Free after 10 years in prison, former lifer still feels trapped

Edward Stewart served almost 10 years of a life sentence for a 2006 murder before the verdict was overturned, he got a new trial and was then acquitted. Now, after about five months of freedom, Stewart, 37, talks about readjusting to life outside of prison and what he is doing to rebuild his life. We meet him at his lawyer's office April 14, 2016.

The story's end is usually upbeat: A lifer proves he was wrongly convicted and savors freedom.

Edward E. Stewart, 36, knows that story. He lived it. He served 10 years of a life term before he was acquitted at a new trial of a 2006 murder in a speakeasy he ran out of the basement of his Fern Rock house.

On Dec. 3, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury cleared him in 1 hour and 38 minutes - two hours less than it took the first jury to convict. He walked out of the Criminal Justice Center without a dime, still wearing his prison-issue blue pants and T-shirt.

Freedom alone is never the story's end for any former inmate. And in the five months since Stewart's acquittal, his story is still being written.

"It's a struggle," he said during a recent interview.

Acquittal brought Stewart vindication and freedom, but that hasn't convinced potential employers to hire him. It didn't instantly mend a relationship with a teenage daughter or create family with two children who were babies when he went to prison. It didn't revive the relationship with his fiancee.

Today, Stewart is living with his grandmother, Patricia Stewart, in Fern Rock, where his 16-year-old daughter has lived. A bank long ago seized Stewart's home, along with $100,000 in tools and trucks for his landscaping business.

"I lost everything," he said.

His story is not unique. Pennsylvania's Board of Probation and Parole says 1,046 people, on average, are released from prison each month, and many struggle to adjust. As of February, the latest data available, 41,270 Pennsylvanians are living under some form of supervision.

It was Alvin Hooper Jr., the son of one of Stewart's landscaping customers, who early in 2006 came up with the notion of running a speakeasy. Stewart said it sounded like a good way to make money over the winter months when landscaping went dormant.

At the time, Stewart was living in a house he had acquired from his father on the 4100 block of Old York Road in Fern Rock.

"He said, 'You have the big house and your basement is ready,' " Stewart recalled. "It would be no trouble."

And things were fine, until April 7, 2006, when a patron, Kevin Bing, 31, was gunned down during a booze-fueled debate about which was better: the Army or the Marines.

Stewart said he wasn't there when Bing was killed. He was at fiancee Rasheda Grazier's place on the 4800 block of North Franklin Street.

That day, Stewart learned that homicide detectives wanted to talk.

But by the time Stewart met with detectives, Hooper had already given them plenty: Hooper had told them that he, Bing, and Stewart had been arguing that night but he dozed off. Hooper, then 33, told detectives that a "pop" roused him. When Hooper opened his eyes, he said, he was covered in blood and brain matter, and Bing was dead of a shotgun blast to the head.

According to Hooper's trial testimony, Stewart said, "What did I do?" and asked Hooper "not to tell."

At trial, Stewart took the stand, offering the jury his alibi. Stewart's fiancee, Grazier, however, did not testify and thus did not corroborate his alibi.

Stewart's defense lawyer, Douglas Dolfman, called no witnesses.

Dolfman, according to court documents, said he did not think Grazier was credible and would have hurt Stewart's alibi. Dolfman's strategy was to blame the shooting on Hooper.

On Aug. 5, 2007, a Common Pleas Court jury found Stewart guilty of first-degree murder. The next day, he was sentenced to the mandatory life in prison without parole.

Stewart, who had never been incarcerated, and didn't know what to expect, eventually ended up at Fayette state prison, where he met Richard Disco, who was serving 10 to 20 years for a 2002 sexual assault in Philadelphia. Disco taught him how to write his appeal. Now 54, Disco had one request of Stewart: "Help somebody else out."

A legal odyssey

Stewart's appeal said he deserved a new trial because his lawyer was ineffective. Stewart argued that Dolfman met him just once before trial and never met Grazier, who could have verified his alibi.

Reached recently, Dolfman said he did not want to comment on the case.

In June 2011, Stewart's trial judge, M. Teresa Sarmina, granted his request for a formal hearing. To his surprise, Sarmina ordered a new trial.

