FRACKVILLE, Pa. – You’d be hard-pressed to find a more nondescript slice of America than the entrance to the Pennsylvania state correctional facility here, where trucks rumbled by on a faded I-81 overpass, past a tractor dealership and the golden arches of a McDonald’s that beaconed from a hillside. Shortly after 6 Tuesday night, tiny gnats buzzed around, under drab, gray skies.
To Shaurn Thomas, the place felt like heaven.
When the 43-year-old former North Philadelphian stepped out of fiancee Stephonia Long’s pickup truck to greet several journalists, he was a free man for the first time in 24 years.
It was his first true moment of freedom since 1993, when Bill Clinton was a rookie in the White House, Lenny Dykstra was in centerfield for the Phillies, Donald Trump was in Chapter 11 – and Thomas was a 19-year-old kid insisting he’d been locked up for a murder he couldn’t possibly have committed.
“It feels great to be home, great to be back,” said Thomas, beaming as he spoke to reporters who’d ventured two hours from Philadelphia into Schuylkill County to capture the remarkable moment when a teenager who’d been told by a judge that he would spend the rest of his life in prison gets to walk out the front door, finally exonerated. “It’s been a long struggle, but you can’t give up. That’s why I’m here today.”
As Thomas leaned against his fiancee – a family friend who connected with the inmate after reading about his plight on the Pennsylvania Innocence Project website – and laughed heartily at every joke while he played with his 4-year-old nephew, Cayden, for the very first time, what was most striking was the thing that wasn’t there: bitterness.
After all, who wouldn’t be bitter about the ordeal that Thomas went through after Philadelphia cops began looking at him and his pals in North Philadelphia’s Abbotsford Homes housing project as suspects in the then-unsolved 1990 murder of Puerto Rican businessman Domingo Martinez, who was shot and robbed while transporting $25,000 in cash from a bank to his check-cashing business?
Bitter about the homicide detectives who took two confessions from a key witness against Thomas after his first one proved false. Bitter about the prosecutors who refused to believe his seemingly rock-solid alibi that he was at a hearing on an unrelated juvenile offense at Center City’s Youth Study Center at the moment of the murder, and who questioned his signature on a subpoena from that morning. Bitter at police who somehow managed to lose for more than two decades the homicide case file that named several alternate suspects, until it was miraculously found earlier this month.
But there would be none of that in the spring twilight outside the Frackville penitentiary Tuesday night. Thomas was filled with praise – not just for his tireless lawyers, Dechert LLP’s James Figorski, who worked some 900 pro bono hours, and Marissa Bluestine of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, but also for the newly relaunched Conviction Review Unit in the District Attorney’s Office, which this spring agreed that his conviction doesn’t hold up, leading to Tuesday's release.
More incredibly, Thomas – a devout Muslim – told me he doesn’t hold a grudge against those who falsely imprisoned him. His faith doesn't allow him to.
"You know, time heals all wounds," he said.
In the big picture, the Shaurn Thomas story remains a tale of gross injustice, with disturbing implications about crime and punishment in America’s fifth-largest city. But for 30 minutes in Frackville, there was a joyous celebration of something stronger that won out in the end: faith.
“When the times got hard, I prayed to Allah,” said Thomas, who never stopped believing that he would prove his innocence one day. But there was also the faith of his mother, Hazeline, and his sister, Elaine, who both knew Shaurn was at the Youth Study Center that day. And his lawyer Figorski, the retired Philadelphia police lieutenant who believed Shaurn’s story when he read his letter in 2009 and spent eight long years fighting to prove it in court.
Indeed, Thomas’ faith only wavers about one thing: his hometown. He told me that he hopes to marry Long in the next six months to a year, maybe find work as a cook, and move south, possibly to the Carolinas.
“Philadelphia done caused me too many heartaches,” he said. A few minutes later, the Frackville prison was in the rearview mirror for Shaurn Thomas and his believers.