Accuser: I was pressured to blame wrong man

Don Ray Adams Jr. spent 19 years in prison before Donna Benjamin (left) admitted she had falsely identified him because she was afraid of the real killer.

On an unseasonably warm December night just days before Christmas 1990, Donna Benjamin was looking for her next high.

She approached a long driveway off North Warnock Street in Logan, where she had planned to meet two drug dealers. There, Benjamin saw a man standing over the dealers' bodies, firing his gun.

Their eyes met.

Benjamin immediately recognized the shooter, and threw herself to the ground, screaming. The gunman calmed her, calling her "Boo," and told her he wasn't going to hurt her. She ran home.

For six months the murder of Thomas Winn, 34, and Darryl Patterson, 33, went unsolved that record-setting year when Philadelphia police had 500 homicide cases.

Not until July 1991 did detectives catch up with Benjamin to talk about the killings.

Her friend Don Ray Adams Jr.'s life would never be the same.

They knew each other from their North Philadelphia neighborhood, where Adams and Benjamin grew up six blocks apart. Sometimes they got high together.

Adams was 32, a barber who sold cocaine on the side. The night of the double murder, he was cutting hair at his rowhouse on North Warnock Street's 4900 block.

Benjamin was 10 years younger, a high school dropout, shoplifting to support her crack habit.

At the Roundhouse several months later, Benjamin picked her friend out of a photo lineup, telling detectives the shooter was Adams, who was stocky, 5-foot-4, and had a dark complexion.

Her statement did not square with others'.

At least six other people had initially described the shooter as tall - about 6 foot - and light-skinned. Some witnesses mentioned names: Tone, Rusty, and Mike, guys from the neighborhood they had heard did the killings. Adams went by his religious name, Muhammad.

With Benjamin's identification in hand, cold-case detectives David Clark and Igor Alfimow arrested Adams, charging him with the two murders.

She told her story again in court and on Nov. 10, 1992, a dozen jurors convicted Adams of first-degree murder. The sentence: life in prison.

He served 19 years, 5 months, and 16 days. He missed 60 of his children's birthdays, scores of holiday gatherings, high school graduations, his son's wedding, his brother's funeral.

Then on April 26, 2011, he walked out of prison, a free man.

Benjamin had told the court what Adams says he long knew to be true: She had named an innocent man because she was afraid of the real killer.

The city would wind up settling with Adams for a substantial sum. Detectives and the prosecutor steadfastly maintain that they prosecuted the right man.

Adams says his imprisonment was God's plan.

"I don't look at it as I was arrested," Adams said, sitting at his Hunting Park kitchen table, smoking a Newport. "I look at it as I was rescued. God saved me from myself."

He has forgiven his old friend.

She is still working on forgiving herself.

Adams was by no means a saint, and for him 1990 was a particularly bad year. His mother died of a heart attack that April. After her funeral, he said, a thief shot him in the hip during a robbery.

He'd grown up in the now-demolished Richard Allen public housing projects just north of Fairmount. In 1969, Adams' mother, Thelma, moved to a corner house in Logan.

In 11th grade he dropped out of Olney High School. By the mid-1980s, Adams had two children with his longtime girlfriend and was cutting hair. As the crack epidemic spread through the city, Adams began selling cocaine and getting high.

Drug use cost him his job at a well-established barbershop. It also cost him his family.

"I ended up losing both of my sons' mom," he said. "She left me. It seemed like the more she would push me away, the more I would venture into drugs."

It was early on the morning of Dec. 22, 1990, and Adams says he was standing on his porch about to take in two clients for his at-home barber business when he heard gun shots - five or six of them.

That was not so unusual in that neighborhood. He says he started cutting the hair of one of the men and asked the other to grab some beers.

When the man returned, he told Adams: "They say you just shot two people in the driveway."

Adams has the same first and middle names as a man police took in for questioning that morning.

Adams says he laughed off the idea that he had shot the men.

"I said, 'Well, damn, that would be a neat trick. Here I am cutting hair and killing people in a driveway' " about two blocks away, Adams recalled as he sat at a boardroom table in the Center City Bellevue office of one of his many attorneys.

Witnesses had described the shooter as a tall man between 5-foot-9 and 6-foot-2, and black but light-skinned, according to the police reports.

At 6 a.m. that day, police took a man named Don Ray Bennett in for questioning. Bennett told police he had been inside a basement near Wyoming and Warnock Streets with a woman who was going to have oral sex with him for $5. The pair was waiting for a friend to come back with drugs. When the friend didn't return, Bennett left, he told police, and stumbled upon the crime scene.

Six months later, Detectives Clark and Alfimow brought Benjamin to the station for questioning. She had spent the last year living on the streets or in crack houses. Word on the street was that she had witnessed the murders.

She said detectives kept her for 12 hours. She was hungry. She craved crack. Eventually, she picked out Adams from a photo display.

Benjamin would later say police pressured her to say it was Adams.

The next day, July 2, 1991, detectives arrested Adams for the murders.

As the steel doors of the Holmesburg jail cell slammed, Adams started pacing and crying.

His defense attorney, now-Municipal Court Judge William A. Meehan Jr., suggested he have a bench trial, but Adams' response was: "Let's go with 12 minds. Somebody's got to say 'not guilty.' "

No murder weapon was recovered. No physical evidence linked Adams to the crime. But his alibi evaporated when his two clients the night of the murders wouldn't step forward. Both had warrants out for their arrests, and wouldn't risk cooperating.

