This is Part 4 of Losing Conviction, a series about homicide investigations in Philadelphia.
Retired Philadelphia homicide detective Martin Devlin was a voice of brisk authority from the witness stand in the 2016 murder retrial of Anthony Wright. He was a veteran cold-case investigator, and his nicknames, according to celebratory newspaper profiles, included Detective Perfect and The Golden Marty.
Wright, on the other hand, had been convicted of the 1991 rape and murder of 77-year-old Louise Talley, and spent 25 years as a prisoner. And prosecutors were continuing to pursue the case even after that verdict was overturned in 2014 based on DNA evidence that excluded Wright.
At the retrial, Devlin and other retired detectives, including Frank Jastrzembski and Manuel Santiago, stood by their previous accounts of the 1991 investigation: Jastrzembski had discovered the killer’s Chicago Bulls shirt, along with two 16-year-old witnesses who signed statements saying they’d seen him wearing it at the crime scene. And Santiago had taken Wright’s confession, as Devlin transcribed each word. Wright listened in disbelief, wondering: “Is this a joke? Is this really happening?”
Wright maintained that Santiago and Devlin coerced his signature on that confession by handcuffing him to a chair, one pressing on his neck with his hands while the other threatened to rip his eyes out and “skull-f—” him.
When Wright’s lawyer, Samuel Silver, asked Devlin to settle the question of whether he was even capable of transcribing Wright’s confession word for word — as an “experiment” in court — Devlin said, “Let’s do it.” But as Silver read the confession aloud, Devlin’s pen dragged. He got only as far as: “Go on in your own words …” before conceding he could not keep up.
“This experiment is over, sir,” Silver said.
The long process of unraveling the Wright detectives’ investigative practices was only just beginning.
Wright was quickly acquitted — in his memory, the jury foreman “screamed ‘not guilty!’ to the heavens as if she was talking directly to my mother” — and that verdict would help set off a chain reaction that continues to unfold today.
So far, at least a dozen men have been released from life sentences based on murder convictions involving investigators who helped build the false case against Wright. Just this month, the District Attorney’s Office agreed to a new trial for Jose Uderra, who has spent close to three decades on death row, because the only admissible witness accounts “were elicited by Philadelphia Police Detective Martin Devlin and other officers credibly accused of serious misconduct.”
When Innocence Project lawyer Nina Morrison told Wright he’d soon be free — and beloved — he said it sounded ludicrous. But later, he got it: “My case was a Pandora’s box and she knew it would expose all the corruption that was going on in the judicial system in Philadelphia. And true to her word, my case has opened the door for men that were literally dead men walking and opened the door for so many people to come home after me.”
In addition, dozens of witnesses in other cases have come forward to say their statements were coerced, their stories fabricated.
They have been believed, in part, because of the debunked evidence in Wright’s case. The DNA analysis did not merely exclude Wright; it pointed to a different man, Ronnie Byrd, since deceased, who had been known to stay in an abandoned house just down the street from Talley’s. And, it showed that the Bulls shirt and the other clothing were worn only by Talley, not Wright.
After Wright’s conviction was overturned in 2014, the Philadelphia district attorney offered Wright a deal that would let him walk free. But he declined to plead guilty.
“No one thought they’d actually retry the case,” said Paul Messing, one of Wright’s lawyers, “and then the DA retries it with a completely new theory.”
Assistant District Attorney Bridget Kirn, according to testimony, drafted a document, Commonwealth Theory of the Case: “Defendant recruited multiple other persons, as he admitted in his confession, to go back into the house to take items after the murder. And thus Ronnie Byrd would have had an opportunity to abuse the corpse.”
Santiago would later recount a pretrial meeting with Kirn: “She says, well, do you still believe that he’s guilty? I said, yeah, absolutely, he’s still guilty of this murder.”
The Innocence Project, which represented Wright, submitted a scathing complaint to the state Supreme Court’s disciplinary board contending that Kirn had failed to correct the detectives’ false testimony. Kirn didn’t respond to a request for comment.
And, as would later become public, a grand jury began investigating whether the detectives’ testimony amounted to perjury. Days before the five-year statute of limitations would have expired this August, the District Attorney’s Office filed charges against the three former homicide detectives.
While DA Larry Krasner’s Conviction Integrity Unit has reviewed a number of cases involving these same three detectives, it’s unclear how far that review will go — and how many more people with tainted convictions remain in prison.
