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A Philly man was cleared of murder after 34 years by evidence that was in the police file all along

Curtis Crosland fought for decades to clear his name. The evidence that finally exonerated him was in the Philadelphia Police Department's and District Attorney's files all along.

Curtis Crosland, left, receives a hug from his sister Shirley Crosland after being released from prison for a crime he did not commit, in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of Philadelphia, June 24, 2021.
Curtis Crosland, left, receives a hug from his sister Shirley Crosland after being released from prison for a crime he did not commit, in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of Philadelphia, June 24, 2021.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

More than 30 years ago, based only on the statements of two witnesses who either recanted or failed to appear in court, Curtis Crosland was convicted of the 1984 murder of South Philadelphia store owner Il Man Heo and sentenced to life in prison.

On Thursday, Crosland, 60 — a father of five and grandfather of 32 — was released from the State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County. So many loved ones crowded onto his sister’s narrow block in the city’s Cobbs Creek section, screaming and hugging, that traffic ground to a halt.

“I just came home after 34 years. I’ve been exonerated,” Crosland apologized to one driver. She responded, “Praise God!”

Crosland is the 21st person exonerated with support from District Attorney Larry Krasner’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which concluded that investigators had illegally concealed troubling information about the witnesses who accused Crosland and evidence pointing to another suspect.

U.S. District Judge Anita Brody this week ordered Crosland released or retried, and the DA formally dropped the charges. In her order, Brody affirmed the CIU’s efforts, saying the DA’s first responsibility is to justice: “The responsibility of doing justice does not disappear once a conviction is achieved. In some circumstances, the duty to seek truth can and should extend to cases long closed.”

The victim’s family also welcomed Crosland’s release, said Charles Heo, 50, who recalled translating the trial prosecutor’s explanations into Korean for his mother when he was just a teenager: “He said, ‘We got the guy.’ We believed him.”

He and his sister Song, 52, described their father, known in the community as Tony, as a revered, lighthearted, generous, and gregarious figure who took care of his neighbors, often carrying over more than $1,000 in “I owe yous” from those who couldn’t afford to pay. He was shot during a gunpoint robbery of his H&B Grocery Store by a masked perpetrator who knew to call him by his first name.

Despite his loss, Heo said he was grateful to see Crosland’s family reunited. “There was an injustice in this case,” he said, “and the ripple effects caused untold damage through our family’s lives, through the Crosland family’s lives.”

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

In court filings, the CIU made clear Crosland’s case involved not only apparent misconduct but also a compelling innocence claim.

“To me, it’s a case that has all the telltale signs of a wrongful conviction,” CIU supervisor Patricia Cummings said. “You have a case that was cold. Then you have snitches involved wanting something in their case, and then the historical lack of understanding and appreciation of [disclosure requirements].”

According to legal filings, the case was built on lies by informants police knew were tainted long before Crosland’s arrest.

One man, Rodney Everett, was facing a parole violation when he agreed to provide information in multiple murder cases — even testifying in two preliminary hearings on the same day.

The DA’s search of the police file yielded extensive undisclosed documents, including a failed polygraph test, a statement from Everett’s wife that he had identified a different perpetrator, and an undated letter from Everett to a homicide detective, seeking help in exchange for information.

The other informant, Delores Tilghman, had previously given a false statement in a different murder case, prosecutors say.

In interviews Thursday, both witnesses said they felt coerced into giving false statements.

“It was just very brutal. They threaten you. They will use your family and they will tell you what they will do to your family, taking your kids,” said Everett, who testified at Crosland’s preliminary hearing but said he repeatedly tried to recant. “When you tell the truth, they don’t care. They’ll accept the lies, but they won’t accept the truth.”

Everett refused to testify at Crosland’s trial, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but his earlier statement was read into the record. After Crosland’s conviction was overturned, Everett was granted immunity to testify at the second trial but recanted on the stand.

Yet Crosland was convicted again by a second jury.

» READ MORE: The battle in Philly DA’s Office: Conviction Integrity Unit report shows rocky path to reform

As for Tilghman, she said detectives came to her home and woke her up, threatening to arrest her if she didn’t testify.

“It was him or me,” she said. “They were threatening me with putting me in jail. ... They can make that happen. I seen them make his life disappear with one witness.”

She said she’d long regretted her role in the case and was glad to learn of Crosland’s release.

Over the years, Crosland has presented a growing collection of evidence to support his innocence: three eyewitnesses to the robbery and murder who said he was not the killer, and eventually another witness willing to identify the alternative suspect. He filed nine post-conviction relief petitions in state court and four federal habeas petitions before he was finally cleared by evidence that was contained in Philadelphia police and prosecutors’ files all along.

Some of that information was sealed in connection with grand jury investigations, but Cummings said that doesn’t excuse the nondisclosure.

“The exculpatory information was technically in the hands of prosecutors,” she said, and should have been provided.

Crosland represented himself for decades as lawyers botched his case, abandoned his claims, or filed letters with court saying his case had no merit. After the Federal Community Defender Office was appointed, they gained support from the CIU.

When he saw the evidence that had been hidden in the case last year, he said, “it made me very emotional. It was mind-blowing that all that could be hidden, to convict an innocent man. It was painful. It was difficult to even share with my family some of the things I learned that happened to me.”

But on Thursday night, home with his sons and wearing street clothes for the first time in 34 years, he and his family said it felt like divine intervention.

Risheen Crosland, 36, of West Oak Lane, was just 2 when his father was arrested. His oldest brother, Curtis Jr., became the father figure at age 6.

“I was told when I was 16 that he would always belong to the state of Pennsylvania,” Risheen Crosland said. “I tried everything I could to get my father out. Then when nothing else worked, it seemed like God just showed me what he could really do.”

Engaged to his childhood sweetheart Jackie Gray, Crosland said his goal now is to get a decent job, spend time with his family, and use his hard-earned legal knowledge to help the other “family” of innocent men he left behind in prison.

Then, more calls and FaceTime visits came in, from even more friends and relatives who’d just heard the news. Crosland had decided to keep his homecoming a secret, after so many decades of hopes raised and then dashed.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “For years, I’ve been saying, ‘I’m coming’ and ‘It’s gonna happen,’ and it didn’t happen. I didn’t want them to feel torn down.”