25 years later, freed by DNA evidence: 'It's the greatest day of my life'

Almost 25 years ago, Anthony Wright was taken into custody at age 20, charged with the rape and murder of his 77-year-old Nicetown neighbor.

On Tuesday, Wright, now 44, walked out of a Philadelphia prison a free man after a jury acquitted him in a retrial resulting from new DNA testing that proved another man was the rapist.

Wright was escorted through the prison gates at 5:50 p.m. by lawyers Peter Neufeld and Samuel W. Silver, and a crowd of about 15 relatives, including his father, David Parker; his 28-year-old son, Anthony Jr.; and his grandchild, Romera, 1.

"I can't even put it into words right now, man," Wright said. "It's unbelievable. It's the greatest day of my life."

The Common Pleas Court jury of seven women and five men deliberated about 90 minutes over lunch before returning the verdict shortly before 1:30 p.m. after nine days of testimony.

Wright covered his face with both hands and sobbed as jury forewoman Grace Greco, a retiree who volunteers at the National Constitution Center, intoned "not guilty" to a series of charges including murder, rape, burglary, and robbery.

Several jurors wiped away tears as Greco read the verdicts.

Wright, who has been in custody since Oct. 20, 1991 - one day after the nude, bloodied body of Louise Talley was found in her house at 3959 Nice St. - was suddenly a free man, although freedom was not instantaneous.

Judge Sandy L.V. Byrd declined to order Wright's immediate release from the city's Criminal Justice Center. Byrd said prison officials had a "process" for releasing acquitted prisoners that he would not contravene.

Wright's lawyers from the Innocence Project of New York and local counsel Silver tried unsuccessfully for almost two hours to get Wright released from the courthouse.

Outside, Wright's family gathered in an impromptu photo session and emotional reunion with the 12 jurors who, until then, were anonymous Philadelphians they had watched from across a courtroom.

Now, they were crying and hugging each other, exchanging names and even phone numbers.

"You will forever be in my heart," Wright's father said as he bear-hugged one juror.

Parker, 63, who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla., said he is going to take his son there for a time before Wright returns to the Philadelphia area.

Wright's mother, Marilyn Martin, who testified for Wright in his 1993 trial, has died.

Anthony Jr. said he looked forward to spending time with his father: "This is an amazing day. I can't think of anything more special."

"I'm angry," said Greco, the jury forewoman. "The evidence was there that he did not commit this crime. The city should never have brought this case. I'm just happy that today's verdict will let Tony move on with the rest of his life."

Greco referred to prosecutors' 2014 decision to retry Wright, who was serving a life prison term without parole, after DNA tests conducted at the request of Wright's defense team showed that he had not raped Talley.

The tests showed that sperm found inside Talley's body belonged to Ronnie Byrd, a former Nicetown crack addict who died in a South Carolina prison at age 62.

The DNA testing also proved that only Talley's DNA was inside clothing that homicide detectives say Wright told them he wore and that was found inside his bedroom in his mother's Nicetown house.

"It was an incredible experience," said juror Shaina Battis. "It was emotionally draining and mentally draining, but what's right is right and wrong is wrong."

Assistant District Attorneys Bridget Kirn and Carlos Vega, who prosecuted the retrial, left the courtroom without comment.

"The jury made a finding and the District Attorney's Office respects their hard work," said Cameron Kline, spokesman for the District Attorney's Office, in a statement late Tuesday.

"The District Attorney's Office stands by its decision to retry Anthony Wright, based on the totality of the evidence," Kline said. "The verdict only shows that the jury did not find that his guilt was proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

Neufeld, codirector of the Innocence Project of New York, lambasted prosecutors for retrying Wright after the results of the DNA tests.

"After the DNA results were known, we have 31/2 years where the District Attorney's Office did nothing to reinvestigate this case or find out who Ronnie Byrd was," Neufeld said. "It's absolutely unconscionable and unacceptable."

Neufeld called for an independent investigation of all convictions of young black men who were prosecuted using evidence developed by now-retired homicide detectives Manuel Santiago and Martin Devlin.

Wright, who again testified in his defense, denied confessing to the rape and murder, and said he was berated by detectives for about four hours before he was told he could go home if he signed some documents. He said he did so without reading them.

The detectives, now retired, denied pressuring Wright to confess.

In his closing argument Monday, Silver called on the jury to acquit Wright, citing the DNA evidence: "What better evidence could there be?"

Kirn argued that the DNA only proved that Wright did not commit the crime alone, not that he is innocent.

Kirn relied on the eight-page confession detectives said Wright made in 1991 in which the seventh-grade dropout said he raped Talley but could not ejaculate.

"Nobody is saying Ronnie Byrd's DNA isn't in her," Kirn told the jury. But that must be because Byrd took part in the crime, she said.

In addition to Wright's alleged confession, prosecutors relied on statements by five witnesses, four of whom testified at the original 1993 trial.

Two of the witnesses had since died - their testimony was read to the new jury - and the remaining three recanted their statements identifying Wright as going into Talley's house.

jslobodzian@phillynews.com

215-854-2985@joeslobo

www.philly.com/crimeandpunishment

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