the day ... I’m just not going in there admitting guilt for something I didn’t do.”

Robert Outlaw: ‘Someone gives a dying declaration... and it just gets waved off completely’

Allegations of police misconduct, a lying witness, prosecutors illegally withholding information — Robert Outlaw’s claims are a catalog of what can go wrong in the criminal justice system.

He was convicted in 2004 of the murder of Jamal Kelly, shot dead four years earlier on a stoop in East Germantown. Ever since, Outlaw and his advocates have been piecing together a narrative they say explains what actually happened the night Kelly was killed — and how Outlaw’s name got tangled up in the case even after Kelly was found shouting the nickname of a different neighborhood man: “Shank shot me.”

“I never seen a situation where someone gives a dying declaration kind of statement, and it just gets waved off completely," Outlaw said recently. "The guy who the dead man said shot him ends up being a witness against me.”

In the homicide file for Jamal Kelly, Robert Outlaw's lawyers found a series of detectives' notes on a different suspect. Here, a message from a tipster reads: "Your killer is a [black male] named Blunt. He's been bragging in the Dew Drop Inn," about the crime.
Handout
In the homicide file for Jamal Kelly, Robert Outlaw's lawyers found a series of detectives' notes on a different suspect. Here, a message from a tipster reads: "Your killer is a [black male] named Blunt. He's been bragging in the Dew Drop Inn," about the crime.

Recently, lawyers with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project uncovered evidence hidden in the District Attorney’s file — including leads on an alternative suspect and a damning letter from a witness eager to cut a deal. In the letter, Charles Paladino wrote to a detective, “I’ve put together a speech for the upcoming trial, and I’m sure you’ll be happy with it. ... I’ve learned a lot about being a witness.”

Outlaw was convicted on the statements police took from three men, all of whom failed to implicate him at trial, and a fourth, who said he overheard a conversation about the shooting.

Outlaw’s wife, Monique Solomon-Outlaw, who has spent more than a decade posting fliers, maintaining a Facebook page and raising funds for Outlaw’s cause, helped, too: One of her fliers caught the eye of a woman who’d witnessed the crime, and was willing to testify Outlaw wasn’t the killer.

At an evidentiary hearing in November, she got the opportunity. Paladino appeared, too — on a grainy video link from state prison — to say he’d lied at Outlaw’s preliminary hearing because police held him in a cell for 48 hours and beat him for hours at a time. He even claimed that at one point a detective paid him $50 to sign a statement saying Outlaw had assaulted him.

He’s not exactly a star witness. The prosecutor at the hearing noted Paladino had asked Outlaw for money, which he refused.

Outlaw said he doesn’t expect the judge to find Paladino’s testimony credible. “I think he’s a liar," he said. “What’s crazy to me is, it’s alright for my conviction to stand with a liar — but if it’s anything to do with me, being released, it’s unbelievable.”

From left: Robert Outlaw's wife, Monique Solomon-Outlaw, with Outlaw's family members, Chris Jones and Sharita Starr, after the first part of an evidentiary hearing in November.
From left: Robert Outlaw's wife, Monique Solomon-Outlaw, with Outlaw's family members, Chris Jones and Sharita Starr, after the first part of an evidentiary hearing in November.
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A suspicion that stuck

Unlike many others who claim their innocence, Sparks says he knows exactly who did the crime. In fact, he was an eyewitness.

According to him and other witnesses, there were two story lines that day in 2006: One, a teenage flirtation that kept Sparks lingering on the street when he probably should have been at home. The other, a simmering confrontation between the victim, Gary Hall, and two brothers, Marquise Lawrence, 15, and Ivan Simmons, 17, that turned to violence.

Sparks said he was standing near the corner when he saw Simmons come through a vacant lot to 18th Street, gun in hand.

“He shot the gun a couple times, and I seen it was like slow motion,” Sparks said. Hall fell. Simmons ran. Lawrence dashed into the corner Chinese takeout to demand the food he’d ordered earlier, then hurried away with it. Sparks stuck around and called 911.

It was just hours later that suspicion began sticking to him, like a stain that wouldn’t wash off.

It started when police stopped Sparks for breaking curfew. According to testimony at his trial, he matched a witness’s description of the shooter, and that’s why he was taken to police headquarters for questioning.

