Ten years ago, 6-year-old Jabar Wright was sitting in the back of a Pontiac Bonneville when a group of men standing on a Strawberry Mansion corner fired on the car, hitting the boy with a sunshine smile and chunky cheeks in the back of his head, paralyzing him from the neck down.
Four men were arrested and charged with attempted murder and related offenses.
Three — Donte Rollins, then 20; Rollins' cousin Raheem Collins, 26; and Chris Powell, 19 — were convicted by a jury in December 2007. A fourth man, Kevin Norris, 28, was acquitted.
"I didn't do nothing! I didn't do s—, man!" Rollins screamed in the courtroom when he was ordered to be taken into custody after the verdicts.
At their 2008 sentencings, Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford Means handed down the maximum allowable sentences in state prison for each man: 62½ to 125 years. He called Jabar "a poster child" of "the cycle of violence that grips this city."
Fast forward to 2016: The District Attorney's Office agreed in April with Rollins' new attorneys — Michael Wiseman and lawyers with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project — that Rollins, now 29, deserves a new trial, should be released from state prison, and should be placed on house arrest, which he was under at the time of the 2007 trial.
But Means has yet to rule on whether Rollins should get a new trial.
The agreement followed Post Conviction Relief Act hearings this year, during which defense attorneys presented further evidence that bolstered Rollins' alibi that he was not at the shooting scene Jan. 28, 2006.
Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson, director of the district attorney's Conviction Review Unit, said last week that his office — all the way up to District Attorney Seth Williams — agreed that Rollins deserves a new trial. "There was additional evidence that should have been presented that was not presented" at the trial, Gilson said. "We think this additional evidence is significant, is substantial, important evidence that might have made a difference."
Rollins' case is scheduled before Means again Monday. Court papers indicate Means previously postponed the case because he wanted to hear from other witnesses or was busy in court on other matters. In September, hearings were twice postponed because he was on vacation.
Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said she hoped the judge would rule Monday. "I have never seen a case where both sides agree to an outcome and the judge refuses to make a ruling and, even more so, insists on prolonging the case unnecessarily by calling irrelevant witnesses," she said.
"We feel so strongly this is just a gross travesty of justice," Bluestine said.
Out on South Street
Through his then-defense attorney, Nino Tinari, Rollins contended at the trial that he was innocent and had been on South Street at the time of the shooting.
It was about 7:42 p.m. Jan. 28, 2006, when shots rang out in Strawberry Mansion. Jabar's grandfather Benjamin Wright was driving the Pontiac on Westmont Street and was about to turn left onto 29th Street when shots were fired at the car.
His then-wife, LaRhonda, was in the front. Their daughter, Aneena, 10, and Jabar sat in the back. Jabar, shot in the back of his head, slumped over. Benjamin rushed to Temple University Hospital.
Then-Assistant District Attorney Deborah Cooper Nixon said during the emotional trial that Benjamin Wright, who had a dispute with the defendants, was the target of the shooting.
Key to the convictions was LaRhonda's identifications of the four men as standing on the corner just before the shooting. She "recognized these men because she knew them for years," Nixon said.
Tinari showed the jury two surveillance videos, saying Rollins was in the Net clothing store at the Gallery at 6:18 p.m. that day, then was seen entering the Net store on South Street near Fifth Street at 8 p.m. — 20 minutes after the shooting.
Nixon told jurors in her closing argument that Rollins "may very well have been" in the Net store at the Gallery before the shooting. But based on a police officer's testimony that he saw Rollins about 8:15 or 8:20 that night walking to his home on the 2300 block of Opal Street in North Philadelphia, Nixon said, it would have been "implausible" that Rollins was the man on the video in the South Street store.
Wiseman wrote in a February 2013 Post Conviction Relief Act petition before Means that Tinari had a wealth of information that bolstered Rollins' alibi, but only chose to present "a small and unconvincing portion of the actual alibi that existed."
He contended that Tinari provided ineffective assistance of counsel.
Wiseman got statements from two of three of Rollins' friends who have said they were with Rollins that evening — Howard Porter, now 29, and Shelton Fortune, now 32. The third man, Paris Grant, has since died.
Porter has said one of the Net's surveillance images on South Street showed him and Rollins together.
Rollins' mother, Ava, gave a statement indicating that on the morning after her son was arrested, Grant came to her house to tell her that he was with her son at the time of the shooting.
Ava Rollins obtained the videos from the two Net stores and receipts from stores at the Gallery and on South Street, which the defense says were purchases made by her son.
One video from the Net on South Street — which was not shown at the trial — is said to show her son leaving the store at 8:01 that night while speaking on a cellphone.
Cellphone records for Donte Rollins' phone indicated that at 8:01, he received a call. They also show that at 8:35, he received another call from a friend, Zahir Johnson, that lasted three minutes.
That call was significant because it matched the time when Rollins' attorneys contend Rollins actually arrived at his mother's house on Opal, where he was arrested, and not at 8:15, as the police officer estimated.
Police radio transmissions also back up that the officer likely saw Rollins at about 8:35.
Wiseman contended in the relief petition that Tinari failed to investigate and present all of the evidence that would have supported Rollins' alibi. He contended Tinari should have called to the witness stand the friends Rollins had gone out with, the video of Rollins leaving the Net store on South, the phone records, store receipts, and other evidence.
Tinari last week declined to comment given that Means has not yet ruled on the petition.
During a hearing in February, Tinari testified that he had not sought out the friends Rollins was with on the evening of Jan. 28 because he did not want to associate Rollins with "other young people" who could potentially make Rollins look bad.
He testified it was his position "these young persons would give a different flavor to what we were doing through the course of the trial." He said he instead put three older women on the stand — Rollins' mother, his aunt, and his mother's coworker, who "had no taint whatsoever."
Wiseman and Bluestine have also pointed out that on the night Rollins was arrested, he was wearing a gray hoodie — which matches the clothing worn by the man they say is Rollins in the store videos. Initial police radio transmissions after the shooting, based on information from LaRhonda Wright, said Rollins was wearing black clothes.
In an email Wednesday, Wiseman said: "Any reasonable person reviewing the evidence that we have presented to Judge Means would agree that Donte Rollins is demonstrably innocent of the terrible shooting of Jabar Wright. ...
"We certainly sympathize with the victim and his family, and understand the emotions of the case, but justice demands that Mr. Rollins, who has never been in any trouble with the law, be set free from his unjust imprisonment and be permitted to get on with his life."