After serving 15 years of life sentences for the 1995 robbery-murder of a North Philadelphia businessman, Eugene Gilyard and Lance Felder have had five months of freedom to reconnect with family, return to the work force and learn about technology and gadgets that weren’t around when they went to prison as teenagers.
Still, the possibility that freedom could end remains ever present as the District Attorney’s office considers whether to give the men the new trial ordered by a Philadelphia judge or dismiss charges altogether.
On Thursday, Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi granted the prosecutors’ request for more time to investigate the pair’s claims of “actual innocence” and set June 18 for the next status hearing for the case. There are signs, however, that the judge’s patience is wearing and, according to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project’s legal director, Marissa Bluestine, DeFino-Nastasi said she might soon set a trial date and handle the retrial herself.
That’s a turn-about for the judge. At a hearing last year, DeFino-Nastasi called the original investigation and prosecution of the pair a “travesty” and said she would likely ask that a retrial be assigned to a different judge.
DeFino-Nastasi was the judge who last October granted Gilyard, 34, and Felder, 35, a new trial after conducting days of hearings on their appeal under the state’s Post Conviction Relief Act. She called the evidence that convicted the pair in 1998 “extremely weak” and said newly discovered evidence, including another man’s confession to the 1995 slaying of businessman Thomas Keal, might well acquit them.
Afterward, DeFino-Nastasi allowed Gilyard and Felder to be released on house arrest pending a decision on a new trial. After a month, the judge freed both from house arrest, a move that enabled Gilyard to move in with his wife -- she is now expecting their first child -- who he met and married while he was in prison, and which let both enroll in occupational training programs and start working in a re-entry program for ex-offenders.
Keal, 52, a popular North Philadelphia businessman who owned a bar and seafood store, was walking home about 2 a.m. on Aug. 31, 1995 when he was confronted by two armed men at 17th Street and Erie Avenue.
When Keal resisted demands for money and went for his own weapon, one robber shot him in the leg with a sawed-off shotgun. After Keal was on the ground, witnesses said the other gunman shot him in the head with a handgun.
Gilyard and Felder were not arrested until January 1998 and then based on a shaky photo identification by Keal’s daughter. Tonya Keal glimpsed her father’s shooting for about five seconds from her apartment above his seafood store. Keal’s was the only evidence against the pair; there was no physical evidence.
Gilyard, however, never gave up his efforts to prove his innocence and two years ago convinced the Temple University-based Pennsylvania Innocence Project to follow up on leads he found.
In June 2011, Innocence Project investigators obtained a statement from Ricky “Rolex” Welborn, 35, a West Philadelphia man serving life for an unrelated murder. Welborn, who sometimes worked as an enforcer for the drug gang operated by Felder’s oldest brother, confessed that he and another man he refused to identify had tried to rob and then shot Keal. Welborn said Gilyard and Felder had nothing to do with the crime.
Gilyard and Felder always insisted they were innocent and Gilyard told police he knew the gunmen who killed Keal by their street names, “Rolex” and “Tizz.”
While Welborn has been off the streets for some time, Tizz had disappeared. Now, Bluestine says the man identified as Tizz – Timothy Gooden, 36, of Kingsessing – is in custody. According to court records, Gooden was arrested Feb. 26 and charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault, kidnapping, arson and a host of related charges involving a drug-related abduction.
Gooden’s attorney, Joseph T. Schultz, said he knew little about the case against Gooden because he was charged in an indictment from a county grand jury. Under grand jury rules, defense lawyers don’t get discovery – the detailed allegations, evidence and witnesses' names -- until 60 days before trial.
Schultz said he knew nothing about Gooden’s identification as the gunman Tizz in the Gilyard-Felder case.