Justice on hold: To Philly DA's Conviction Review Unit, no one is innocent

Centurion Ministries’ Alan Maimon (left) and Jim McCloskey with a photo of Larry Walker. They presented their findings to the District Attorney’s Office, but authorities were not swayed.

Editor's note: Prosecutors often say justice is more than putting people behind bars. Freeing people who are unjustly convicted and imprisoned is another part of the job, but it's more difficult and can take even longer.

For different reasons, the two units with similar names in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office charged with reviewing prisoners' cases have kept many people in prison. "Justice On Hold," a two-part series, examines the two units.

Today: the Conviction Review Unit.

The case for Larry Walker's innocence seemed undeniable to Jim McCloskey and Alan Maimon.

Walker's conviction for killing his friend Clyde Coleman in 1983 in Southwest Philadelphia rested largely on two elements: a 15-year-old boy who said Walker was one of three men he saw fleeing the scene, and prosecutors discrediting Walker's assertion that he had been watching a karate movie the night of the crime.

No physical evidence linked Walker to the killing. No DNA, no surveillance footage. McCloskey and Maimon, who work for a nonprofit organization that has helped free 54 inmates from prison in three decades, were told in 2012 by Walker's prosecutor that the case had been the thinnest of his career.

And then the men found their most promising lead: A Philadelphia native living in Virginia told them that a man with no known connection to Walker once boasted to her about participating in Coleman's killing.

Sharena Robinson, 36, wipes away tears as she talks about her father, Larry Walker. Centurion Ministries began reinvestigating Walker’s case after Robinson contacted them in 2010. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

Walker, serving a life sentence at the State Correctional Institution in Chester, has maintained that he was never involved. "I'm an innocent man, been sitting in here for 33 years for something I didn't do," he said during an interview in August at the prison.

Last year, McCloskey and Maimon presented the case for Walker's innocence to the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, which in 2014 established a Conviction Review Unit to investigate just such claims. They hoped the unit might ultimately agree to exonerate Walker.

But the office decided to keep Walker behind bars, allowing the Conviction Review Unit to maintain its perfect record: In its 2 1/2 years of existence, it has yet to find a single inmate worthy of exonerating.

Experts agree that exoneration is not the only measure of success for conviction review units, which typically are designed to investigate claims of innocence, sometimes in collaboration with defense attorneys. Those investigations can reach a number of conclusions, from overturning the case in the face of new evidence, to retrying it, to upholding the original conviction.

Still, similar units in Dallas and Brooklyn, among other cities, have exonerated dozens of inmates. Those units also have more staff members than Philadelphia's, more independence - and more investigations, regardless of outcome.

The District Attorney's Office acknowledges that its unit needs improvement.

In an interview Wednesday, Kathleen Martin, chief of staff to District Attorney Seth Williams, said the office could not specify how many investigations the unit had considered or conducted but is developing a plan to reform the unit that likely will call for more staff, a new structure, and protocols that can better track its progress.

The office has been weighing such changes for months, Martin said, and although she could not provide a timeline for implementation, she said the goal was to reflect best practices of similar units across the country.

Exonerations by Conviction Review Units

Philadelphia’s Conviction Review Unit, which investigates claims of innocence of people who feel they have been wrongly convicted, has not produced any exonerations since its establishment in 2014. Half of 24 similar units nationwide had not exonerated any prisoners through the end of 2015. In the table below, shaded blocks indicate years in which a conviction-review unit did not exist.

* Santa Clara County’s unit also exonerated one prisoner in 2003, bringing its total exonerations to 4.
SOURCE: National Registry of Exonerations, University of Michigan Law School

"It is being improved," she said. "We're trying to do it right."

Some innocence advocates criticize the office for assigning the unit just one staff member - former homicide prosecutor Mark Gilson - who works alongside members of the Post Conviction Relief Act appeals unit, which often fights to uphold convictions rather than reinvestigate them.

