Innocent — and stuck in prison for life?
Philly juvenile lifers face a Catch 22.
First, there was the chaotic din of shouting and street noise. Then, David Sparks’ voice crackled onto the 911 recording.
“Somebody got shot. Somebody’s possibly dying — he’s possibly dying on Bouvier Street.”
It was Sept. 4, 2006, Labor Day, and a Nicetown block party was pushing midnight. Teenagers, drunk on the dregs of summer, milled in and out of a corner Chinese takeout, ordering food through the Plexiglas.
There had been a confrontation involving a 19-year-old man named Gary Hall. Someone had pulled a gun, firing at him as he rode away on a girl’s bicycle.
“He might be dead. He might be dying.“
At first, bystanders wondered if Hall had been hit at all, the way he kept pedaling down the block. Then, he fell.
“Please, could you hurry up, please.”
Hall did not survive the night. And Sparks, who was just 16 years old — so young he was initially picked up for a curfew violation — was charged with the murder.
The trial, before a judge, took just three days, the main evidence against Sparks the eyewitness testimony of two teenage cousins whose accounts were malleable over the course of the investigation and trial.
Even so, Sparks was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.
Hall’s death and everything that followed traced well-worn contours in this community, which is tightly connected but also irreparably fractured — then, as now, fraught with gun violence that’s insulated by a profound no-snitching culture. Even Sparks himself, staring down life in prison, at the time refused to point a finger.
Over the subsequent decade, with help from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, Sparks has found a handful of witnesses willing to come forward — though he hasn’t yet convinced a court to take up his case.
He does have access to a different source of relief, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled sentences like his — automatic life-without-parole terms for minors — are cruel, unusual, and, therefore, illegal. Since Pennsylvania began resentencing its 514 juvenile lifers in 2016, close to 80 percent have received new sentences. Philadelphia, once home to more juvenile lifers than any jurisdiction in the nation, has fewer than 60 cases left to process.
Yet, those who claim their innocence have been left behind.
Lawyers have likened the situation to a catch-22: Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Kathryn Streeter-Lewis, who is in charge of approving deals for juvenile lifers, says she cannot resentence those still fighting their convictions. Meanwhile, federal judges can’t address their habeas petitions while state-level proceedings are incomplete.
“It’s really saying you have to make the devil’s choice," said Jules Epstein, a Temple University law professor: "Stay in jail because you’re claiming you’re innocent, or bet on a chance at freedom now. That’s a horrible choice.”
For Sparks, 29, that means proceedings are stayed at both state and federal levels.
“It’s like I’m getting ping-ponged back and forth, and nobody’s touching my case,” Sparks said. “I’m saying, ‘Just give me a chance. Just look at it.’ ”
One advocate estimated there are 10 to 20 people trapped in the same dilemma.
It’s led some to contemplate giving up on decades-long quests for exoneration in favor of a plea for immediate parole.
The thought has preoccupied Terrance Lewis, who’s served two decades for a 1996 murder though a federal judge opined that he was innocent. He wrestled with the idea all summer as he watched younger lifers — men he had mentored — resentenced and released.
“They all have less time in than me," he said, “but they are going home because they are guilty.”
A high price to pay
The legal reason cited for denying the resentencing can be traced to a 2001 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, Commonwealth v. Bryant. That was the case of a man whose death sentence had been vacated, while the underlying finding of guilt remained intact. He wished to be resentenced to life without parole while continuing to fight that conviction, but the court wrote that it would be “wasteful of scarce judicial resources.”
Men like Lewis argue that, instead, it’s their lives wasting away. Post-conviction petitions can take years to wind through the courts. Lewis’s son, born after he was arrested, is now a junior in college.
In a letter to the court written by the District Attorney’s Office, then led by Seth Williams, the DA argued adhering to Bryant “prevents piecemeal litigation, avoids delay in the resolution in guilt-phase issues, and eliminates a potential misuse of judicial resources.”