Sparks was never released again. He refused to point the finger at Simmons, though. He wasn’t a snitch, he wrote in jailhouse letters to friends and family, asking them to help clear his name.

“I didn’t know they were going to take my whole life from me,” he said recently. “It took me sitting in here to realize this.”

Police records indicate they sought to question Lawrence and Simmons, but never actually interviewed them.

Then, in December 2006, while Sparks was still awaiting his preliminary hearing, someone killed Simmons.

That shooting remains unsolved, though theories abound. Sparks believes Simmons was killed in retaliation for shooting Hall. Simmons’ family thinks Sparks had something to do with it.

Going into his trial, Sparks still had hope.

There was no physical evidence against him: no gun, and no gunpowder residue on his hands or clothes (the clothes, turned over to police, went missing). And at his preliminary hearing, a supposed prosecution witness Barry McShore, had stood up in the courtroom, raging: “Gary died in front of my door. He related to my people. Then you get [Sparks] up in the jailhouse for something — and the person who so-called killed Gary, he is dead.”

But the prosecution had better witnesses in Markita Reddy, 13, and her cousin Kalishea Reddy, 14, who said they saw the shooting before running into the Chinese takeout. They at times contradicted themselves, and each other, in the details of their testimony — details like where the shooter was and even how many shooters there were. Neither saw Sparks with a gun. Still, they were adamant that he did the shooting.

There was an eyewitness who pointed away from Sparks: Latisha Lowery testified she saw Simmons shooting. But that was Sparks' girlfriend, the prosecutor argued — she had an agenda. In the end, Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper did not find her testimony credible.

Twelve years of ‘the same thing’

Sparks’ mother, Tameeka Sparks-Hawkins, still lives in Nicetown — her tidy living room decorated with family photos and hard-earned high school diplomas — the families of witnesses, victims, and perpetrators all locked in unbearable proximity.

To her, it feels as if the murder helped kick off a cycle of street justice that continues to this day. The neighborhood claims the city’s highest violent-crime rate; at least five shootings have rung out within a block of the murder just in the last six months. According to census data, men who grew up in the area are almost twice as likely to be incarcerated as to be married: 15 percent of all males from the census tract were locked up as of 2010.

Around the corner, there’s the bodega where she still sees Lawrence, standing with a crew of young men from morning until night. Down the block, there’s the Chinese takeout, still encased in Plexiglas, with all the atmosphere of an ATM vestibule. There, in front of that chain-link gate, is where Hall fell.

Sparks-Hawkins said the story of Hall’s death is an open secret in the neighborhood, like the scraggly bushes where young men can be seen tucking away their stashes in broad daylight.

It’s not even something where you would be snitching. It was done out in the open in front of everybody! To have nobody speak up?
— Tameeka Sparks-Hawkins

“People will say he didn’t do it. But a lot of people do not want to go to court,” she said. She tries to convince them: “It’s not even something where you would be snitching. It was done out in the open in front of everybody! To have nobody speak up?”

But people have spoken up.

It took years, and the intervention of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, but several witnesses have come forward.

One was Renada Council, a cousin of Simmons and Lawrence who made a statement that she saw the brothers talking about Hall, watched them run toward the crime scene, and later saw them again, back at her house, looking frightened. “I just shot Gary off of his bike,” Simmons told her, according to the statement.

Another was Nael Reddy, a cousin of Markita and Kalishea’s who says he, too, witnessed the crime and knows Sparks is innocent. He claims the Reddy family was close with Hall’s mother and conspired to pressure the girls to testify, to ensure there would be a conviction.

“Members of my family made Kalishea come to court and testify that Mr. Sparks did the shooting,” he said in a statement.

Markita and Kalishea Reddy could not be reached.

Simmons' mother, Kisha Bivines, declined to speak on the record. Approached by a reporter, Lawrence would not confirm his identity; later, through Bivines, he refused to comment. Hall’s mother, Gwendolyn Isely, also declined an interview request.

Sparks, who has an 11-year-old daughter of his own, wishes he’d been more supportive of Bivines after her son was killed. He was still urging her to speak up on his behalf.

“It took me to grow up in here to see where she was coming from and stop being selfish, even though I had the right to want to get out of jail,” he said.

He’s still praying some new piece of evidence will prove to be the key, though as the years pass, his hopes have been worn threadbare.

“I look up and I got over 12 years in, and I’m telling these people the same thing.”