The Wacker Squad
For Wright, the verdict set his life on a remarkable new course.
He recently marked the five-year anniversary of his homecoming with a series of firsts: his first time traveling out of the country, his first self-published book, his first time buying a home (in Delaware, as he still feels uneasy in Pennsylvania). A sturdy, 50-year-old man with flecks of gray in his close-cropped hair and a booming voice that’s as rough as a gravel road, he’s also become a late-in-life tattoo enthusiast. His life story is inked on his arms: his mother’s face, the start and end dates of his incarceration, and, taking up almost an entire forearm, the names of the large legal team that helped free him.
Today, he carries two phones. One number is for his family, his friends, and his lawyers. The other rings all day long with calls from prison. Many are men who say they’re innocent like him, whose cases were built by the same detectives — but who may not have the same kind of help Wright had.
“Those are my brothers. Those are my comrades,” Wright said.
He puts money in their prison accounts, tries to find them lawyers, visits their parents and kids.
In ways less immediately apparent, Wright’s exoneration was also a life-altering outcome for detectives Devlin, Santiago, and Jastrzembski.
Each man had at least 25 years of service to the Philadelphia Police Department, having ascended to the rank of homicide detective. Each then retired and embarked on a second career, taking along a government pension. Santiago spent time as a special agent in the Pennsylvania attorney general’s gun violence task force. Jastrzembski went into corporate security.
Devlin’s encore included a stint in Camden County, where he was celebrated for closing the Carol Neulander murder case with the arrest of her husband, a well-known rabbi. He would testify in civil depositions to a sterling record: “Yeah, I probably solved more than 90% of my cases,” he said. None, until Wright, had been overturned. Asked what steps he’d take if forced to reinvestigate one of his own cases, he rejected the premise: “I would try to get it right the first time. That’s what Marty Devlin would do.”
By the time the Wright case came around in 1991, Devlin, who worked closely with longtime partner Detective Paul Worrell, was already known as a skilled extractor of confessions. They were assigned to the homicide division’s Special Investigation Unit, tasked with clearing high-profile cases and cold cases others couldn’t crack. Some in the department reportedly called it the “wacker squad” because of its offbeat personalities; Devlin, who held a black belt in taekwondo, was known to favor loudly patterned shirts and to roam the city with a sawed-off shotgun while hunting fugitives.
“My strength, as I look back on it, was empathy,” Devlin later testified.
“His ability to develop a rapport with people that he interviewed and interrogated was outstanding,” then-supervisor Larry Nodiff testified. “He would talk to people very politely, calmly, and … people would cooperate.”
In some cases, Devlin and Worrell obtained confessions that jump-started long-stalled investigations.
On a Sunday in 1992, they brought in a man named Walter Ogrod, who lived down the street from where a young girl had been found beaten to death and left in a cardboard box four years earlier. They questioned him for at least six hours, telling him he must have mentally blocked the memory of killing 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn. He succumbed and signed a confession. He would spend decades on death row before being exonerated in 2020.
Still, some in homicide disdained Devlin and Worrell.
“They could get away with whatever they wanted to because they were the sergeant’s boys,” one retired detective said. To him, the Ogrod confession was obviously questionable. “They weren’t known as go-getters. Then they brought a guy in on a Sunday that they had no reason to bring in, and all of a sudden he went for it?”
Messing sees them as a by-product of an era. “There was a spike in violent crime in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Enormous pressure was brought to bear on police to solve these cases and they did it. They thought they got their guy and, when they realized they didn’t have enough to convict, they would make s— up.”
They were part of a homicide unit that for years cleared more than 80% of its cases — the highest rate of any big city, and about 20 percentage points better than the national average. That clearance rate plummeted after the department instituted reforms such as videotaping interrogations and notifying witnesses they’re free to leave. As of 2020, it stood at 43%.
But other colleagues stand by the two men’s work. “They were great cops and they’re good people,” said retired detective Tom Augustine, who also worked on the Wright case. “Are you telling me they’re putting innocent people in jail, possibly on death row? I just don’t believe it.”
Longtime partners Santiago and Jastrzembski were less splashy, and less controversial among some colleagues.
But Santiago had a reputation in certain neighborhoods.
Ollie Minor, back then a street-level drug dealer in North Philadelphia, recalled the detective driving his car at the corner hustlers as if to run them over, stealing their money or drugs, or grabbing their car keys and tossing them so they’d have to go searching and scrambling.
