DA drops all charges, man to be released from prison after a decade

UPDATE, 9:10 a.m. Wednesday: Prosecutors have dropped all charges against Donte Rollins and will not be retrying him. Rollins is expected to be released from the Criminal Justice Center later Wednesday, after he is brought to the courthouse from state prison, and will become a completely free man.

Earlier story:

After spending about a decade behind bars for a crime he maintains he did not commit, Donte Rollins is going home to North Philadelphia.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled Tuesday that Rollins, imprisoned for a 2006 shooting in Strawberry Mansion that left a 6-year-old boy paralyzed, had a clear right to relief due to an agreement between his attorneys and prosecutors that his trial attorney was ineffective and that he deserved a new trial.

The court also rebuked the man who had kept him in prison: Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford Means.

Means, who this fall had declined to grant Rollins a new trial, wrote in a separate opinion this week that he disagreed with the ineffectiveness claim, a judgment the Superior Court criticized.

"[W]e see no justification in the certified record for . . . [the] unexplained denial of the agreed-upon relief requested," the court wrote.

In a statement, Rollins' new defense team - attorney Michael Wiseman and lawyers with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project - said they were grateful for the ruling, which ordered Rollins, 29, to be released to his pre-trial status of house arrest by noon Wednesday.

"Mr. Rollins is an innocent man, imprisoned for over 10 years for a crime he did not commit," Wiseman said. "That he spent even a single day in prison - much less 10 years - is a travesty."

The District Attorney's Office ultimately will have to decide whether to seek to prosecute Rollins again or drop the case. In a statement Tuesday, the office said it was pleased that Rollins would be released, and that "the long awaited and just result should finally occur [Wednesday]." But it declined to say whether that meant prosecutors anticipated dropping the case against Rollins.

An employee in Means' chambers said the judge could not comment.

A jury convicted Rollins of attempted murder and related offenses in the January 2006 shooting that paralyzed Jabar Wright, 6, from the neck down. Two other men, including a cousin of Rollins', also were convicted; a fourth defendant was acquitted.

Means in 2008 sentenced the three men to the maximum term: 62 1/2 to 125 years in state prison.

Jabar, when he was shot, was in the back of a Pontiac Bonneville driven by his grandfather, Benjamin Wright, who was believed to have been the intended target. Benjamin's then-wife, LaRhonda, who was also a passenger in the car, testified that she saw the four defendants on the street corner just before shots rang out but did not see the actual shooting.

Rollins has maintained that he was not at the scene of the shooting, which occurred about 7:40 p.m. Jan. 28 at 29th and Westmont Streets in Strawberry Mansion. He contends he was out shopping at the Gallery mall, in Center City, and then on South Street.

During the trial, defense attorney Nino Tinari showed jurors two surveillance videos, which he said showed Rollins in the Gallery at 6:18 p.m., then entering the Net store at 5th and South Streets at 8 p.m., 20 minutes after the shooting.

Through Post Conviction Relief Act petitions and hearings, Rollins' new defense team brought to the court's attention additional evidence not shown at the trial that supported Rollins' alibi.

The evidence included statements from two friends who said they were shopping with Rollins that day; a statement from Rollins' mother, who said a third friend, who has since died, was also with Rollins; store receipts; cellphone records; and additional video footage.

Rollins' new attorneys contend that Tinari was ineffective by not interviewing the friends who said they were with Rollins and not presenting them as witnesses. The team has also contended that Tinari was ineffective by not investigating or presenting Rollins' cellphone records, store receipts, and additional video footage.

During a February hearing, Tinari testified that he had not sought out the friends because he did not want to associate Rollins with "other young people" who could potentially make the defendant look bad.

He testified that "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."

Since April, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has agreed with Rollins' defense that Tinari was ineffective; that Rollins deserved a new trial; and that he should be released from prison to house arrest.

In an interview Tuesday, Tinari said he was pleased that Rollins was being released, but defended his work on Rollins' behalf at trial.

"I aggressively tried the case," he said. "I put on all the evidence I thought was proper under the circumstances."

Despite Means' rejection of the agreement between prosecutors and Rollins' new defense team regarding Tinari's ineffectiveness, the Superior Court's decision to overrule was applauded in a statement Tuesday by Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

"We are thrilled [Rollins] will spend the holidays with his loving family," she said.

@julieshawphilly