Twenty-eight years after police arrested Chester Hollman III for murder, 25 years after a judge sentenced him to life in prison, and seven years after a key trial witness admitted she had falsely implicated him because of pressure from investigators, a judge on Monday accepted prosecutors’ acknowledgment that Hollman was “likely innocent” and freed him from prison.
The ruling by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Gwendolyn N. Bright came after prosecutors and Hollman’s defense lawyer jointly petitioned the judge to throw out his conviction in a 1991 killing near Rittenhouse Square. The District Attorney’s Office concluded that prosecutors and police from that time had hidden evidence that pointed to more viable suspects.
Hollman was 21 years old with a job and no criminal record when he was arrested. He’s now 49. He wasn’t in court to hear the news. But about eight hours later, he walked out of the state prison in Luzerne County, into the arms of his overjoyed family members.
“It’s so surreal,” Hollman said, standing outside the correctional facility where he had spent the last quarter-century. “I’m just happy and thankful and looking forward to starting the rest of my life.”
Hours earlier, it was his longtime appeals lawyer, Alan Tauber, who relished the ruling after a yearslong battle in the courts.
“This is a glorious day," Tauber said, standing outside the Stout Center for Criminal Justice in Philadelphia. “We have a flawed system and innocent people do go to jail. But we have a great system, because there is a means for correcting that.”
Hollman’s case drew new attention after an April 2017 report in The Inquirer recounted his case in a story highlighting the pervasive practice of lying in the criminal justice system — by suspects, witnesses, and law enforcement. A podcast, Undisclosed, then raised more questions about Hollman’s arrest and the verdict against him. Tauber said both accounts “lent a lot of credibility at a key time.”
>>> Read More: Testilying: The story behind Chester Hollman’s conviction
Hollman’s is the eighth murder conviction that the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has helped to reverse since Larry Krasner took over the office in January 2018, according to Assistant District Attorney Patricia Cummings, supervisor of the unit.
At a late-afternoon news conference with Cummings, Krasner said the Hollman case shows that his office is “doing justice over cases in the past.”
Cummings blamed past prosecutors and the Philadelphia Police Department for suppressing evidence that pointed to other suspects in the August 20, 1991, shooting of University of Pennsylvania student Tae-Jung Ho.
“It was pretty clear to us," she said, “that unfortunately the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office actually had evidence in their possession back at the time of trial [that], had they disclosed it to the defense that they’re constitutionally and ethically required to do … Mr. Hollman might not have ever even stood trial.”
Bright’s ruling was a stunning reversal of her own past decision on the case. After a hearing in 2012, she ruled that Hollman did not deserve a new trial even after the key prosecution witness, Deirdre Jones, admitted that she had lied to jurors in 1993. Jones had told them she had been riding in an SUV with Hollman and two others that night in 1991 when she watched two of them get out and heard a gunshot.
Jones, who was then a neighbor of Hollman’s, has since said that police had pressured her to incriminate Hollman. David Baker, the now-retired detective who took Jones’ original statement, denied in the 2012 hearing — and again in a 2017 interview with The Inquirer — that he had coerced her testimony.
Jones has since said her conscience had bothered her for years, and that’s why she eventually agreed to tell a judge that she had lied at Hollman’s trial.
Tauber was not Hollman’s trial lawyer. But he has been working for years behind the scenes — and in court appeals — to win Hollman’s release.
Krasner’s 2017 election brought not only a former defense attorney to the city’s top prosecutor job, but also one who pledged to impose a new level of scrutiny on what he contends have been decades of injustices by Philadelphia law enforcement. Under Krasner, the Conviction Integrity Unit reinvestigated the case at Tauber’s request.
Hollman’s prosecution in the 1990s, led at the time by renowned Assistant District Attorney Roger King, was built largely on testimony of Jones and another witness from the scene — a man who years after the trial would also recant his original testimony and say police pressured him to lie. Police also found no gun or physical evidence that linked Hollman to the crime. Hollman didn’t testify — on the advice of his trial lawyer — but has always maintained his innocence.
His arrest had followed the report of a cabdriver who heard the gunshots erupt at 22nd Street between Walnut and Chestnut Streets that August 1991 morning then trailed the killers in a white SUV and got the first three letters of its license plate: YZA. Police pulled over Hollman and Jones a few blocks away in a white Chevrolet Blazer with a license plate starting with YZA.
Whether that really could be a mere coincidence was one troubling question in the case. But the Conviction Integrity Unit concluded that there were other viable suspects who could have been investigated — and that at least one tip that came into police the day after the slaying should have been turned over to the defense.
That tipster said a man and a woman involved in the shooting were at a Strawberry Mansion home. One of the residents, Denise Combs, at the time of the slaying had also rented a white SUV with a plate starting with YZA from the same rental agency that provided the vehicle Hollman was driving. Combs returned her SUV shortly after the shooting.
In court papers filed last month, Cummings disclosed that investigators had determined that the year before Ho’s killing, Combs had rented a different vehicle that had been used in a homicide, and returned it to the rental agency shortly after that crime.
After Ho’s shooting, police included Combs’ image in a photo array of possible suspects they showed to witnesses. At least one witness identified her as someone who may have been in the getaway vehicle after the killing near Rittenhouse Square.
In addition, Cummings told the judge that Pennsylvania Innocence Project investigators interviewed Combs in 2018 and she had acknowledged that she had once disposed of a .38-caliber gun — the same caliber weapon used to kill Ho — “because it might have had a body on it.”
In that same interview with investigators, Combs denied any role in Ho’s slaying. (The Inquirer has been unable to reach her for comment.)
Cummings also reported to the judge that another prosecutor had failed to tell Tauber, Hollman’s appeals lawyer, that Police Department Internal Affairs investigators had found Baker, the Philadelphia detective who took a statement from Jones, had previously denied another suspect the right to a lawyer, a right Jones would later say he denied her. Such information is typically the type used to challenge officers’ credibility during cross-examination.
In a phone interview with The Inquirer late Monday, Baker again denied pressuring Jones to implicate Hollman. He also said he never refused another suspect’s request for a lawyer. “Not at all," he said.
Cummings found more reason to doubt the verdict when she ordered DNA testing on fingernail clippings that had been taken from Ho during an autopsy in 1991. The prosecution had contended that Hollman was not the shooter, but argued that he had struggled with Ho while the never-identified gunman fired the fatal shots. In her court filing, Cummings reported that investigators got the DNA test results back in May. They showed Hollman’s DNA was not on the nail clippings, strongly suggesting, Cummings said, that he was not involved.
Krasner on Monday wouldn’t say if his office or police would reexamine the old leads to find Ho’s real killer. “Simply put, that is a matter under investigation," he said. "We have not made a decision yet.”
Marissa Boyers Bluestine, former head of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and now assistant director at the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said judges are becoming more receptive to cases brought by the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit because of careful reinvestigation by Cummings and her staff.
“There’s been a learning curve on all sides,” she said, “and yes, I think we are absolutely getting there.”
Standing outside the prison Monday evening, Hollman said it will take some time for him to figure out a plan for the future. But he said he wants to do something to benefit society.
“Going forward," he said, "I’m going to make something of my life.”
Staff writer Julie Shaw contributed to this article.
This story has been updated to correct Hollman’s age and the timing of the anonymous tip.