“He was real aggressive, trying to make me give a statement up for something I didn’t know nothing about,” Minor said in an interview. “He would split your wig if you didn’t do what he said.”
Minor said Santiago threatened to lock him up unless he signed a statement implicating a man he didn’t know, Paul Williams, in a murder case from the 1980s. Minor complied. (Williams remains in prison, but the Superior Court recently granted him a hearing based on allegations the prosecutor concealed benefits granted to a jailhouse informant.)
Such claims, however, were not reflected in the detectives’ Internal Affairs records, according to testimony.
Jastrzembski said he was not aware of ever having been the subject of an investigation. Devlin’s history included only three complaints. “In a half century, almost, in law enforcement, there has never been one founded complaint against Marty Devlin,” Devlin would testify.
Defendants had routinely raised allegations in open court of verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, threats, deception, physical intimidation, prolonged isolation, and abusive tactics that could inflict pain without causing serious injury.
But judges often ruled their confessions voluntary anyway.
One man, Carl Tonez, testified in 1991 that he’d been awake two days and high on crack when Devlin and Worrell brought him in for questioning, and handcuffed him to a chair bolted to the floor. Devlin, he said, twisted his arm behind him, tightened the cuffs, and told him, “You will be ready to sign in about a half an hour.” Tonez said he finally signed because he believed the detective “was going to beat me to death.” On one page, he testified, he wrote his name backward as a distress signal. But Devlin denied any such conduct, and the statement was admitted.
Even when a case investigated by Santiago and Jastrzembski disintegrated spectacularly in court, they suffered no consequences.
In a 1993 murder case, a police officer had taken a statement implicating Percy St. George in the crime from a teenager who gave his name as David Glenn. Later, Santiago brought Glenn in for a second interview, so he could identify St. George’s photo, while Jastrzembski got a statement from the victim’s sister confirming Glenn’s identity as a witness.
Only it turned out Glenn had not been present at the murder — or even at the initial police interview. (A friend, worried about an outstanding warrant, had given Glenn’s name as his own.) Defense lawyers accused detectives of fabricating subsequent statements in order to salvage the case. In advance of a hearing, Santiago’s lawyer sent a letter warning the defense that the detective would invoke the Fifth Amendment, and refuse to testify. Charges against St. George were dropped.
Santiago and Jastrzembski testified later that they had never coerced, yelled, threatened, or assaulted anyone during an interview.
As for interviewing minors — like Glenn and his friend, or the 16-year-old witnesses in Wright’s case — Jastrzembski testified there was nothing untoward about his interviewing them without parental consent. “They agreed to come in and be interviewed, and they were,” he said in a deposition. “So I saw no reason to notify the parents.”
Santiago did testify, though, that he’d rather see an innocent man go to prison than a guilty man go free.
“The guilty man walks away,” he said. “Only those responsible for his walking away, they are the only ones that have to live with it.”
A pattern of misconduct
In 2016, Wright filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that the Police Department’s unconstitutional policies had set the stage for a pattern of misconduct that led to his wrongful conviction.
The case would settle for $9.85 million, the largest ever in Philadelphia.
It also had unexpected aftershocks. In turning over discovery, the city provided Wright’s lawyers with case files on six other murder investigations — but failed to mark them confidential. His lawyers then shared the documents with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. The DA’s Office later tried to claw those documents back, but a federal judge said the DA could not “prevent what has already been done.”
Those included the files on Tonez and Ogrod, as well as Jack Combs, a man convicted of a 1990 double murder in a case witnesses had initially described as murder-suicide — until Devlin re-interviewed them based on a hunch and they changed their statements. (Combs, who maintains his innocence, is still in prison.)
Two of the disclosures, however, would prove especially consequential.
One was the file on Andrew Swainson, who had been convicted of a 1988 murder based largely on the statement of one witness — a man originally arrested for the murder, then secretly jailed for eight months under a false name. Santiago had testified that the witness picked Swainson out of a seven-photo lineup. But the witness admitted police showed him only one photo: Swainson’s.
Another was the investigative file on Willie Veasy in connection with a 1993 murder that took place at the same time Veasey was working as a dishwasher at a busy restaurant miles away. He alleged that Devlin and Worrell tormented and assaulted him until he signed a confession, his alibi notwithstanding. The case file revealed that a central witness had previously identified two alternate suspects, but that was not disclosed to the defense as required by law.
