Commentary: Philly has more work to do in freeing the innocent

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Anthony Wright (in glasses) at a family celebration just hours after his release Tuesday after 25 years in prison.

Marissa B. Bluestine

is legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project

The jury spoke. After 25 years in prison, Anthony Wright walked free. DNA evidence, unavailable at his first trial in 1993, not only established his innocence but demonstrated the guilt of another man.

Yet Wright gave a full "confession" to the crime. Detectives took the stand and swore the confession was genuine; Wright said he was coerced into signing a statement not his own. The case is over and the jury believed Wright. But justice can still be had for the victim of such a horrid murder and any other innocent defendants wrongly convicted by testimony from these detectives.

When Ken Thompson became the district attorney in Brooklyn, he faced a crisis: A New York Times review of cases involving retired Detective Louis Scarcella seemed to reveal the detective had cheated, lied, and fabricated evidence to secure convictions. Thompson's predecessor created a unit to review Scarcella's cases, but the new district attorney thought more should be done and faster.

Although no judge had yet exonerated anyone based upon Scarcella's actions, what Thompson did next is the reason the Pennsylvania Innocence Project honored him as our Hero of Justice this year. He beefed up his conviction review unit and launched a systematic review of convictions in which Scarcella played a role. The unit reinvestigated, reinterviewed witnesses, and looked at the evidence in a new light. Thompson appealed to the New York City Council for $1.1 million just for the unit. With 10 prosecutors, three investigators, and an outside review panel, the unit reviewed Scarcella's convictions and other cases. To date, the unit has helped reverse eight cases involving Scarcella, as well as 11 others.

Wright's case presents a similar potential watershed moment for Philadelphia.

The confession attributed to Wright was false. In the document, detectives claimed Wright described the clothing he wore to commit the crime and said they were in his bedroom. Police testified under oath that they recovered the clothing pursuant to a search warrant. Yet the clothing was not Wright's, and the scientific evidence belied the myth he had ever worn it.

The clothing, according to DNA scientists from a private lab and the Philadelphia Police Department, had DNA consistent with the victim herself in areas such as the inner knees and elbows - where you'd expect to find DNA from the person who had worn the clothing. Further, DNA testing of rape-kit samples revealed the identity of the man who had violated the victim - and it was not Wright.

How did police extract a supposed confession from a 20-year-old man for a crime he did not commit? Why did police swear they recovered clothing from that man's room when it turns out he had never worn it? Where did the clothes really come from? How many other cases may have similar injustices?

When the integrity of a homicide investigation is called into question after trial by the discovery of substantial, credible evidence of innocence, a prosecutor may close his or her eyes to the evidence. Or the prosecutor may emulate Thompson and others around the country who have made it their business to investigate substantial claims of actual innocence and follow the evidence where it leads, including to exoneration and release from imprisonment.

District Attorney Seth Williams and his staff did a remarkable job revising the way defendants are charged in Philadelphia, working with police to reduce overcharging and improper arrests. Williams has acted commendably in dismissing scores of prosecutions and convictions based on the testimony of corrupt narcotics officers.

Now Williams should commit to righting wrongful convictions with the resources fit for a functioning, committed Conviction Review Unit.

With a staff of only one prosecutor (for whom the job is but one of many important responsibilities), no support, no investigators, no resources, and certainly no outside objective review process, the current Philadelphia unit cannot begin to give well-founded innocence claims the scrutiny they deserve and require if injustice is to be corrected. With the right commitment from the District Attorney's Office, there can be more celebrations of justice like the ones Anthony Wright experienced last week.

mbluestine@temple.edu