Locked up for 24 years, another Philly man to get murder rap tossed

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Photo of Shaurn Thomas from Innocence Project website.

For Hazeline Thomas, it was a Mother’s Day ritual that’s become all too familiar over the last couple of decades: The long trek to a state prison somewhere in rural Pennsylvania to spend a few fleeting moments with son Shaurn, who was accused of taking part in a 1990 murder, then convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

But this Mother’s Day was different. Shaurn Thomas couldn’t wait to share some stunning news — that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office now agreed with his legal team that his homicide conviction no longer held up under close scrutiny.

Yet Hazeline Thomas’ initial reaction to the news that her son, now 43, will finally be coming home was guarded — and understandably so.

“To tell you the truth, I was a little excited but not that excited, because I’ve been through this before,” Thomas, who now lives in Northeast Philadelphia, told me this week. “I won’t believe it until I see him.”

Now, she can believe it. On Monday, a panel of Pennsylvania Superior Court judges ordered an expedited hearing that — with the DA’s Office no longer contesting Thomas’ appeal — is expected to lead to his almost immediate release, and victory in his 24-year battle to prove he was wrongfully convicted. His lawyers hope Thomas will be a free man as early as Wednesday.

Monday’s news marks the first major action to come out of an overhauled conviction review unit announced this year by the outgoing and now disgraced DA Seth Williams, meant to signal a newfound seriousness about reviewing innocence claims. It’s certainly a remarkable reversal of fortune in what had once seemed like a lost cause for Thomas, his family, and attorneys.

Thomas seemed to have a cut-and-dried alibi for where he was on the November 1990 morning when Puerto Rican businessman Domingo Martinez was gunned down while transporting $25,000 to a check-cashing store he owned. He said he was checking into the former Youth Study Center for juvenile offenders on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway after he’d been locked up the night before in a completely unrelated matter. He even had a signed subpoena from that morning to prove it. Yet Thomas’ trial attorney somehow failed to convince a jury, forcing an imprisoned inmate to spend years writing letters pleading for someone to believe he didn’t do it.

Someone finally did. That was a dogged attorney — Dechert LLP’s James Figorski, a retired Philly cop working pro bono with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project — who helped uncover new evidence in the case, including an apparent false confession by another of the alleged killers that had led to Thomas’ 1993 arrest, and then recanted testimony by the only person who placed Thomas at the murder scene.

And maybe the biggest shock was yet to come. On May 4, the DA’s Office revealed in a letter that a records search had uncovered a police homicide folder on the Martinez murder that had gone missing for more than two decades. In that file were statements concerning three men that police had stopped in a car just three days after the murder — alternate suspects whose names had never been disclosed to Thomas’ lawyers or prosecutors.

There’s a much broader significance here. You can now add the name of Shaurn Thomas to a growing list — what you might call a “dishonor roll” — of young men who were wrongfully convicted of murder in Philadelphia in an era that centered on the 1990s.

That list includes Anthony Wright, who fought for years to get the DNA test that proved that another man had committed the 1991 rape and murder for which he was imprisoned for 25 years. And Jimmy Dennis, who spent 25 years on death row but was allowed to plead no contest and go home in lieu of a new trial, where he would have presented the growing evidence of his innocence. And there are others from that era who continue to press their cases that they were wrongfully convicted through false convictions, coerced testimony and dubious jailhouse snitches — like Death Row inmate Walter Ogrod, whose case is the subject of a compelling new book.

At what point does Philadelphia admit that this city has a major scandal on its hands? Does it need a catchy name? Maybe #WrongfulConvictionGate is too long. But when is the tipping point where the existence of so many people locked away for life on flimsy or trumped-up evidence becomes a national outrage?

“Tragically, Shaurn has spent 24 years imprisoned for another man's crime,” Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said Monday. “In addition, the officers who investigated the murder of Domingo Martinez are the same officers who investigated crimes that led to the wrongful arrest of both Anthony Wright and Jimmy Dennis. As we did after Mr. Wright’s acquittal, we call on the Philadelphia district attorney to investigate every case these officers handled.” She noted that a similar probe of just one rogue detective in Brooklyn recently led to 22 convictions getting tossed out.

In the case of the Domingo Martinez murder, there should have been serious questions almost from day one. Just ask Ronald Smith. Today a financial planner from South Jersey, Smith was a Temple student heading home from a part-time job on Lehigh Avenue on the morning of Nov. 13, 1990, when he found himself stopped right behind what looked like a fender-bender involving two cars.