"I haven't seen any evidence that [the Conviction Review Unit] is doing meaningful investigations," said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project New York.

But advocates and defense attorneys hope the plans for the revamped unit will embrace the mission of the most effective units around the country: independently investigating convictions, believing that any outcome is possible.

"If you spend 90 percent of your time looking for all the reasons" someone is still guilty, said Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan Law School, who co-founded the National Registry of Exonerations, "you're probably not the ideal person to be focusing on the less common and much more difficult cases where you have to reverse course and say, 'Oh my God, we made a terrible mistake.' "

A karate movie on TV

McCloskey and Maimon believe Walker's case was a mistake.

Walker, a soft-spoken 22-year-old former bakery worker when he was arrested, was accused of shooting and killing Coleman during a botched robbery attempt May 2, 1983, at Coleman's home in the 5600 block of Elmwood Avenue.

The prosecution relied heavily on the recollections of Coleman's next-door neighbors, Emma Ellis and her 15-year-old son, Victor Hopkins. Both saw Coleman struggling with an intruder on his front step around 9 p.m. the night he died. Hopkins also saw two other men running from the house.

Ellis, at trial, said only that the intruder on the step resembled Walker. Hopkins said the intruder was Walker, but he initially hesitated on the stand.

"I have to give a definitive answer?" he said when asked to make the identification.

Walker's defense attorney, Irving W. Singer, later subpoenaed neighborhood resident Theresa Teagle to testify. She had told police on the night of the murder that she'd seen three men fleeing the crime scene. At trial, she said none of them was Walker.

Walker also took the stand, telling jurors he was at his friends' house playing pinochle and watching a karate movie on Channel 48 the night of the crime. Those friends, Mark Nash and Paul Coleman - no relation to Clyde Coleman - also testified and corroborated Walker's story.

But an employee of the TV station later testified that no karate movie had aired that night. Jurors returned their guilty verdict after deliberating less than an hour.

"I knew he was an innocent man," says Vanessa Robinson, 54 (center), the mother of Larry Walker's two children: Larry, 38, and Sharena, 36. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

"I couldn't believe it," Vanessa Robinson, the mother of Walker's two children, said recently. "I knew he was an innocent man."

Police never caught the other two men allegedly seen running from Coleman's house.

For McCloskey, an initial review of the record was all it took. The evidence, he thought, was far too thin to convict Walker, who had never been arrested before.

"He was a lamb," McCloskey said. "And the wolves got away."

Centurion Ministries, a Princeton-based organization founded by McCloskey in 1983, for which Maimon also works, began reinvestigating the case after Walker's daughter, Sharena Robinson, contacted Centurion in 2010.

Vanessa Robinson (left) comforts her daughter, Sharena, as they talk about Larry Walker’s case. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

Both men thought they had struck gold when Maimon reached out to a woman whose name he found in Walker's case file.

A man with a record

The woman grew up in Germantown and Southwest Philadelphia, where she had been friendly with both Clyde Coleman and Larry Walker. She went on to a long career in the Marines, later settling in Virginia Beach, Va.

That is where Maimon contacted her last year. Before she knew that Walker had been convicted, she advised Maimon to track down another man in relation to Coleman's death: Vincent Bundy.

Weeks after the crime, the woman recalled, Bundy boasted to her and her sister that Coleman - who was gay - had hit on him, which Bundy said was " 'why [we] had to kill his ass.' "

At the time, she said, she thought the remark was just bluster. But after learning that Walker had been imprisoned, she agreed to record her recollections in an affidavit for Centurion.

In an interview in Virginia Beach, the woman, who asked not to be identified because she feared retribution, again recalled her conversation with Bundy.

Court records show that Bundy has a history of arrests, including for armed robbery just a few months before Coleman's murder. In that case, according to the records, Bundy hastily recruited two men from a bar to break into the East Germantown home of a man with two amputated legs and rob him at knifepoint.

