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This is Part 3 of Losing Conviction, a series about homicide investigations in Philadelphia.

It was 1984 and Franklin Lee was locked up at a Philadelphia jail awaiting trial for serious crimes, including a rape he admits to and a murder he denies any part in.

Lee made a desperate decision — one with consequences he says he is still trying to atone for today.

It started, he said, when homicide detectives Ernest Gilbert and Larry Gerrard sent a wagon to bring him down to the Police Administration Building. “We went in an interrogation room. They came in with four or five files. And they said, ‘If you will help us, we can help you.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ They said, ‘We are trying to clean up these homicides.’”

He said the detectives, part of the Special Investigations Unit specializing in cold cases, told him they were “cleaning the books.”

They asked him about a neighborhood man, Willie Stokes: Did Lee know anything about Stokes shooting up a dice game four years earlier and killing a man named Leslie Campbell?

“I said, ‘I don’t know nothing about that.’ And they said, ‘That’s not what we want.’”

As Lee would later testify, the detectives instructed him to fabricate a statement claiming Stokes bragged about the murder. In return, he said they offered a lenient sentence — and an unusual way to make his jail stay more enjoyable.

The deal, according to Lee: regular visits to the Police Administration Building, known as the Roundhouse, where Lee could have sex in interview rooms. The women could freely bring drugs and money, he said.

He took the detectives’ offer. And when his girlfriend soured on the unseemly setup, a detective brought in a sex worker, he said. “They gave me condoms.”

Lee is one of at least a dozen people who have claimed in affidavits, testimony, or Inquirer interviews that the same Philadelphia homicide detectives, who have since died, facilitated sexual encounters in the Roundhouse to induce cooperation — a scheme some lawyers have termed “sex for lies.”

While police, prosecutors, and judges have found such claims incredible, new admissions from informants obtained by The Inquirer describe a pattern of misconduct in the Homicide Unit in that era. Stokes is one of at least six men still in prison due to testimony from those jailhouse informants, much to Lee’s shame.

Philadelphia has counted 22 homicide exonerations in just over three years — but none involving cases as old as these, all dating from the early ’80s. “They don’t want to go back that far, because they know what [Police Commissioner Frank] Rizzo and all them done,” said Major Tillery, one of the men who have raised the allegation. Lawyers argue it’s part of a pattern of manipulating evidence and coercing witnesses that continued for decades. They trace that through line from the 1970s, when confessions were sometimes obtained using violent interrogation tactics, up to the 2000s, when dozens were convicted based on work by Detective Philip Nordo, who is now charged with raping suspects and manipulating investigations.

Losing Conviction
Philly's overturned murder convictions raise questions about decades of Homicide investigations and whether the misconduct alleged in those cases was part of a pattern that led to many more wrongful convictions.

One man who raised a “sex for lies” claim involving the same two detectives was released in 1990 after he attributed his own murder confession to sexual coercion. At a post-conviction hearing, three women testified they’d had sex with the man, Arthur Lester, at the Roundhouse, according to a Superior Court opinion, which also cited visitor logs.

“We find that the police’s offer of sex constituted a provocation powerful enough to coerce Lester to cooperate,” the court opined.

The DA’s Office did not contest the allegations in that case but has adamantly rejected similar claims in the years since. A spokesperson said the office could not comment on the cases, because they either had pending petitions or were not under review. A Police Department spokesperson had no information on the allegations but noted “the Department has taken steps to ensure the integrity of investigations remain intact.”

Detective Gerrard was quoted at the time in the Daily News as laughing off Lester’s allegations: “That’s a lie. He’d have to have been doing it with the captain. He’s guaranteed to get AIDS and everything else you can catch if that’s what he did. Nothing but dirt and metal chairs in those rooms.”

The “sex for lies” allegation was raised again in a 1997 hearing for an unrelated case, in which three co-defendants sought to prove detectives’ inappropriate treatment of jailhouse informants. The girlfriend of a known informant — Anthony Singleton, who had given statements about Stokes and others — testified about the trysts. “He said he got that privilege for testifying,” she told the court. The prosecutor asked if perhaps instead she had merely brought in a dinner for Singleton. “No,” she testified. “I was dinner.”

