We need the truth on all of Philly's bad murder raps

From left, mother Hazeline; attorney James Figorski; fiancé Stephonie Long; Shaurn Thomas; and Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project talks with reporters after leaving Frackville Correctional Institution on Tuesday.

Author Tom Lowenstein, who spent 16 years investigating the case of death row inmate Walter Ogrod, made a compelling argument that Ogrod's conviction for the 1988 Northeast Philadelphia murder of a 4-year-girl hinged on what he considered a false confession, coerced from a sleep-deprived suspect after a grueling interrogation.

So it didn't shock Lowenstein to learn that the two Philadelphia police detectives who'd grilled Ogrod also played a key role in developing the case against Shaurn Thomas, the 43-year-old North Philadelphia man who served 24 years on a murder rap tossed out on Tuesday after the District Attorney's Office agreed his conviction didn't hold up under scrutiny.

"Obviously there's a pattern here," Lowenstein -- whose The Trials of Walter Ogrod was published earlier this year -- told me. "Confessions should explain everything in the case -- not create more questions." In the Thomas case, a defendant who pleaded guilty in the 1990 murder and then testified against Thomas in return for leniency gave the two detectives an initial confession that claimed one of the killers was a man who was actually locked up in prison on the  morning it went down.

With Thomas enjoying his first full day of freedom Wednesday as the latest in a string of high-profile wrongful murder convictions in Philadelphia, one question looms larger than ever.

Will anyone investigate what increasingly appears to be a pattern of sweeping civil rights abuses involving a cluster of Philadelphia homicide cops who were active in the 1990s and who have been accused of coercing false confessions or witness statements, withholding critical evidence, and other wrongs?

"We see in these case similar techniques that are very troubling, which I hope should cause some concern for the police brass and City Council and the mayor," said Marissa Bluestine, director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which worked for eight years with Dechert LLP attorney James Figorski to get Thomas out of prison. "We have a large number of people in prison for crimes they did not commit, or whose convictions we no longer have faith in, and to leave them be is unconscionable."

Lawyers for Anthony Wright, the Philadelphia man who also was locked up for 24 years on murder charges and won his freedom last year after DNA evidence implicated another man, named 11 homicide detectives who worked on Wright's case in a lawsuit filed against the city last fall. The suit alleges those cops are linked to a broader pattern of corruption.

Wright's lawsuit charges that city murder detectives going back to the 1970s engaged in a pattern of "coerced confessions, fabrication of evidence, witness intimidation and coercion, suppressed exculpatory evidence, and abuse of authority."

In calling for a sweeping probe of Philadelphia's police practices, Bluestine and others have pointed to Brooklyn, where prosecutors have reopened scores of cases linked to a storied NYPD detective named Louis Scarcella later accused of inventing confessions and other crooked methods; so far, 22 convictions have been tossed.

Here in Philadelphia, it's hard not to notice that the clearance rate for solving murder cases -- which historically has been one of the best in the nation for crime-ridden big cities, usually exceeding 70 percent -- plummeted to around 45 percent after top brass mandated three years ago that witness interviews be recorded on video and that people being questioned by detectives be allowed to leave whenever they want. Do the new rules make it harder for police to do their job, as some cops insist? Or have they made it harder to nail the wrong guys when the cameras are rolling?

I tried reaching out to Lawrence Krasner, the Democratic nominee for district attorney, but he was away on vacation after last week's primary win. After I wrote about Ogrod and Lowenstein's book earlier this year, the heavy favorite to become the next DA in January said in a statement:  "The next District Attorney must seize every opportunity to expose evidence that might allow an innocent person to go free, no matter how many years have passed. I will."

Marc Bookman, director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in death-penalty cases, who recently wrote for Slate about three Philadelphia murder prosecutions that were riddled with abuse, believes the problems here are systemic. "It's not just a coincidence that every time a lawyer screens one of these cases, they find all sorts of errors, hidden files, and mistakes," Bookman said. But Bluestine of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project argues that much of the problem traces to a small minority of rogue officers.

Few dispute that the criminal justice system here can be radically reformed. Both Bookman and Bluestine called for "open case files" in murder investigations that would allow defense lawyers to know most everything that police and prosecutors know. Even ultra-conservative Texas has moved in that direction.

But while it's important to solve the criminal justice problems of the present, that won't work unless Philadelphia fully comes to terms with the abuses of the past. Whether the answers come from stepped-up conviction reviews by the next DA, a sweeping City Council probe or some kind of Truth Commission, cases like Shaurn Thomas and Anthony Wright have raised questions that can't easily be ignored. Faith in the process must be rebuilt, and that can't be done one brick at a time.