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Philly to pay $9.8M to man exonerated who spent 28 years in prison after wrongful conviction for murder

The settlement is the latest in a string of payouts to exonerees whose wrongful convictions in the 1980s and ’90s have cost the city more than $35 million in three years.

Chester Hollman III hugs his sister Deanna after he was released from the State Correctional Institution at Retreat in Hunlock Creek in 2019 after serving 28 years of a life sentence for a murder for which he was innocent.
Chester Hollman III hugs his sister Deanna after he was released from the State Correctional Institution at Retreat in Hunlock Creek in 2019 after serving 28 years of a life sentence for a murder for which he was innocent.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

In one of the largest wrongful-conviction settlements in Philadelphia history, the city said Wednesday it will pay $9.8 million to a man exonerated after spending nearly three decades in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Chester Hollman III was 21, with no criminal record and a job as an armored-car driver, when he was pulled over in Center City one night in 1991 and charged with the fatal shooting of a University of Pennsylvania student in a botched street robbery. A judge ordered him released last year at age 49, citing evidence that police and prosecutors built their case on fabricated statements from people they coerced as witnesses and later withheld evidence pointing to the likely true perpetrators of the crime.

The agreement announced Wednesday is the latest in a string of seven-figure settlements stemming from claims of misconduct by city police in the late 1980s and ’90s. Those cases have led to more than a dozen exonerations in recent years and have cost the city more than $35 million since 2018.

“There are no words to express what was taken from me,” Hollman said in a statement. “But this settlement closes out a difficult chapter in my life as my family and I now embark on a new one.”

His payout is just $50,000 short of the record for settlements of its kind in the city — a distinction held by the $9.85 million agreement the city struck in 2018 with Anthony Wright, a man who served nearly 25 years of a sentence for a 1991 rape and murder that DNA evidence proved decades later he did not commit. Several of the same investigators who worked to convict Wright were also involved in Hollman’s case.

But unlike in Wright’s case, which was settled on the eve of a civil trial, the agreement in Hollman’s case came before he had even filed suit.

His attorney Amelia Green said the evidence supporting Hollman’s innocence — which garnered media attention first in the form of a 2017 report in The Inquirer and, in April, an episode of the Netflix series The Innocence Files — put pressure on city officials to resolve the case swiftly, though neither they nor police admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement deal.

“There was irrefutable evidence that Chester was innocent, is innocent and has always been innocent and would never have been wrongfully convicted aside from extraordinary police misconduct,” Green said.

» READ MORE: The justice system relies on people to tell the truth. What happens when they lie?

Hollman did not respond to requests for an interview Wednesday and has guarded his privacy closely since his release from a state prison in Luzerne County last year.

“He’s doing the best he can to move forward,” his lawyer said. “He’s an incredibly strong person.”

His exoneration came after District Attorney Larry Krasner’s Conviction Integrity Unit agreed to review his case in 2018 at the request of his longtime appeals lawyer, Alan Tauber, and ultimately concluded that it was “near-impossible” that Hollman committed the crime.

They convinced a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge that the investigation and Hollman’s eventual prosecution had been marred by misconduct from nearly the moment he was accused of shooting Penn student Tae-Jung Ho near Rittenhouse Square in August 1991.

Hollman had always maintained his innocence, before and for years after a jury convicted him in 1993. He was targeted, he and his lawyers maintained, solely because he was a Black man driving a white SUV in Center City that matched the description of one seen fleeing the shooting scene. No physical evidence linked Hollman to the crime. And the two witnesses who identified him as the shooter at trial later recanted, saying they had lied under pressure from the police.

One said officers had threatened her with arrest if she did not implicate Hollman. The other later said he had agreed to provide the false testimony in hopes of securing help with his own pending criminal case.

The Conviction Integrity Unit also found that detectives had ignored tips and evidence pointing to other, more likely suspects because they did not fit the narrative they were already building around Hollman as the killer — and prosecutors failed to disclose that potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense. No one else has ever been charged in the killing.

Similar failures have tainted more than a dozen homicide prosecutions from that same era, when the city routinely topped 400 murders a year and detectives secured arrests at a far higher rate than the national average.

Since Krasner took office in January 2018, 17 defendants have been exonerated in cases involving many of the same officers who led the investigations into Hollman and Wright. Most of those detectives have since retired, but some have remained on the force and been promoted up the ranks.

“You don’t have this many exonerations from one cohort of detectives unless it was a pervasive culture,” Green said. “There’s no way that the highest ranks weren’t aware.”

Since August 2018, taxpayers have paid more than $25 million to settle wrongful-conviction lawsuits — a figure more than 16 times the $1.5 million the city paid out for similar cases between 2010 and 2018.

» READ MORE: The cost of wrongful convictions? Millions in taxpayer money and growing.

That doesn’t include the $9.8 million the city agreed to pay Hollman on Wednesday. And the numbers are almost certain to grow as more recent exonerees press their claims in court. Pennsylvania is one of the minority of states that doesn’t automatically compensate people who have had their convictions overturned.

Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday that there is no price that could be put on a person’s liberty.

Still, he added in a statement on Hollman’s settlement: “I am encouraged to know that we have reached what I believe is a fair agreement that will allow Mr. Hollman and his family to begin building a future together.”