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As a Philly judge agreed to overturn a murder conviction after 31 years, the DA’s Office took aim at the justice system

Philadelphia prosecutors on Friday offered a scathing assessment of how the city’s criminal justice system functioned in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s, saying detectives were eager to clear cases as homicides were on the rise.

Andrew Swainson, center, with his attorneys Nilam Sanghvi, left, and Nathan Andrisani after Swaison's murder conviction was overturned on June 12, 2020, and he was released from prison.
Andrew Swainson, center, with his attorneys Nilam Sanghvi, left, and Nathan Andrisani after Swaison's murder conviction was overturned on June 12, 2020, and he was released from prison.Read moreCourtesy Nathan Andrisani

Philadelphia prosecutors on Friday offered a scathing assessment of how the city’s criminal justice system functioned in the late 1980s and early 1990s, saying that as annual murder totals rose to unprecedented heights, the police detectives tasked with investigating those killings were often willing — or eager — to press forward with flawed arrests in order to move on to their next case.

The appraisal, offered by Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wellbrock, came as the District Attorney’s Office successfully pushed to overturn the murder conviction of Andrew Swainson, 55, who spent 31 years in prison for a drug-related killing he has always denied committing.

Prosecutors wrote in court documents months ago that Swainson’s 1989 trial had been tainted by a host of flaws, including evidence that was withheld from his attorneys, secret alternative suspects, and even a false theory pushed by police that Swainson had tried to flee the country to avoid arrest.

But Wellbrock cast the case as more than just one set of failings, describing it as emblematic of an era in which detectives felt pressure to make arrests by whatever means necessary. The homicide “clearance rate," or the percentage of cases considered cleared by arrest, hovered between 83% and 96% at the time, Wellbrock said — at least 20% higher than the national average.

District Attorney Larry Krasner, who spent decades as a defense attorney before he took office in January 2018, went further in a statement released Friday afternoon, suggesting the high clearance rate may have been inflated on the backs of innocent residents, saying it “came at a great cost to people’s lives, to our communities, and to justice.”

“It appears, in at least some instances, law enforcement and the criminal justice system sought to alleviate [people’s] fears by locking up masses of people — largely from Black communities and communities of color — regardless of the Constitution, the law, or the facts,” Krasner said.

The remarks — unusually pointed even for the outspoken Krasner — came as the nation debates long-standing and systemic issues regarding the criminal justice system following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

They also came on the day that Swainson was released from SCI Dallas, delighting his family and friends. During a Zoom hearing to address his case, several of his supporters could be seen raising their fists in the air and celebrating as Common Pleas Court Judge Shelley Robins-New agreed to vacate his conviction.

“Andrew Swainson has been suffering from a wrongful and unjust conviction for 31 years,” Nathan Andrisani, one of his attorneys, told the judge.

Afterward, Nilam Sanghvi of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, another attorney for Swainson, called the case “a very unfortunate product of its time, in terms of how homicides were being investigated and dealt with in the city of Philadelphia in the late 80s and early 90s.”

During a Facetime call with The Inquirer after being released from SCI Dallas, an ebullient Swainson said he was enjoying a taste of prosecco with his family members and attorneys while gathered outside near Wilkes-Barre.

Among the crowd was Swainson’s longtime girlfriend and partner, Maxine Loban. Swainson said the two had planned to get married while he was incarcerated, but that he had been persuaded to wait by the prison superintendent, who told Swainson he wanted to be a guest at a ceremony once Swainson was a free man.

“I’m on top of the world,” Swainson said, taking in his new surroundings. He said he did not harbor any bitterness about his circumstances: "I’ve seen many guys who end up dying [with] resentment. I didn’t want my demise to be like that.”

Swainson’s case marks the 14th time since Krasner was sworn in that his office has helped free a person convicted of murder. It also was the second time in just a week that Robins-New agreed to overturn a conviction from the 1990s with support from Krasner; former death row inmate Walter Ogrod, arrested in 1992 and charged with killing a 4-year-old girl, was officially exonerated Wednesday after the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit said it believed he was innocent.

Krasner’s office has made no secret of what it has called substantial shortcomings of how detectives and prosecutors used to operate. The Conviction Integrity Unit said last fall that it was investigating an undisclosed number of cases tied to two former homicide detectives who have been regularly accused of coercing confessions. His office has also filed legal briefs in other cases offering damning assessments of past prosecutorial practices.

Ronald D. Castille, who was district attorney from 1986 to 1991, and Lynne M. Abraham, the city’s top prosecutor from 1991 to 2010, did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Attempts to reach Judith Rubino — the trial prosecutor for Swainson and at one of Ogrod’s two trials — were unsuccessful.

Wellbrock apologized to Swainson for how previous officeholders had handled his case.

“Our rush to judgment, and a fundamentally flawed and unfair trial, has cost you 31 years of your life," he said.

Swainson’s case was a drug murder at 54th and Sansom Streets on Jan. 17, 1988. According to court documents, Stanley Opher was found bleeding from a shotgun blast outside a suspected drug house. He later died.

Officers at the scene saw two men running from the house and arrested them. A third suspected co-conspirator was also taken into custody. But three weeks later, court documents say, prosecutors dropped all charges.

According to a filing written by Wellbrock, one of the men, Paul Presley, “inexplicably went from being a perpetrator to a star witness.”

Presley gave an “implausible story” about the crime to Detective Manuel Santiago, Wellbrock wrote, and he identified Swainson as the man who shot Opher. Presley identified Swainson in a photo array, court documents say, and claimed he could identify a second co-conspirator if shown additional pictures.

"Detectives never showed Presley any additional photographs,” court documents say.

Presley testified against Swainson at trial, but Swainson’s attorneys had not been told that Presley was by then being held in jail on unrelated drug charges. Prosecutors now say that is likely because Presley at the time was being “prosecuted under the fictitious name Kareem Miller.”

Prosecutors do not say why they believe Presley was being jailed under a fake name. But they say Swainson’s file contains a document ordering Presley be taken to the District Attorney’s Office for a meeting with the homicide detective, Santiago. On the document, Presley’s is listed as “Paul Presley AKA Kareem Miller.”

The case had other serious flaws, prosecutors say, including newly discovered evidence in Swainson’s original police file showing that detectives had been aware of two alternative suspects — one of whom was known to commit drug robberies in the neighborhood where Opher was shot to death. That man was later killed in a homicide.

And prosecutors also said police had pushed a false theory that Swainson had fled the country when he flew to Jamaica to visit his parents — even though he left before an arrest warrant had been issued, and police activity logs showed that detectives were aware of his trip.

Wellbrock said Opher’s sister was at the District Attorney’s Office with him as Robins-New overturned Swainson’s conviction. He apologized to her for how the case was handled, saying: “I don’t have the answers for what happened to [your] brother.”

Marissa Bluestine, who previously worked on Swainson’s appeal efforts and is now assistant director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Quattrone Center, said many decades-old convictions were based on practices now viewed as faulty. Chief among them, she said, was failing to continue investigations after suspects offered supposed confessions, as well as improper use of eyewitness testimony, and subpar forensics work.

“There’s no question in my mind … that the number of wrongful convictions of which we are aware is a very small percentage of the actual number,” she said.

Despite his conviction’s reversal, Swainson’s case is not over, although the remaining steps are largely procedural.

Robins-New vacated his first-degree murder conviction and granted him a new trial for counts including third-degree murder, allowing him to be freed on bail.

Prosecutors, who are unlikely to try Swainson again, will have to return to court and ask another judge to formally drop the charges.