When the blockbuster podcast Serial took up the case of Adnan Syed, the Baltimore man convicted of the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee, the investigation opened up a path for Syed’s case to get back into court.
Now, Undisclosed, a popular podcast created by the lawyer who first brought attention to Syed’s story, may likewise provide fresh evidence and a spark of hope for several Philadelphia men who also have strong innocence claims.
Monday marks the final episode of a season of Undisclosed dedicated to the case of Terrance Lewis, whose story the Inquirer and Daily News first highlighted last May. It’s been eight years since a federal judge found that Lewis — a 39-year-old man serving life in prison for participating in the 1996 murder of Hulon Bernard Howard — appeared to be actually innocent. But, because of legal procedure, that was not enough to free him.
To Susan Simpson, a lawyer who hosts the podcast with lawyers Rabia Chaudry and Colin Miller, the case was striking.
“Terrance Lewis’ case is about as simple a case as you can imagine: They found someone who can point at Terrance, and called it a day,” Simpson said. That person was a single eyewitness who conceded she had used crack not long before the murder took place, and who identified Lewis only by his nickname, Stink.
Now, though, Lewis has a new chance at exoneration. His case is a top priority for review by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, according to a spokesman. And, evidence uncovered by the podcasters could help his cause.
One key document they found in files Lewis’ lawyer obtained from the District Attorney was a page of investigatory notes that appear to document the recollections of the eyewitness. It says Stink was a man named Hakim Muhammad who was wearing an electronic-monitoring bracelet.
“They never disclosed that. The fact that it’s a one-witness ID case and that witness initially identified someone else who could not be Terrance? That’s huge. That’s everything,” Simpson said. From police records, it appears police did some follow-up, but never pursued the lead.
Miller, who is also a University of South Carolina law professor, said the case shocked listeners of Undisclosed mostly because of how clear-cut it seems.
Numerous people were out on the 6100 block of Sansom Street the night Howard, an addict who let drug dealers conduct business from his home, was killed. But they didn’t testify at Lewis’ trial.
“The surprising thing here is the number of witnesses who have come forward and said Terrance is innocent and the fact they were never contacted either by the prosecution or the defense,” he said. “Our listeners have been shocked by the amount of evidence showing Terrance is innocent, and the fact that he has not been released based on it.”
For Lewis, who remains at Huntingdon state prison, the attention to his case has been a great relief.
“My cries were no longer falling on deaf ears,” he said. “Look at what’s just been unearthed.”
Undisclosed — which counts 236 million downloads so far — is also digging into several other Philadelphia cases. The hosts first focused here on the case of Shaurn Thomas, who was serving a life sentence for a role in the 1990 murder of a Puerto Rican businessman. Records showed that Thomas was actually in juvenile court at the time. Only, Thomas, who was assisted by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, was released in May, before the episodes could air.
So, the hosts turned their focus to a series of other local cases being pursued by the Innocence Project and other lawyers.
One was Willie Veasy, who was convicted in a 1992 murder and, with help from the Innocence Project, recently got back into court on a post-conviction petition after exculpatory records came to light. They showed that information contradicting an eyewitness statement had been obtained by police but never disclosed to defense lawyers.
Next up is Chester Hollman III, convicted in the 1993 murder of University of Pennsylvania student Tae Jung Ho. A key witness recanted her testimony against Hollman in 2012, saying she had felt pressured to lie, but it was not enough to sway the judge.
Simpson said she’s noticed some common threads among these cases.
“We’ve been to a few cities so far, and each place has its own version of wrongness going on,” she said.
“Baltimore has got some serious corruption problems and they’re really efficient at that. In Georgia, the cases I worked on were way more disorganized. In Philly — and it’s a very small sample — they just seem so quick, such thin cases, nothing very complex. It seems like they just wanted to get it done quickly more than anything.”
As for Lewis, his lawyer, David Laigaie of Eckert Seamans, is hopeful he could come home soon — whether through the DA’s office, via a new post-conviction hearing or under a new sentencing agreement. The latter would be pursuant to a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional; it triggered resentencing proceedings for about 300 lifers from Philadelphia.
Such an agreement would appear to reflect a turnaround from the administration of DA Seth Williams, which said innocence claims could not be contemplated in new sentencing offers because the underlying conviction stands.
For Lewis, it feels as if now, for the first time, freedom may be within reach.
“It’s so overwhelming,” said Lewis, who had no criminal record before his arrest in the slaying of Howard. “My fantasies are broader now. I am starting to make plans, but my mind is just racing. What I do know and I’m certain of is, I’m about to live life to the fullest. I’m no longer going to be one that’s doing a life sentence. I’m about to live life on the other side.”