Philly DA drops charges, man released from prison after a decade

Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, left, stands next to Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia on Dec. 21, 2016, as she speaks about the release of Donte Rollins from prison. Behind them are Mark Gilson (left), director of the District Attorney's Conviction Review Unit, and Assistant District Attorney Samuel Ritterman.

A smiling Donte Rollins walked out of custody shortly after 4:30 p.m. Wednesday and into the arms of his mother, Ava, who had fought for the last decade for his release from prison.

Both knew he was an innocent man.

They hugged in the lobby of the Criminal Justice Center. Rollins, in a red sweatshirt and blue jeans, then embraced his attorneys, who had persisted in getting a wrongly convicted man out of prison.

Rollins, 29, of North Philadelphia, was 18 when he was arrested on Jan. 28, 2006, in a Strawberry Mansion shooting that paralyzed a 6-year-old boy.

He was one of three men convicted by a jury of attempted murder and related charges in December 2007 after an emotional trial, and then sentenced by Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford Means the next year to the maximum term: 62 1/2 to 125 years in state prison.

Rollins' new defense team - attorney Michael Wiseman, and lawyers Marissa Boyers Bluestine and Nilam Sanghvi of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project - had fought to show prosecutors and Means additional evidence that supported Rollins' statement that he was not at the shooting scene.

The District Attorney's Office since April had agreed with the defense that Rollins deserved a new trial and should be released to his pretrial status of house arrest. But Means didn't rule until Nov. 14, when he denied Rollins a new trial.

On Tuesday, Superior Court reversed Means' decision, citing the agreement between prosecutors and the defense and rebuking Means for the delay. It granted a new trial and ordered Rollins' release.

But now, no new trial will take place.

At a 9 a.m. hearing before Means, Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson, director of the Conviction Review Unit, told the judge that prosecutors were dropping all charges against Rollins.

That meant that Rollins, who spent more than 10 years behind bars for a crime that mounting evidence indicated he did not commit, was finally a free man.

Camera icon  david maialetti / Staff Photographer
Donte Rollins leaves the secure area of the Criminal Justice Center lobby on Dec. 21, 2016. Photo taken from outside the CJC, looking through the glass windows.

After more than seven hours of waiting for paperwork to be handled, Rollins was let out. As he walked outside to face the bright lights of TV cameras and photographers, he said, "I'm just happy to be out. It's over now."

The last 10 years, he said, were "pure hell."

"I didn't lose my mind, but I damn near lost it," he added.

After speaking for nearly eight minutes, Rollins was asked by a reporter if he realized that all charges had been dropped against him and he would not have to face a retrial.

"No, damn!" Rollins replied. He had thought he was going home to house arrest pending a new trial.

Rollins, walking hand in hand with Wiseman and Sanghvi, their arms raised high, then headed to Maggiano's Little Italy on Filbert Street for a good meal.

Earlier in the day, Means told the lawyers that he was vacating Rollins' convictions and sentence, and was ordering him released to house arrest on bail, per Superior Court's instructions.

But he refused to grant the commonwealth's motion to drop all charges against Rollins.

"I'm washing my hands" of the case, Means said as he rubbed his palms back and forth.

Common Pleas Court Judge Scott DiClaudio then immediately granted the prosecution's motion for all charges to be dropped.

"This is the way justice is to work," DiClaudio said. "I know Mr. Gilson has worked tirelessly" on this matter, in reviewing the case and realizing that additional evidence cast strong reasonable doubt on Rollins' guilt.

Ava Rollins, 57, had tears in her eyes after Gilson announced he was dropping the charges.

"Merry Christmas," Gilson told her afterward in the hallway. "Enjoy."

The shooting occurred at 7:42 p.m. Jan. 28, 2006, at 29th and Westmont Streets in Strawberry Mansion. Jabar Wright, 6, was shot and paralyzed from his neck down. He was sitting in the back of a Pontiac Bonneville driven by his grandfather Benjamin Wright, who was believed to have been the intended target of the shooting.

Key to the three men's convictions were the identifications by Wright's then-wife, LaRhonda, who said she saw the men standing on the corner just before shots rang out. A fourth defendant was acquitted at trial.

Ava Rollins said Wednesday that she felt "relieved. It's been a long time."

After her son was arrested outside their home about 8:30 that night, she got store videos and receipts from the Gallery mall in Center City, and from South Street, that showed her son was shopping and not at the shooting scene.

Additional evidence gathered by Wiseman and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project included statements from Rollins' friends, who said they were with Rollins, cellphone records, and 6ABC news footage of Rollins after he was arrested, which showed him wearing the same clothing he wore while shopping.

District Attorney Seth Williams on Wednesday morning stood side by side with Bluestine in applauding Rollins' release.

He stopped short of calling Rollins innocent. Yet, Williams said "it would have been impossible" for Rollins to have been at the Gallery and the South Street stores, and at the scene of the shooting. "Had we had the evidence we had today, Donte Rollins would not have been charged," Williams said.

Bluestine told reporters there was "airtight evidence" Rollins was not at the scene.

Rollins later told reporters he wants to "be productive in my life" and "live my life for my mother," who fought for his release. The first thing he wanted to do at home?

"I'm going to get in the tub."

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