PHILADELPHIA When James Figorski, a retired Philadelphia police officer turned lawyer, began reviewing applications for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, he rejected the first 10 or 15 cases he considered.
Then he reviewed the application for Shaurn Thomas, a Philadelphia man who had been sentenced to life in prison without parole for the ambush murder of a Puerto Rican businessman in 1990.
Thomas said he was not guilty, "and it sounded like he was telling the truth," said Figorski, a lawyer at Dechert L.L.P. who works pro bono for the project.
Thomas is still in prison and Figorski faces an uphill battle in court, but for his efforts to put together what the project says it believes is a convincing case for exoneration, it will present the litigator with an award Tuesday night at the Kimmel Center.
The project also will give awards to Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey and JoAnne A. Epps, dean of the Beasley School of Law at Temple University. The organization said it was honoring Ramsey for his leadership in modernizing police investigation and Epps for her "critical role in the forming and ongoing support" for the project.
The ceremony marks the fifth anniversary of the Innocence Project, which operates out of Temple's law school.
One guest will be Eugene Gilyard, who spent 15 years in prison until last year, when a judge overturned his murder conviction and ordered a new trial.
Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for District Attorney Seth Williams, said a decision had not been made on whether to pursue a new trial for Gilyard and Lance Felder, who was convicted of murder in the same case.
The appeal for Gilyard and Felder was filed by the Innocence Project.
"When the Pennsylvania Innocence Project took my case, it was like the sun coming out through the rain," Gilyard said in a statement. "I always knew I was innocent, but having them believe in me and work so hard for me changed my life."
Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi called the evidence against Gilyard and Felder "extremely weak" and said that newly discovered evidence might acquit them in the 1995 slaying of businessman Thomas Keal.
But DeFino-Nastasi has said she will reject the petition for Shaurn Thomas, now 40, who was convicted in 1994 for the robbery and murder of Domingo Martinez four years earlier, when Thomas was 16. A ruling is expected in June, and Figorski said he would then appeal that decision.
Marissa B. Bluestine, legal director for the organization, said it was honoring Figorski for going "above and beyond" in his work for Thomas.
"It's important for people to understand how long a road it is to exonerate the innocent, and that it's not as simple as news reports suggest," Bluestine said.
"Jim's dedication to his client and our organization goes beyond a quick fix to being with Shaurn through all the struggles and setbacks without ever losing faith or hope," she said.