“We find that the police’s offer of sex constituted a provocation powerful enough to coerce Lester to cooperate.”

Pennsylvania Superior Court opinion in Commonwealth v. Lester

As for Lee, he expected only a seven-year prison sentence when he testified against Stokes at his preliminary hearing.

But afterward, Lee said, his mother shamed him. “You don’t even know that boy,” he recalled her saying. “Why are you doing that?”

At trial, Lee recanted. “The police made me make this statement,” he testified. “They said if I didn’t cooperate with them, they would talk to Judge [Albert] Sabo and hang me.”

The prosecutor, John DiDonato, responded by introducing Lee’s cooperation agreement into evidence, according to the transcript. “You know right now we are going to go back before Judge Sabo and say, ‘Judge, he reneged on his deal with us. He admitted to lying on the stand and he should get the maximum.’”

Then, according to the transcript, DiDonato ripped the cooperation agreement. (DiDonato did not respond to interview requests.)

Nine days after Lee recanted, he was charged with perjury. The criminal complaint reads: “False statement — Defendant stated Willie Stokes told him he killed Leslie Campbell.”

Instead of the lenient sentence, Lee received a minimum of 35 years in prison. That included 3½ to seven years for perjury. He was paroled in 2019.

» READ MORE: Philly's exonerations raise questions about decades of homicide investigations

Singleton, who had implicated Stokes in a statement, also changed his mind and refused to testify, according to an undated written statement. At Singleton’s sentencing, the prosecutor emphasized that he had reneged on his offer to cooperate. The judge sentenced him to 40 to 80 years in prison. Singleton died in jail behind what these cops did,” Lee recently said.

At trial, Stokes felt a flood of relief after Lee recanted. The prosecution’s case now hung on two imperfect eyewitnesses: one who failed to identify Stokes, and the other who placed Stokes at the scene holding a gun but not shooting.

“That was the whole trial,” Stokes said by phone from prison. “I thought they was going to let me go.”

Instead, he was convicted of first-degree murder.

“I never seen the streets since,” he said.

From stick to carrot

Michael Chitwood, a Philadelphia homicide detective in that era, said he recalled rumors of Roundhouse trysts, but no proof.

He acknowledged that, sexual favors or not, jailhouse snitches are problematic. But, he added, “What you’re seeing today is the informant all of a sudden recants — and that isn’t necessarily true.”

Still, experts say such cases demand scrutiny. Jailhouse informants are a leading factor in wrongful convictions, involved in one in six cases resulting in DNA exonerations, according to an Innocence Project analysis.

“Jailhouse informants are kind of the third rail of prosecutorial behavior,” said R. Michael Cassidy, a Boston College law professor and expert on prosecutorial ethics. “I think most savvy prosecutors will avoid them at all costs.”

They come with impaired credibility, given their ulterior motives. In addition, he said, the obligation to reveal all promises, rewards, and inducements — from a reduced sentence down to increased phone time in prison — places a burdensome discovery obligation on the prosecution.

As for the inducement of sex and drugs, he said: “That would be what’s called a ‘shock the conscience’ due-process violation. That would be egregious behavior that would probably make the whole statement inadmissible, even if the behavior was disclosed.”

At the time, however, Philadelphia detectives were known to go to great lengths to close cases. In the mid-1970s, Philadelphia judges were tossing out one in five homicide confessions because of improper tactics, including brutal interrogation-room beatings.

“[Offering sex and drugs] would be egregious behavior that would probably make the whole statement inadmissible.”

R. Michael Cassidy, Boston College professor of law

An Inquirer exposé shed light on the worst abuses, leading to federal charges and a Department of Justice investigation.

“New systems went into effect,” said Leon Lubiejewski, a homicide detective then. “There was audiotaping then videotaping of confessions. Then we had the six-hour rule, that you can only have the defendant for six hours before arraignment.”

For a few years, case clearance rates plummeted — from 91% in 1976 to just 60% in 1980.