It would be another two years, December 2013, before state Superior Court rejected the District Attorney's Office's appeal of Sarmina's order.

Two more years would pass before that new trial, in front of Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara McDermott, would start.

This time his lawyer was Leon D. Goodman, a veteran homicide prosecutor who several years ago left the District Attorney's Office for private practice.

Goodman said the prosecution's case was unchanged from 2006: Hooper incriminating Stewart. As in the first trial, there were no shotgun, fingerprints or other evidence putting Stewart in the speakeasy when Bing was shot.

This time, however, Stewart's girlfriend, Grazier, corroborated his alibi. His grandmother was a character witness.

The District Attorney's Office, despite the acquittal, considers the case closed.

"We believe we had the right guy," Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore said.

A bicycle ride

The exhilaration lasted several days. There was a celebration that night at his grandmother's house with her, his daughter, and two brothers.

"One of the first things . . . I wanted was to take a bike ride," Stewart said. "That was one of the big things that I enjoyed."

A friend gave him a bicycle and a few days later, Stewart rode the Schuylkill River Trail from Fern Rock to Valley Forge.

"I took that trail straight down and I kept going - 95 miles. It felt good, the freedom," Stewart said.

But soon, reality hit on several fronts.

There were relationships frayed by 10 years of separation. Grazier was supportive and helped him with their two young children and Grazier's two other children, whom Stewart considers his own.

"But the distance, as far as our relationship, it just wasn't able to happen," Stewart said.

And then there's hunting for work. Despite current laws to help inmates reenter society and prevent job discrimination, Stewart said, his acquittal mattered little to employers.

" 'We can't hire you' - probably about 10 times I've heard that," he said.

"You know, you can have a conversation with somebody and once you tell them you've been in prison for 10 years, they want to go the opposite way," Stewart said.

Some people gave him their number and said to call. The number frequently turned out to be wrong. Others gave him cards "and never returned my phone call."

Stories like Stewart's are familiar to lawyers at Community Legal Services, the 50-year-old Philadelphia nonprofit founded to provide free legal services in civil matters to the poor.

Brendan Lynch, a CLS employment law attorney, said "criminal-records problems are the single biggest number of people who come in to see us."

Lynch, reviewing Stewart's case on Pennsylvania's online criminal-record site, said potential employers looking up his record would find a docket 27 pages long showing he had been convicted of murder but not immediately saying that the verdict was reversed and that he was later acquitted.

"Murder - that's a pretty hair-raising thing to see for an employer," Lynch said. "This is a good example. There are many different kinds of criminal records. It's not just that someone might have a criminal record, but how it is presented."

New laws such as Philadelphia's "ban the box," which bars employers from asking about a criminal record until they've made a conditional job offer, are designed to counter the problem. So are provisions that require the employer to let the applicant explain the criminal record rather than simply rejecting them.

But no law can guarantee employers will follow its guidelines, Lynch said.

And there was another brush with the law: a shoplifting charge in February. Because that case is pending in Montgomery County, Stewart and Goodman said they can't discuss it.

But Stewart said it scared him: "It was a misunderstanding, pretty much. But it definitely gave me something to look at. You definitely have to watch who you're around."

Stewart has since bought several chainsaws and said he has earned money cutting up trees felled by storms. But it's far from his previous business with 10 employees.

He hasn't seen or talked to Hooper, whose testimony put him away for a decade. Stewart said he doesn't care to, though he says he bears Hooper no animosity.

Hooper, who always denied shooting Bing, could not be reached.

"It says in the Bible that if you want God to forgive, you have to forgive other people," Stewart said. "And so, basically, I just let all that hostility go."

And he thinks about prison and whether he put himself in harm's way.

"The life I was leading then, I can say yes. I can definitely say that," he said. "And, you know, when I look back, as far as financially, I wasn't doing that bad. But in life we always try to to acquire more."

Still, after five sometimes-rocky months of freedom, Stewart remains optimistic:

"I'm taking things one day at a time," he said. "Diligence and hard work - I know that will pay off. And with God on my side, I know that I'll make it. He hasn't brought me this far for nothing."

jslobodzian@phillynews.com

215-854-2985@joeslobo

www.philly.com/crimeandpuni