To his shock, he saw three men jump from the rear car, which was white and red, shoot the driver of the front car — Martinez — through the windshield, pull him out, and speed away in his car and theirs. Smith lowered his head and sped quickly from the scene, stopping at Erie Avenue to tell a cop the nightmare he had just witnessed.

A couple of months later, Smith told me last week, two Philadelphia detectives took his statement, and then told him something surprising, considering that he’d been the closest eyewitness. They said his testimony wouldn’t be needed. “I was told my description didn’t match everybody else’s,” he recalled.

By then, according to Figorski, police were working on another theory of the case — developed through its informants — that involved a gang from a North Philadelphia housing project, the Abbottsford Homes. The new theory involved two cars — including a blue 1977 Chevrolet Carprice that was impounded even though it looked nothing like the red-and-white car described by witnesses — and six killers.

By early 1992, an arrestee seeking lenient treatment — Nathanial Stallworth — fingered six participants, including his cousins John and William Stallworth, who are brothers, and Shaurn Thomas and his brother, Clayton "Mustafa" Thomas. A short time later, John Stallworth was busted on an unrelated charge, and signed a confession that also named those three but implicated another man named Louis Gay, who was later shown to have been in prison the morning of the murder.

That false confession was put aside and Stallworth signed a second one that omitted Gay and added an unknown individual. Told he’d been named and that his brother faced the death penalty, William Stallworth also confessed to his role and testified at Thomas’ trial that he was in the alleged second murder car with him. Those confessions led to the conviction of Shaurn's brother, who supporters say is still imprisoned and lacks a strong alibi like his brother's.

The jury apparently bought the Stallworths’ testimony over Thomas’ alibi — that he’d been arrested on the night of Nov. 12, 1990, for trying to steal a motorcycle in Center City, eventually taken to the Youth Study Center by his mom, where he was interviewed at 9 a.m. and released later in the day after signing a subpoena. Thomas’ trial lawyer didn’t call his mom, or his sister, who went along to pick him up later on the day of the murder, and prosecutors had challenged his signature on the subpoena.

It wouldn’t be until 2012 that lawyer Figorski would have two handwriting experts verify without a doubt that it was indeed Thomas’ signature. Figorski, who’d retired from the Philadelphia Police Department after getting his law degree, had volunteered to work with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project in 2009, and Thomas was in the first batch of about 10 to 15 cases he reviewed. Thomas and his alibi — which rang true from his own experience as a cop — jumped out at him.

Figorski, working closely with Bluestine and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project as his co-counsel, has spent eight long years investigating the case and coming up with new evidence. That included learning that William Stallworth had told parole officers in 2011 — to the detriment of his case for parole in an unrelated matter — that he wasn’t at the murder scene, hadn’t seen Thomas that day, and only confessed to spare his brother’s execution and because his brother had named him. Stallworth confirmed that account to Figorski, Bluestine, and later to the DA’s Office.

Still, Thomas’ efforts to prove his innocence were stymied in the legal system again and again by appellate judges who rejected and prosecutors who fought arguments that his 1994 trial counsel was inadequate. Things changed dramatically this year when Williams announced a complete overhaul of his conviction review unit — prosecutors tasked with reviewing wrongful conviction allegations — and Figorski and Bluestine presented the new group with their case that Thomas shouldn’t be in prison.

Prosecutor Andrew Wellbrock, the assistant director of the review unit, told me Monday afternoon that his team came to believe that Thomas’ alibi that he was at the Youth Study Center was stronger than the original prosecutors had believed. And that was before the May 4 discovery of the missing files and interviews surrounding the 1990 traffic stop that were not known about at trial. Eight days later, the DA’s Office informed Figorski and Bluestine that it would now support the motion to toss Thomas’ conviction.

The unexpected move seems to mark a new direction for a DA’s Office – now in flux, with Williams indicted on corruption charges and a new DA to be elected in November — that has historically defended its convictions to the proverbial death. Wellbrock said that “Philadelphia can expect the district attorney to look into other cases to make sure that we do the right thing now — or that we did the right thing then.”

Said Figorski: “The fact that it took so long, and such a tremendous effort, to free him is a travesty.”

When it comes to the Anthony Wrights and Shaurn Thomases of the world, people who’ve spent their entire adult lives behind bars, these reviews cannot come fast enough. It’s increasingly clear there’s a problem about Philadelphians in prison who do not belong there. We shouldn’t rest until we know exactly how many.

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