FRACKVILLE, Pa. — About 24 years after he was arrested for a murder he always insisted he didn't commit, 43-year-old Shaurn Thomas walked out of a state prison as a free man shortly before 6 p.m. Tuesday.
A beaming Thomas — jailed since he was 19 — stopped at the front entrance of the Schuylkill County correctional facility with his lawyers; his fiancee, Stephonia Long; and family members for an impromptu news conference that felt a lot more like a victory party.
Just eight hours earlier in a Center City courtroom, his conviction for taking part in the 1990 murder of a Puerto Rican businessman in North Philadelphia had been thrown out after the District Attorney’s Office agreed with his lawyers that the evidence against him did not support his conviction.
While hugging his fiancee and playing with a 4-year-old nephew, Thomas told reporters he never lost faith that he would eventually prove he was at a hearing at the former Youth Study Center on the morning of the killing.
“I felt the justice system was going to prevail sooner or later, and that somebody would hear my cries,” Thomas said as he looked over at his lawyers, Dechert LLP’s James Figorski and Marissa Bluestine of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, “and they heard them.”
Despite having spent his entire adult life behind bars, and missing the recent funerals of two grandparents, Thomas — dressed quickly in a Pennsylvania Innocence Project T-shirt and wearing his Muslim skullcap — said he didn’t hold a grudge against those who had imprisoned him.
“In my faith, there’s no need to,” Thomas said. “If I hold a grudge, I ain’t never going to grow.”
But his mother, Hazeline, and sister Elaine — who both had been with Thomas at the Youth Study Center on the day of the murder — voiced frustration at the system that had locked him away for so long.
“The hardest part was them not believing me from the beginning,” Hazeline Thomas said outside the prison entrance. “Truthfully, I lost a lot of years with that.”
Long, his fiancee, has had a unique journey into his life: She knew his family but met him only after looking him up online and stumbling upon a recap of his case on the Innocence Project's website. The two developed a romance and have been engaged for about a year and a half. She hopes to take a trip with him to an island somewhere, such as in the Bahamas or Hawaii.
Technically, Thomas' legal journey is not over. Tuesday’s brief hearing, before Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi, removed the conviction against Thomas, but prosecutors could choose to refile charges against him in the next several weeks.
Still, that seems unlikely. Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wellbrock and the recently revamped Conviction Review Unit found new evidence while reinvestigating Thomas’ case that bolstered his innocence claim.
Kathleen Martin, first assistant district attorney, declined to say whether prosecutors would seek to retry Thomas but said the office hoped to decide quickly. A status hearing was scheduled for June 13.
The case represents the first major action undertaken by the overhauled Conviction Review Unit of the District Attorney's Office — and the first time its investigators discovered evidence that helped overturn a problematic conviction.
Thomas' release comes more than six months after the Inquirer and Daily News reported that the unit had not found a single case worthy of overturning, whereas similar units in Dallas and New York City had exonerated dozens of inmates. Philadelphia's unit, launched in April 2014, had been criticized by some criminal justice advocates as lacking the resources and transparency of successful units across the country.
The unit restructured, added staff members, and established clearer operating protocols at the beginning of 2017.
Bluestine in court Tuesday praised her counterparts for their diligence and assistance over the last several months.
"This is really an extraordinary effort from the District Attorney's Office," she said.
Thomas had been convicted of participating in the slaying of Domingo Martinez, who was shot dead in November 1990 while taking $25,000 to a check-cashing store he owned.
Thomas had an alibi that from the start suggested he was innocent: On the day of the killing, he was at the former Youth Study Center for juvenile offenders for an unrelated offense.
But his trial attorney did not present a compelling enough case to sway a jury, and Thomas was sentenced to life in prison in 1993.
Figorski and the Innocence Project took up Thomas' case nearly a decade ago. Figorski said he was drawn to it because he believed Thomas' alibi.
Starting in January, Thomas' defense team began collaborating with the conviction review unit, and last month investigators disclosed that they had uncovered the police homicide folder on Martinez's slaying, which had been missing for decades.
The files — which contained information about alternate suspects — were never presented to the original prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Wellbrock, of the conviction review unit, said the information buttressed Thomas' innocence claim, which was already strong due to his alibi.
Figorski was grateful that years of work had paid off — and that a man he believed was wrongfully convicted was finally being freed.
"It's a great feeling," he said.