At the 1992 trial, two witnesses changed their previous statements and fingered Adams as the shooter. But there were others, such as James Cathey, who testified that from his house across the street he saw a man with something that could have been a gun run from the driveway.

That man, he testified, did not look like Adams.

Adams remembers how the prison erupted in cheers when O.J. Simpson was acquitted in 1994, how it went dead quiet when the two airplanes crashed into the twin towers on 9/11.

The guards were the ones to deliver the news the November morning in 2008 after America had elected its first black president.

Adams saw glimpses of the life that had been taken from him reflected in photographs his family and friends sent to prison.

He spent his days and months filing legal petitions, reading the Quran, frequenting the prison library.

Back in Philadelphia, his brother, John, was trying to get Adams' conviction overturned. He hosted beef and beers at his nightclub, Johnny's Top Cat, to raise money for appeals.

Benjamin, meanwhile, was struggling with a heavy conscience. Crack blunted the memory.

"When you have something like that, that lay on you, the burden that it puts on you and your inner being is so bad," she said recently from the porch of her Chester home. "It's like it's hard to breathe."

One day in 2003 when she was sober, Benjamin dropped by the family's corner store in an attempt to set the record straight. But as soon as John Adams saw her, he told her to leave.

She left without saying a word. She understood his grief.

By 2005, Adams had exhausted all his appeals, and his frustration and anger mounted. He asked his family to stop visiting.

The letter arrived in 2007.

"Mr. Don Ray Adams did not shot those two(2) people that night on Warnock St.," Donna Benjamin wrote to Christine Adair, one of Adams' original defense attorneys. "The reason I lied . . . was willing to do anything not to be arrested again."

When Adair received Benjamin's letter, she was no longer working as a defense attorney. She mailed Benjamin's letter to Adams.

"That was the happiest day of my life," Adams recalled.

Common Pleas Court Judge Carolyn Engel Temin had overseen the first trial. Adams' new attorney, Terry Pugh, was able to convince her that Benjamin had new evidence.

By the time she appeared before Temin at an appeals hearing, Benjamin had cleaned up. She had been studying Islam and wanted to right her wrongs.

"I couldn't move further in my life," said the mother of three. "I was at a standstill because . . . I couldn't move forward without telling the truth."

Benjamin said detectives had pressured her to identify Adams. She said they bought her clothes and gave her money to get her to go to court.

The real killer, she said, was Don Ray Bennett. She had dated that man's cousin and said both scared her. There was no way she was going to give the cops the real shooter.

"You just didn't do that," Benjamin said. "They would find your head somewhere."

The prosecutor and police dispute Benjamin's new account. They have not pursued charges against Bennett, whose whereabouts they do not know.

"I believe she was telling the truth" the first time, said retired Detective David Clark. "He's not an innocent man." Clark said that she was correct about the clothes, but that neither he nor his partner gave her any money.

The judge found Benjamin credible and granted Adams a new trial at which prosecutor Brian Zarallo argued that Benjamin was credible in 1991 and that her new statement was simply a common witness syndrome of "going south," or changing her statement because she felt bad or was pressured.

"I wouldn't have prosecuted the guy if I didn't think he was guilty," Zarallo said.

In court, Benjamin was convincing. On the stand, she looked across to where Adams was sitting with his attorney.

"I just nodded, like 'I got you. I got you,' " she said.

After two hours, the jury came back with the verdict. Not guilty.

Adams walked out of prison on April 26, 2011, with an envelope containing several hundred dollars, most of it his earnings from his prison jobs. As he waited for his family to make the nearly three-hour drive, he looked at the bills.

"I thought, 'Man, they gave me Monopoly money.' I hadn't seen the new $20 bills," he said.

The next day, Adams' family threw him a barbecue.

Benjamin showed.

She had been clean four years by then. She shed some tears. He comforted her with a hug, wrapping her in his arms.

"It was a beautiful sight," Benjamin said, her smile widening, below the shadow of her Bally's Casino hat. "It was nice."

After all the celebrations, Adams wrestled with being back home. His two youngest children had spent most of their lives without a father. He had trouble reconnecting with them.

He suffered panic attacks. He was scared to leave the house.

But he puts on a good show for Benjamin. They talk regularly. Sometimes she calls him in the middle of the night, crying.

She tells him that she is sorry and that she fears he is going to hurt her.

He tells her that will never happen.

"I tell her, 'Listen, I asked God to forgive you and I forgave you. What you have to do is ask God to forgive you and relieve you of those demons.' "

Benjamin lives in Chester, near the airport. She is on disability for diabetes and hypertension, and is not working, which has given her time to bond with her mother and three daughters. She is 46.

Adams, who just turned 57, has gone back to barbering. His chair is in the basement of his fiancee's Hunting Park house, where they live.

He sued the city for malicious prosecution and in December 2013 settled - for $1 million.

"It was one witness that this case pivoted on," said David Woloshin, who with David Rudovsky represented Adams. "It was very scary."

After splurging on a few items, including a red sports car, Adams has been using the money to pay medical expenses. He's had two knee replacements and takes more than a dozen pills each morning to treat his diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, which he attributes to having lived so many years in a cold cell.

Since writing her letter and admitting she lied, Benjamin says she is finally growing comfortable with herself - she's away from trouble and closer to family.

"There's the saying," she said, " 'The truth will set you free.' That is so, so true."

215-854-5520 @InqCVargas