Shaurn Thomas officially free after DA's Office declines retrial

Shaurn Thomas, embracing Attorney Marissa Bluestine of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, speaks with his lawyer James Figorski at the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center in Center City, June 13th, 2017. CAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer

Shaurn Thomas is officially a free man.

Three weeks after the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office agreed to vacate Thomas’ 1993 murder conviction due to problematic evidence, Thomas, 43, embraced his family in a long hug outside a Center City courtroom Tuesday morning after prosecutors said they would not seek to try his case again.

The decision was a vindication for Thomas, who spent 24 years behind bars insisting he was innocent. He said he felt “wonderful” after the decision and was simply looking forward to spending time with his family — and continuing to sleep in his own bed.

His lawyers — James Figorski, a retired Philadelphia police lieutenant, and Marissa Bluestine of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project — were also emotional upon his release. Figorski, who had spent eight years investigating the case pro bono, said it would take time for the gravity of the situation to sink in.

“It wasn’t truly over until today,” Figorski said.

Thomas’ release was secured after the district attorney’s recently overhauled Conviction Review Unit began working with Figorski and Bluestine on the case at the beginning of 2017.

During the unit’s review, led by Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wellbrock, prosecutors discovered a long-missing homicide file that contained information about a suspect other than Thomas. And they interviewed prison officials from the early 1990s who offered information that they believe bolstered Thomas’ long-standing alibi: that he was in Center City, at the former Youth Study Center for juvenile offenders, the day Domingo Martinez was shot dead by a group of men in North Philadelphia during a robbery.

A jury rejected a similar alibi put on by Thomas’ defense attorney at trial. His defense argued, then and now, that Thomas could not have taken part in the murder because the then-teenager was newly locked up on charges of stealing a motorcycle.

More recently, Thomas’ supporters said that he was arrested at 11:30 p.m. the night before the murder, held overnight, and released in the early morning before being taken to the Youth Study Center to pick up a subpoena for the motorcycle theft.

But Randolph Williams, the now-retired prosecutor who tried Thomas’ case, said records discovered last year established that Thomas was arrested for the theft nearly a full day earlier. Williams contends that Thomas easily could have been on the street when the murder occurred — and he faults the District Attorney’s Office for agreeing to wipe out his conviction.

“Not only did they lay down, they rolled over and played dead,” Williams said in an interview last week. “C’mon, you represent the commonwealth, the people. You’ve got a victim that was shot down like a dog.”

Figorski and Bluestine acknowledge that that timeline of Thomas’ whereabouts was incorrect but disagree with Williams’ interpretation that he was free when the murder happened. They contend that the very documents Williams cites — along with Thomas’ testimony on his whereabouts, which they say has been consistent — show he was at the Youth Study Center when the killing happened.

They also cite a research study from the time of the arrest demonstrating that younger teenagers were routinely held by police for many hours beyond the time needed to process them, meaning he could have been arrested earlier than they first thought and still have been held until after the murder.

Wellbrock, of the Conviction Review Unit, and Elizabeth “BJ” Graham-Rubin, the unit’s director, say they, too, have been convinced Thomas was in custody the morning of the crime, even if records lack precise times.

In addition, Wellbrock in May obtained a homicide file that had been missing for decades that contained information about an alternate suspect. Those records were never turned over to the original prosecutors and defense attorneys, which likely would have entitled Thomas to a new trial anyway.

And the only witness who put Thomas at the murder scene has since recanted his account, making a retrial exceedingly difficult even without the alibi defense or the new information from the homicide file.

Graham-Rubin told Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi that prosecutors were not completely convinced that Thomas was innocent of the crime. But she said it was clear he deserved a new trial, and “the totality of the circumstances” led them to decline prosecuting him again.

None of those legal technicalities has shaken the faith of Thomas, his family, or Figorski and Bluestine. All say that Thomas is innocent. And Thomas’ mother, Hazeline Thomas, 65, said she never lost confidence that he would be freed.

“An innocent person,” she said, “will always be proven innocent.”