Bundy was convicted and sentenced to at least four years in prison, but at the time of Coleman's death he was free on bail, according to court records.

Maimon and McCloskey approached Bundy. He denied knowing anything about Coleman's death, and later told a reporter that he barely knew Coleman, that Coleman never hit on him, and that he did not know that Coleman had been murdered until Centurion approached him last year.

Asked by a reporter if he had been involved in the robbery at Coleman's house, Bundy replied: "Hell, no."

Maimon and McCloskey met with the DA's Office last year and offered their theory of Walker's case: that Bundy's potential involvement strengthened the likelihood of Walker's innocence.

The Conviction Review Unit interviewed the woman and Bundy, but after she spoke to Gilson and another investigator last November, she said, she "didn't feel like their minds were open."

"They were willing to take down the notes and everything, but I didn't feel like they had an open mind," she said.

Bundy, according to a three-paragraph interview summary from detectives, seemed "heavily inebriated" and denied knowing anything about Coleman's death. He later said he was not intoxicated while speaking with detectives.

Tariq El-Shabazz, a top deputy in the DA's office, said that whatever the circumstances of those interviews, the woman and Bundy reiterated to prosecutors what they told Centurion and a reporter.

And neither of the leads, he said, proved that Walker was wrongfully convicted.

"We found no evidence of innocence," said El-Shabazz.

McCloskey and Maimon acknowledge that fully disproving the case against Walker is a challenge. In fact, the 15-year-old key witness, Hopkins, now 49, said in an interview with the Inquirer in September that he stood by his trial testimony identifying Walker as the intruder at Coleman's home.

But Centurion hoped the unit would have conducted more than two interviews, because experts say the most effective units often use information from the defense to guide a complete reinvestigation.

"A good conviction [review] unit is proactive," said Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia who has written extensively about wrongful convictions. "What's the point of having a [review unit] if they're not going to do their own investigation?"

In Texas, N.Y., and Calif.

In Dallas, prosecutors embrace that mission.

The city's home county, Dallas County, has a five-person Conviction Integrity Unit staffed by attorneys and investigators with experience as both prosecutors and defense attorneys. That allows them to consider cases from a variety of perspectives, said assistant district attorney Cynthia Garza, a member of the unit since 2010.

The unit also reports directly to the district attorney, investigates cases of its choosing, and collaborates with defense attorneys or innocence advocates to determine the best course for review, Garza said.

If the investigation leads to evidence that proves the defendant is innocent, Garza said, the office will move to free the person from prison and wipe out the original charges.

The unit has done so 23 times since 2007, Garza said. Thirteen additional people have been freed since 2001, but the unit did not lead the reinvestigation in those cases, she said.

Garza said the unit's motivation is simple: A faulty conviction is an injustice.

"Not only is it not justice," Garza said, "those convictions were procured by the state. And it should be up to the state to undo something that was wrong."

Brooklyn's unit shares that spirit, and has more than 10 staff members and a $1 million annual budget, said spokesman Oren Yaniv.

The New York borough's former district attorney, Kenneth Thompson, made the unit a priority after he was elected in 2014. In the two years since, it has exonerated 21 people, Yaniv said, many of whom were convicted for murder. When Thompson recently died of cancer, he was widely hailed for his commitment to examining problematic convictions.

Not all of the conviction review units have generated prolific statistics. Half of the 24 units tracked by the National Registry of Exonerations - which has studied decades of wrongful convictions - had recorded zero exonerations by the end of 2015. Philadelphia's unit was among them.

But the conviction review unit in Santa Clara, Calif. - often cited as the nation's first - has overturned four convictions since 2003, the registry reported. Baltimore has overturned three in the last three years. And Chicago's Cook County, Ill., has exonerated 13 people since 2012.

Many of those successful units have a few key differences when compared to Philadelphia's.

A one-man unit

Gilson, for example, is the unit's only current staffer, and for 17 years he was known and respected as a relentless homicide prosecutor who prided himself on earning convictions.