Epstein said that the Bryant case is a poor analogy for the juvenile lifers' situation. In that case, the finding was that the resentencing, to death or to life in prison, could be rendered meaningless if a new trial is granted. "That doesn’t apply here,” Epstein said.
At age 40, Lewis bought a composition book from the prison commissary and started making a bucket list: Put his feet in the ocean, eat a steak, bike Kelly Drive, get a job working nights, and go back to school. Recently, he saw a Papa John’s commercial on TV. The slow-motion close-ups of gooey cheese caught his eye. “I promised myself I’m going there,” he said.
But spending the rest of his life under watch of the parole board with no avenue to clear his name? That’s a high price.
For now, Lewis has hung his hopes on the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which is reviewing his case.
Others are contemplating abandoning their innocence claims altogether.
Frank Grazulis, who was convicted of a 1990 stabbing death just off South Street when he was 16 years old, is considering it, even though a key witness against him recanted, and a detective who took the witness statement has been implicated in other wrongful convictions.
Grazulis, 44, is coming to terms with the fact that as long as he holds on to that claim, he can’t get resentenced. “They’re punishing me, basically, for arguing my innocence.”
Some have been waiting for years to get a response from the courts.
Aleem Williams, 32, serving life for a 2004 murder, filed new eyewitness evidence four years ago that he believed was the break he’d been waiting for: the final, crucial proof of his innocence.
“The courts still have not answered my new evidence claims, which I can’t understand,” he wrote in a letter this summer.
Similarly, Theopholis Wilson, 47, who was convicted on the testimony of a single witness to a 1989 triple murder in Brewerytown, has seemingly strong exonerating evidence but no court date in sight. The eyewitness, serving six life sentences for murder, has admitted he lied because prosecutors had secretly promised him a lighter sentence, involving commutation after just 15 years. Wilson’s co-defendant, Christopher Williams, already has a new trial pending, but Wilson’s identical claims have languished for seven years without a hearing.
For those who do get evidentiary hearings, the outcome is far from certain. Robert Outlaw, who was convicted of a 2003 murder, is currently in Common Pleas Court with his innocence claim.
Outlaw, 35, knows that if the judge rejects his petition, his last option is to seek relief in federal court, which could take years. But he’s not backing down, even if it would get him out of prison sooner.
“I’m going to have to exhaust my remedies, and that’s that," he said. "I’m passionate that I didn’t do it, and whatever hardships I’m going to face with that, that’s what it’s going to be. At the end of the day ... I’m just not going in there admitting guilt for something I didn’t do.”
A suspicion that stuck
Unlike many others who claim their innocence, Sparks says he knows exactly who did the crime. In fact, he was an eyewitness.
According to him and other witnesses, there were two story lines that day in 2006: One, a teenage flirtation that kept Sparks lingering on the street when he probably should have been at home. The other, a simmering confrontation between the victim, Gary Hall, and two brothers, Marquise Lawrence, 15, and Ivan Simmons, 17, that turned to violence.
Sparks said he was standing near the corner when he saw Simmons come through a vacant lot to 18th Street, gun in hand.
“He shot the gun a couple times, and I seen it was like slow motion,” Sparks said. Hall fell. Simmons ran. Lawrence dashed into the corner Chinese takeout to demand the food he’d ordered earlier, then hurried away with it. Sparks stuck around and called 911.
It was just hours later that suspicion began sticking to him, like a stain that wouldn’t wash off.
It started when police stopped Sparks for breaking curfew. According to testimony at his trial, he matched a witness’s description of the shooter, and that’s why he was taken to police headquarters for questioning.
Sparks was never released again. He refused to point the finger at Simmons, though. He wasn’t a snitch, he wrote in jailhouse letters to friends and family, asking them to help clear his name.
“I didn’t know they were going to take my whole life from me,” he said recently. “It took me sitting in here to realize this.”
Police records indicate they sought to question Lawrence and Simmons, but never actually interviewed them.
Then, in December 2006, while Sparks was still awaiting his preliminary hearing, someone killed Simmons.