Then, they rebounded. Michael Diamondstein, Stokes’ lawyer and a former prosecutor, said these 1980s cases demonstrate that abuses continued. In Stokes’ case, he described a nesting doll of constitutional violations, from Lee’s concealed perjury charges to evidence the prosecutor illegally struck Black people from the jury pool.

“It is an unfortunate reality of the history of Philadelphia that allegations of inappropriate conduct by Philadelphia police officers and detectives have been routinely ignored,” he said.

» READ MORE: Dozens accused a detective of fabrication and abuse. Many cases he built remain intact.

If detectives shifted tactics from stick to carrot, several snitches said access to sex was a highly motivating carrot.

“They did that for me, too,” said Michael Griffin, who was jailed for robbery charges in 1984. He said he truthfully testified against a codefendant, but access to sex was a strong inducement.

The practice was an open secret, according to Craig Jackson, who was jailed in Holmesburg Prison. He said he witnessed detectives escorting Singleton, Lee, and others. “They would pick guys up from the county jail and take them down the Roundhouse to have sex in exchange for false testimony of people they wanted to get off the street.”

As the drug trade took hold in North Philadelphia, unsolved murders piled up for the cold-case detectives.

They believed some of the slayings were connected to the Black Mafia, making them extraordinarily difficult to crack.

“If you talk about the ’70s, there were no informants about Black Mafia. No one would cooperate,” said Sean Patrick Griffin, a criminal justice professor at The Citadel and the author of several histories of the organization. “People not only didn’t trust the cops, but also were incredibly fearful of Philly’s Black Mafia.”

That appeared to change with the use of jailhouse informants. As Gerrard would testify years later, “There was a whole group from the neighborhood up there who were telling on each other about the murders. There were, I don’t know, maybe eight, 10 unsolved murders that we cleared at that time.”

One man, Emanuel “Manny” Claitt, was in prison with eight or nine pending cases, he said in a 2016 affidavit, when he was given a choice: Face a life sentence, or get lenient treatment and the chance to meet four of his girlfriends at the police headquarters or in hotel rooms. (Roundhouse visitor logs document at least one of those meetings.)

Claitt became a valued witness, describing a web of Black Mafia violence. His statement cracked the 1976 cold-case murder of Joseph Hollis in a North Philadelphia pool room.

A second man was shot in the attack but survived and quickly identified the killers as “Ricky” and “Dave.” It’s not clear what became of that lead.

Instead, four years later, Claitt identified the shooters as William Franklin, who police said owned the pool room, and Major Tillery, whom police labeled “the East Coast Speed King” and placed atop the city’s first-ever “Most Wanted” list. Claitt also said Tillery firebombed two houses.

Both men have maintained their innocence. In a statement and a video made before his death in 2020, Claitt said it was all lies.

Claitt alleged prosecutors coached his testimony, in concert with Detectives Gerrard, Gilbert, and Lubiejewski. Claitt said that when he tried to recant, Lt. Bill Shelton threatened to frame him for another murder.

Shelton, Gerrard, and Gilbert are all deceased. Attempts to interview Lubiejewski about the case were unsuccessful.

Letters from prosecutors offer a window into Claitt’s favored status. They repeatedly sought to lift parole detainers and bail, citing Claitt’s importance to the prosecution of Tillery, Franklin, and others.

“None of these cases could have been brought to trial without Mr. Claitt’s statements,” Assistant District Attorney Leonard Ross told a judge at a 1981 sentencing hearing. “The two homicide matters as well as the bombings, although we basically knew who was involved, Judge, we had no hard evidence to present to a court until Mr. Claitt made his statements.”

Ross declined an interview request.

Claitt waited decades to come forward, he said in his affidavit, because he feared retaliation by police or prosecutors. He served just 18 months, plus probation, for a series of violent crimes. “In exchange for my false testimony, many of my cases were not prosecuted,” he said.

He also said detectives enlisted him to recruit another jailhouse informant: Bobby Mickens.

“I was put in a police van to ride alone with Mickens,” Claitt said, “… to make it clear to Mickens that he really had no choice except to testify against Major Tillery.”