The unit also is not Gilson's only job in the office. Just weeks after Williams established it, he also assigned Gilson to lead high-profile prosecutions against six state officials charged with illegally accepting gifts - the so-called "sting cases" abandoned by former Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane.

And Williams designed the Conviction Review Unit to work alongside the office's Post Conviction Relief Act appeals unit, which considers appeals by inmates and their attorneys and often defends initial convictions.

An April report on conviction review units by the University of Pennsylvania Law School's Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice said: "Structurally and philosophically, then, sincere CRUs define their mission as separate and apart from the mission of the office's appellate unit," because defending against appeals can be the philosophical opposite of investigating potential issues with the original case.

Martin, of the DA's office, said that when retooled, the unit will report directly to her, El-Shabazz, and Williams.

She also hopes to find a director, several lawyers, and possibly an investigator with a range of experiences - not just as prosecutors - and she wants to develop clear protocols for how cases are submitted, reviewed, and investigated.

"We did a lot of research on how to make this work," she said.

Departure from past

Some defense attorneys find it surprising that the DA's office is planning to take such steps.

Marc Bookman, director of the Philadelphia-based Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, said that as he's sought documents that might help the case of his client - convicted killer Kareem Johnson, whom prosecutors have agreed to retry - the office has "objected to every attempt by the defense" to obtain them. He also said, "As far as I know, the Conviction Review Unit did no independent investigation of Mr. Johnson's case at all."

Attorneys for Anthony Wright had a similar gripe.

After being imprisoned for 25 years, Wright was acquitted in August of raping and killing his 77-year-old Nicetown neighbor based on DNA tests commissioned in 2014 by his defense.

But Neufeld, the Innocence Project co-director and Wright's retrial attorney, said "the way this case was tried, it became abundantly obvious that there was no reinvestigation after the DNA testing."

Martin and deputy district attorney Ronald Eisenberg, who oversees appeals for the office, said prosecutors did reinvestigate Wright's case and believed "the evidence was still there" to convict Wright at retrial, even if the jury ultimately disagreed.

A third case, however, that of George Cortez, demonstrates aspects of the approach the office is seeking from its revamped unit.

Cortez was convicted in 2012 of shooting and killing Nafis Murray in North Philadelphia. But after a judge in 2015 ordered a retrial due to problems with how prosecutors had handled evidence, the retrial prosecutor, assistant district attorney Kirk Handrich, worked with Cortez's defense attorney, Andrew Gay, to reinvestigate.

It turned out that Cortez's brother, Owen Cortez, had committed the crime, and that George Cortez had no involvement.

Owen Cortez was charged, and George Cortez was released from prison in April 2016. In a tragic twist, he was fatally shot in North Philadelphia in July.

Still, Gay said he appreciated working with Handrich on the case to ensure a fair outcome.

"It was a very good experience between two lawyers working toward a just result," Gay said. "Mr. Handrich's level of integrity and his involvement in [the case] left nothing to be desired."

Tears in prison

McCloskey and Maimon know the possibility that the Conviction Review Unit might reopen its investigation into Walker's case is slim.

But they remain convinced of his innocence and are hopeful they can find some avenue for Walker's release.

Walker is 55 now, a short, thin man with a shaved head and a soft voice who has grown weary from decades of incarceration.

During the interview in prison this summer, he broke down crying at the thought of dying behind bars.

McCloskey, who speaks with Walker by phone regularly, advises him not to despair.

"The truth," McCloskey said, "can't be suppressed for a lifetime."

Name of unit: Conviction Review Unit
When formed: April 2014
Director: Mark Gilson
Number of staffers: 1 (Gilson)
What is it supposed to do? Reinvestigate claims of innocence by people who say they've been wrongfully convicted.
What has it done? Several investigations, though the office could not say how many. The unit has not recommended any exonerations.

cpalmer@phillynews.com

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@cs_palmer