That shooting remains unsolved, though theories abound. Sparks believes Simmons was killed in retaliation for shooting Hall. Simmons’ family thinks Sparks had something to do with it.
Going into his trial, Sparks still had hope.
There was no physical evidence against him: no gun, and no gunpowder residue on his hands or clothes (the clothes, turned over to police, went missing). And at his preliminary hearing, a supposed prosecution witness Barry McShore, had stood up in the courtroom, raging: “Gary died in front of my door. He related to my people. Then you get [Sparks] up in the jailhouse for something — and the person who so-called killed Gary, he is dead.”
But the prosecution had better witnesses in Markita Reddy, 13, and her cousin Kalishea Reddy, 14, who said they saw the shooting before running into the Chinese takeout. They at times contradicted themselves, and each other, in the details of their testimony — details like where the shooter was and even how many shooters there were. Neither saw Sparks with a gun. Still, they were adamant that he did the shooting.
There was an eyewitness who pointed away from Sparks: Latisha Lowery testified she saw Simmons shooting. But that was Sparks' girlfriend, the prosecutor argued — she had an agenda. In the end, Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper did not find her testimony credible.
Twelve years of ‘the same thing’
Sparks’ mother, Tameeka Sparks-Hawkins, still lives in Nicetown — her tidy living room decorated with family photos and hard-earned high school diplomas — the families of witnesses, victims, and perpetrators all locked in unbearable proximity.
To her, it feels as if the murder helped kick off a cycle of street justice that continues to this day. The neighborhood claims the city’s highest violent-crime rate; at least five shootings have rung out within a block of the murder just in the last six months. According to census data, men who grew up in the area are almost twice as likely to be incarcerated as to be married: 15 percent of all males from the census tract were locked up as of 2010.
Around the corner, there’s the bodega where she still sees Lawrence, standing with a crew of young men from morning until night. Down the block, there’s the Chinese takeout, still encased in Plexiglas, with all the atmosphere of an ATM vestibule. There, in front of that chain-link gate, is where Hall fell.
Sparks-Hawkins said the story of Hall’s death is an open secret in the neighborhood, like the scraggly bushes where young men can be seen tucking away their stashes in broad daylight.
It’s not even something where you would be snitching. It was done out in the open in front of everybody! To have nobody speak up?
“People will say he didn’t do it. But a lot of people do not want to go to court,” she said. She tries to convince them: “It’s not even something where you would be snitching. It was done out in the open in front of everybody! To have nobody speak up?”
But people have spoken up.
It took years, and the intervention of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, but several witnesses have come forward.
One was Renada Council, a cousin of Simmons and Lawrence who made a statement that she saw the brothers talking about Hall, watched them run toward the crime scene, and later saw them again, back at her house, looking frightened. “I just shot Gary off of his bike,” Simmons told her, according to the statement.
Another was Nael Reddy, a cousin of Markita and Kalishea’s who says he, too, witnessed the crime and knows Sparks is innocent. He claims the Reddy family was close with Hall’s mother and conspired to pressure the girls to testify, to ensure there would be a conviction.
“Members of my family made Kalishea come to court and testify that Mr. Sparks did the shooting,” he said in a statement.
Markita and Kalishea Reddy could not be reached.
Simmons' mother, Kisha Bivines, declined to speak on the record. Approached by a reporter, Lawrence would not confirm his identity; later, through Bivines, he refused to comment. Hall’s mother, Gwendolyn Isely, also declined an interview request.
Sparks, who has an 11-year-old daughter of his own, wishes he’d been more supportive of Bivines after her son was killed. He was still urging her to speak up on his behalf.
“It took me to grow up in here to see where she was coming from and stop being selfish, even though I had the right to want to get out of jail,” he said.
He’s still praying some new piece of evidence will prove to be the key, though as the years pass, his hopes have been worn threadbare.
“I look up and I got over 12 years in, and I’m telling these people the same thing.”