With those files in hand, both men fought their way back into court. Veasy was exonerated in 2019, Swainson in 2020.
James Figorski, an attorney with the Dechert law firm and a retired Philadelphia police officer who worked on Veasy’s case, described a sort of domino effect: “The Tony Wright case seemed to show that was definitely a false confession because of the DNA. It’s a false confession, and it didn’t happen the way we were told it happened. I think people for the first time looked at this and said, ‘How many others are like this?’”
So far, the city has paid out $29 million to settle lawsuits over four wrongful convictions built by the detectives from the Wright case. At least five more lawsuits are pending.
In agreeing to release Veasy, the District Attorney’s Office formally acknowledged a pattern of misconduct: “Devlin and other homicide detectives he worked with used coercive techniques during their interrogations. These tactics included physical and or psychological abuse as well as threats of incarceration.”
Yet, many more cases involving identical allegations of coercion against Devlin have not received the same support.
Consider Maurice Revels, who confessed to colluding with a friend, Alan Presbury, to hunt down and kill a young man, Brian Moore, in 1993.
Revels testified that his confession was coerced — that Devlin threatened him, “punching me and kicking me in my ribs.” Presbury’s then-girlfriend, Shanta Brown-Atkins, testified to seeing Revels escorted out of the interview room shirtless, bent over in pain, and bleeding from his mouth. Police applauded, she said.
In an interview, Brown-Atkins said a detective threatened her, too: “He told me they would take my kids away if I didn’t cooperate.” She described the encounter as traumatic, spurring her to a career in the child-welfare system.
But Devlin testified that Revels’ confession was voluntary, and both Revels and Presbury were convicted of murder. To Presbury, the guilty verdict felt inevitable: “No jury in the city of Philadelphia, or any city in this country for that matter, is going to believe a young Black male over a distinguished and decorated veteran homicide detective.”
In a different case — the killing of a murder witness, LaShawn Whaley — Kevin Green said Devlin threw him up against a wall so hard he knocked out a tooth while trying to get a statement against Donyell Paddy.
In a different case — the killing of a murder witness, LaShawn Whaley — Kevin Green said Devlin threw him up against a wall so hard he knocked out a tooth while trying to get a statement against Donyell Paddy.
Green is serving a life sentence and Paddy remains on death row for Whaley’s murder, even as a number of witnesses have recanted their accusations against them. One is Whaley’s cousin, Freddy Murphy, who said Devlin threatened him with criminal charges.
“That scared me. So I thought my way of getting out of all that was to roll with whatever was being said,” he said. “I rolled along with the story that Detective Devlin made out for me.”
He tried to avoid testifying. But he was held for five months as a material witness, then another five for contempt of court. After that, Murphy gave in. “It’s haunted me,” he said. “It’s been eating me up. I don’t want to go to my grave knowing I told lies on someone that’s been suffering for 30 years.”
There are many more, nearly identical, claims against Santiago and Jastrzembski as well.
Nakia Jackson maintains they handcuffed her to a chair for hours, until she implicated her boyfriend Talli McFadden in the fatal 1994 shooting of Sharon Williams in East Germantown. “They were saying they going to take my kids,” Jackson said in an interview, “because I was going to be charged with the murder if I didn’t tell them who did it.” Santiago testified he had never handcuffed or threatened Jackson. McFadden, who said he felt railroaded, pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
Elwood Quillen alleged that Jastrzembski and his then-partner, Arthur Mee, threatened him to retract his statement regarding the 1997 homicide of Edward Williams — a case in which Quillen was in the unusual position of claiming he was the real killer. “They forced me to sign it,” Quillen wrote in one of at least a dozen affidavits, statements, and confessional letters to his friend Robert Hall, who was convicted of the murder. (In a recent interview, Quillen denied killing Williams but remained adamant that Hall is innocent and that detectives threatened him.)
And, for decades, Allen Ginn maintained that Santiago had threatened him during a 20-hour interrogation, finally tricking him into signing a confession to killing Police Officer Charles Knox in a 1992 robbery-murder at a South Philadelphia fast-food restaurant. He and his brother, Tucker Ginn, were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Years later, they learned that a different man had been arrested with proceeds from the robbery but escaped. But a federal judge ruled that an undisclosed alternate suspect was irrelevant because the case was built on ironclad evidence, including their confessions.
