Back in court for the first time since a judge freed him two weeks ago from a life sentence, Chester Hollman III finally heard the words he has waited 28 years to hear: All charges against him in a 1991 murder case were dropped.
But during an emotional hearing Tuesday at the Stout Center for Criminal Justice, Hollman heard so much more, as a prosecutor apologized for the failings of the criminal justice system and the judge criticized a “lack of integrity” in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office during Hollman’s murder trial and years of appeals.
“This is one of those bittersweet moments where [there is] joy in the fact that justice has been served, but sadness in the fact that it has taken so long,” said Common Pleas Court Judge Gwendolyn N. Bright, who said that the prosecution’s behavior had been a “disservice to Hollman and to the criminal justice system, which must rely on the integrity and forthrightness of all the parties.”
Assistant District Attorney Patricia Cummings, head of the Conviction Integrity Unit of the District Attorney’s Office, was more direct.
“I apologize to Chester Hollman. I apologize because he was failed, and in failing him, we failed the victim, and we failed the community of the city of Philadelphia,” Cummings said in the hushed and packed eighth-floor courtroom.
Hollman, now 49, said: “I’ve been trying to envision this moment. I didn’t think it was ever going to happen.” He was speaking for the first time in court beyond required responses like, “Yes, your honor,” “No, your honor,” and “Not guilty."
His trial lawyer had advised him not to testify because of the formidable reputation of the prosecutor — Assistant District Attorney Roger King.
On Tuesday, Hollman thanked his supporters in the courtroom, which included his family; his lawyer, Alan Tauber; private investigator Dennis Crosson; and Marissa Bluestine, former head of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.
Hollman said he grew up wanting to be a police officer and initially thought police would clear him. He said he struggled to hold onto the hope he would one day be exonerated. He choked up when he told the court about the unwavering support of his family, especially his mother, who died while he was in prison.
Tauber commended Hollman for his absence of hatred and bitterness.
“You are an inspiration to us all,” Tauber said.
He thanked Cummings, saying she “left no stone unturned” in reexamining Hollman’s case.
An Inquirer investigation in 2017 raised questions about the case against Hollman.
He was released from a life sentence on July 15 — 28 years after he was arrested for the shooting death of Tae-Jung Ho, a University of Pennsylvania foreign-exchange student, about 1 a.m. on Aug. 20, 1991. The killing occurred during an aborted robbery near Rittenhouse Square.
Hollman, an armored-car driver with no criminal record, was found guilty by a jury in 1993 of murder and related charges of robbery, conspiracy, and possession of an instrument of crime. Lynne M. Abraham was district attorney at the time. Reached for comment Tuesday, Abraham said she had “no recollection of the case” and declined to comment.
The Conviction Integrity Unit, revamped under District Attorney Larry Krasner, began reinvestigating the case in 2018 at the request of Hollman’s longtime defense lawyer, Tauber, and acknowledged in court filings last month that Hollman had been wrongfully convicted.
“We believe it was near-impossible Chester Hollman was the perpetrator of the crime," Cummings said to the judge Tuesday.
Hollman’s case was the eighth murder conviction that her unit has helped to reverse since Krasner took office in January 2018.
Cummings stated in court papers that prosecutors had twice withheld exculpatory evidence — information that might have shown Hollman was not involved in the killing. Withholding such evidence is considered a major constitutional violation in the criminal justice system, and often leads to a new trial.
First, Cummings stated, prosecutors and police withheld information that could have led to other viable suspects, including an anonymous tip the day after the killing directing police to a Strawberry Mansion house where, the anonymous caller stated, two people involved in the killing were located.
Cummings concluded that police stopped investigating those suspects when they could not link them to Hollman, who was already in custody.
And second, Cummings said, a prosecutor in 2012 withheld information showing that a homicide detective in the case was found to have once denied a suspect contact with a lawyer in an unrelated case.
That could have been used to challenge the detective’s credibility during a court hearing in which key witness Deirdre Jones testified that she had lied in 1993 when she placed Hollman at the scene of the shooting. After hearing Jones testify — and having Detective David Baker deny her accusations — Bright said she did not believe Jones and rejected Hollman’s petition for a new trial.
No physical evidence linked Hollman, who always maintained his innocence, to the killing, and both Jones and another key witness recanted their trial testimony and said that police had pressured them to falsely implicate Hollman.
Jones testified at trial that she was with Hollman and a man and woman she did not know when Hollman and the other man got out of their white SUV, and then she heard a gunshot.
In 2012, she told Bright that her conscience had bothered her for years, and that she lied under pressure by police. The truth, she said in 2012, was that she and Hollman were on their way to visit one of Hollman’s friends when they got pulled over by police because his vehicle tag matched the first three letters of the getaway vehicle.
The other witness, Andre Dawkins, told the jury that he was sweeping outside a service station down the block from the shooting and that he saw Hollman flee the scene. He has since said that he lied to get help with an open criminal case and that in reality, he was too far away to be able to identify anyone.
At the end of Tuesday’s brief hearing, when the judge said the case was officially behind Hollman, his sister, Deanna, let out a sob. His father, Chester Jr., started clapping hesitantly, unsure whether that was allowed.
“You can clap," the judge said.
The courtroom erupted.