» Watch The Inquirer’s interview with Bobby Mickens on YouTube

In an interview, Mickens, 69, said that by the time of that van ride, detectives had already unsuccessfully tried to coerce his cooperation. It was Claitt who convinced him, telling him Tillery had snitched first. He said Claitt advised, “‘Don’t let him set you up. If anything, you turn it back around on him.’ And that’s what I did.”

Eight years after Hollis’ murder, Mickens accused Tillery. According to Mickens, whose sworn affidavit was filed in court, Detectives John Cimino and James McNesby brought their case file into the room, fabricating statements for him to sign.

“I followed up on what Manny said to me in the police van,” Mickens said, “and that’s how I got caught up in this web of lies with the police.”

As an added incentive, he said, the detectives let him meet a girlfriend in an interview room with paper over the two-way mirror. “They let you do your thing, whatever you do. You could hug and kiss, intimacy, or you could just talk.”

Like Claitt, Mickens alleged that prosecutors were in on the fabrication. He said in the affidavit that Assistant District Attorney Barbara Christie “scripted and rehearsed” his testimony.

She didn’t promise a specific sentence, he said in an interview. “She just said I’d be all right. ‘You’ll be all right. You’ll be home soon.’”

Christie, reached by phone, said she did not recall having worked on Tillery’s prosecution, but in any case could not comment on office matters. Transcripts show she argued the case for the Commonwealth. Cimino is deceased. Attempts to reach McNesby were not successful.

In a filing this year, Assistant DA Samuel Ritterman called Claitt’s and Mickens’ statements unbelievable claims by “career criminals.”

“Even if all of these police and prosecutors had the requisite level of malice to fabricate their entire case,” the prosecutor wrote, “they would also need the creative abilities of the very best novelists.”

After Mickens testified, he was sentenced to 2½ to five years for rape and robbery — but released on parole.

He said it wasn’t until years later that he realized the meeting with Claitt was a setup: “I started looking back, and these guys are doing life sentences for something I did. That wasn’t right.”

Franklin has served 41 years. Tillery has done 36.

“There was never no evidence, no fingerprints, no weapons, no ballistics,” Franklin said.

Tillery, 70, became a renowned jailhouse litigator — and a lightning rod who served close to 20 years in solitary confinement.

In 1987, he drafted a lawsuit about prison conditions at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh that forced a $30 million renovation. He obtained another settlement after alleging First Amendment retaliation for medical grievances. More recently, he designed a seniors’ program being piloted at a state prison in Chester.

His early prison career was also rife with allegations summarized by one federal judge as “numerous challenges to procedure, attempted orchestrated assaults against staff and inmates, and organized gambling, in addition to a long history of gang-related criminal activities.” Tillery denies much of that.

Franklin, a 74-year-old grandfather, is fighting for a few years with his family, he said. His wife died in February, after four decades of prison visits.

“He’s been a consistent part of our lives since we were born,” said Gina Gibson, one of four daughters. “We want our dad home.”

‘Their little chess game’

Since Arthur Lester was released in 1990, no other case has been overturned based on a sex-for-lies claim.

Yet, the allegation has repeatedly been raised in court.

In 1997, three men convicted of the 1982 drive-by shooting of Fred Rainey in North Philadelphia — Andre Harvey, Russell Williams, and Howard White — presented the claim regarding the key witness against them, Charles Atwell.

Atwell didn’t accuse them until nine months after the murder, when he was jailed on aggravated-assault charges. Detectives have acknowledged that Atwell, while incarcerated, was able to repeatedly meet with his girlfriend at the Police Administration Building. After he testified, the DA’s Office dropped the charges against him. But Atwell and the prosecutor denied any undisclosed benefits.

Among those who disputed that were Archie Scott, a man who gave a statement to Harvey’s investigator saying that he witnessed Rainey’s murder; that Harvey, White and Williams were not the killers; and that detectives offered both him and Atwell sexual favors to manipulate their statements.

At the 1997 hearing, a former girlfriend of Atwell’s, Maxie Harris, testified that she and Atwell were permitted intimate visits at the Roundhouse.