Allen Ginn died of cancer in prison last year at age 59. Tucker Ginn’s petitions for post-conviction relief have all been denied.
‘Are they all that corrupt?’
This August marked the five-year anniversary of Wright’s homecoming. That made the date significant for another reason, too: Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations for perjury was about to expire.
On Aug. 13, just days before that deadline, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office filed perjury and false-swearing charges against Devlin, Santiago, and Jastrzembski. A grand jury presentment unsealed that day tied the charges to the detectives’ testimony at Wright’s retrial, accusing them of “lying under oath to condemn an innocent man and cover up their wrongdoing.”
Among those lies, according to the grand jury: Devlin’s and Santiago’s accounts of Wright’s confession, Jastrzembski’s testimony that he had retrieved the clothes from Wright’s home, and Santiago’s and Jastrzembski’s denials that they’d been briefed on the exculpatory DNA test results.
The case remains pending, and lawyer Brian McMonagle said the detectives maintain their innocence. “These three good men dedicated their lives to seeking justice for victims of crime,” he told The Inquirer then. (He did not respond to follow-up requests seeking interviews for this article.)
Testifying in Wright’s civil case, all three said they believed they had achieved a just outcome with his conviction.
“To this day I have never heard any information that anyone else has murdered Mrs. Talley,” Santiago testified.
When Wright got news that charges were filed, he wept. Then, he said, “The first thing I did was go to the cemetery and share that with my mother, and let her know that these cops that took me out of her home are now accountable for their actions.”
After that, he began to contemplate what the indictments might mean for those still in prison.
“You think what they did to me, that I was the only one? Absolutely not,” he said. “All those cases should be thrown out.”
The ponderous post-conviction legal system, though, doesn’t work like that.
Alan Presbury, whose codefendant signed a confession with Devlin, can attest to that. The same day the indictment came down, a Philadelphia judge dismissed his latest post-conviction petition, which was based on Devlin’s misconduct in the Wright and Veasy cases.
Patricia Cummings, supervisor of the Conviction Integrity Unit, said her office has not undertaken a complete review of all the three detectives’ cases.
“We’ve always been trying to flag their cases,” she said.
Regardless of the detective, she emphasized, careful, individual review is required. Her unit backed 22 full exonerations in murder cases over the last four years, a figure surpassed only by New York and Chicago.
But her team has a backlog of more than 1,000 cases, and many post-conviction petitions remain outside the CIU’s purview.
They are handled by other divisions within the DA’s Office, some of which have not conceded that these detectives’ cases are tainted by a clear pattern of misconduct. “I don’t see anything to indicate that the [DA’s] law division reached that conclusion, or the homicide unit,” Cummings said. “I don’t think they ever will.”
It’s not even clear how many more cases handled by the same detectives are fraught with similar allegations. Detectives worked collaboratively, pitching in on one another’s cases, cycling in and out of interrogations.
In depositions, Devlin, Santiago, and Jastrzembski each said they worked on around a thousand homicide investigations during their careers.
And they didn’t work the Wright case alone: At least eight other detectives helped gather evidence and take statements from witnesses.
Augustine, who went with Jastrzembski to retrieve the clothes purportedly worn by Wright, said he still doesn’t believe they did anything wrong. (He has no memory of assisting with that search, he said.)
“Ask yourself this question: Even if these guys were so corrupt, so rotten to the core, did their supervisors conspire with them? … Were they all complicit in framing people? Isn’t there a bigger question here? Are they all that corrupt? Absolutely not,” he said.
In his view, Wright got away with murder. “They lied. They got a nice bundle of cash,” he said. He thinks the corruption is in the DA’s Office. “You got this Krasner — he’s out to kill the Police Department.”
Krasner, who was a civil rights lawyer before running for DA, has charged 30 police officers with on-duty misconduct since taking office in 2018, 12 of them with perjury, tampering with public records, or false reporting. At least one-third of the cases were thrown out at the preliminary hearing. (Some have been, or will be, refiled.) Krasner said, in filing the charges, he had one agenda: “Actual accountability is what this is about.”
As for Wright, after 9,074 days in prison (by his tally), he harbors the hope that his time behind bars amounted to something — that it will be the catalyst not only for more exonerations but also for a cultural shift in the department going forward.
“People used to abuse authority with no accountability,” he said. “But all that stuff changed when the indictment came down. Now these guys are thinking, ‘We’ll be held accountable for this if we get caught. I don’t want to go to jail.’”