Atwell’s nephew, Douglas Atwell, backed up that claim, adding that Atwell had asked him to deliver 40 packets of PCP there. He testified he turned the drugs over to Detective Gerrard — and afterward inadvertently walked in on Atwell and Harris having sex.

Gerrard denied receiving drugs, or ever leaving Atwell and Harris alone in a room. “He would have been cuffed to the chair and the door would have been open,” Gerrard testified.

Two years after the 1997 hearing, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Genece Brinkley ruled that Atwell and Gerrard were credible, while the other witnesses were not.

Atwell did not respond to interview requests. Craig Jackson, the man who was locked up with Lee, Singleton, and Atwell, said Atwell is in a difficult position.

“He had the cops threatening to put cases on him if he didn’t testify,” he said. “They just made people part of their little chess game.”

Douglas Atwell, a teenager then, said it took him decades to understand the context of the strange visit. “If I’d known then what I know now, I would have spoke up,” said Atwell, 54.

Harvey, 58, is a grandfather now, and an organizer with the antiviolence group Real Street Talk. Williams, 63, has developed heart problems. White, 72, has stage four prostate cancer.

Harvey’s daughter, Sonya Barlow, 41, said she’s visited almost every Sunday since she was a child.

After the hearing in 1997, she was convinced the revelations would set him free.

“You couldn’t tell me my dad wasn’t going to be home for my 12th-grade graduation. When that didn’t happen, I cried for two weeks straight.”

‘He shouldn’t be in there’

Mickens testified in four cases altogether, he said in an interview. Claitt said in his affidavit he gave information in seven cases. The extent of cooperation by Atwell and others — and what benefits they received — is not apparent from publicly available court records.

At least seven states have passed laws regulating jailhouse informants, creating databases tracking their use and the benefits the informants received, or requiring cautionary jury instructions. State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat, introduced legislation in Pennsylvania, but the bill has yet to receive a hearing.

“This comes down to the reliability and the integrity of evidence that’s being offered in criminal court,” said Rebecca Brown, policy director for the Innocence Project. “It is impossible to evaluate that evidence without a full picture of the informant’s history and perceived or real leniency.”

But overturning cases involving even discredited informants remains difficult, said Harvard law professor Alexandra Natapoff, author of Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.

Often, courts find even undisclosed benefits aren’t sufficient to overturn a conviction, Natapoff said. In her view, the law has not caught up to the growing understanding of the problem: “The more we learn about the serial quality of jailhouse informant unreliability, the greater the need for the law to adjust so that we can revisit old convictions that we now know to be based on unreliable testimony.”

In Stokes’ case, he found a new avenue into court after discovering paperwork linking Lee’s perjury conviction to his preliminary hearing testimony, not his recantation. In June, the DA agreed to a hearing.

If granted, it would be Stokes’ first evidentiary hearing since 1989.

At that hearing, Francis Dinkins — the sole surviving victim of the 1980 shooting — testified that Stokes was innocent. Dinkins said he had told police that. But, he said, detectives assaulted him. Eventually, he testified, “I did sign a statement under force.” He said after he refused to testify against Stokes detectives warned him to stay away from the trial.

Since then, Stokes also received an affidavit from the only witness who placed him at the scene with a gun.

That man, Darryl Hargrove, said he remembered little except that police hauled him out of bed for questioning around 3 a.m. He said he didn’t see the shooting but walked up as people were scattering, contradicting his trial testimony.

“He shouldn’t be in there,” he said of Stokes.

Stokes, 59 now, has spent his adult life incarcerated. He still prays to come home in time to spend some good years with his mother, Gloria Williams, who turns 80 this month.

“We’ve been waiting 40 years,” his sister Renee Stokes said, “so we’ll see what happens.”

Staff contributors
Reporting: Samantha Melamed
Editing: James Neff
Visuals: Jessica Griffin, Raishad Hardnett, Danese Kenon, Astrid Rodrigues
Photo Collage: Inquirer Archive, Jessica Griffin
Digital: Ellen Dunkel, Dain Saint
Copy editing: Rich Barron