In 2018, after Robert Outlaw had spent 15 years in prison for the September 2000 murder of Jamal Kelly in East Germantown, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office handed over the police investigatory file on the case.
In it, Outlaw’s lawyers found what they believed was critical evidence: a letter from a witness to a police detective discussing his expectation of leniency in exchange for “putting together a speech” for Outlaw’s trial, and police paperwork indicating a caller had left a credible tip pointing to a different suspect.
Common Pleas Court Judge Diana Anhalt vacated Outlaw’s conviction in an order posted Thursday and ordered a new trial. Anhalt determined that the evidence uncovered had been illegally withheld for more than a decade and that a new witness located by Outlaw’s wife was credible.
Ben Waxman, a spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner, said the office had not decided whether it will appeal the order or prosecute Outlaw a second time.
Though the office has argued that Outlaw’s conviction should stand, Waxman said, the decision to open its files in the case reflects a push to operate in a more transparent fashion than previous administrations had. That includes sharing any potentially exculpatory evidence, as mandated in the 1963 Supreme Court decision in Brady v. Maryland.
“We believe you have to hand over Brady material if it exists to the defense, something that was not done in a systematic way before we got here," Waxman said. “It was our judgment and evaluation that there was [potential] Brady material in that file.”
Yvonne Ruiz, the prosecutor who initially handled the case, was one of more than 30 in the office whom Krasner fired upon becoming district attorney. Ruiz declined to discuss the case, except to say she never withheld evidence.
But this year, Assistant District Attorney Samuel Ritterman filed briefs arguing that the new evidence meant nothing — and that a new eyewitness, discovered after Outlaw’s wife, Monique Solomon-Outlaw, started posting fliers around the neighborhood, was not credible.
“It fails to even budge the needle on the scale, weighed down by the evidence of defendant’s guilt," Ritterman wrote.
Outlaw was 16 and, he admits, a street-level drug dealer when the crime took place. He was implicated by a witness, Charles Paladino, eight months after the fact and arrested in 2003.
That’s one reason his defense was so poor, he said recently.
“I don’t know where I was at when the crime happened,” Outlaw said. “I just know I wasn’t there. That’s like me asking you where you were on Sept. 1, 2014.”
Kelly, with his dying breath, said, “Shank did it,” according to case documents. But it was never clear if the neighborhood man known as “Shank" was investigated for the crime; instead, he was called as a witness against Outlaw.
At trial, he and the other witnesses who gave police statements against Outlaw refused to testify against him, and claimed instead that detectives had coerced their statements. But the lack of evidence ended up working against Outlaw.
“They was saying the recantation was the result of me intimidating the witnesses, that they were scared of me,” Outlaw said.
It was only recently that Outlaw learned what went on behind the scenes. In his file, there was a letter from Paladino to Detective Howard Peterman seeking immunity in an open drug possession case in exchange for testifying. “I’ve learned a lot about being a witness, so, please, let me help you," the letter concludes.
In the police file, Outlaw’s lawyers also found notes indicating detectives received a tip on, and investigated, an entirely different suspect, whose car appeared to match one witnesses described as leaving the scene.
Efforts to reach Peterman on Thursday were unsuccessful.
Marissa Boyers Bluestine, executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said Outlaw’s is one in a string of cases that have been vacated after prosecutors turned over their files. Before Krasner took office, that most often happened under a judge’s order.
And though the district attorney opposed Outlaw’s bid for a new trial, she said, “we don’t see that as the same pushback we’ve seen in prior administrations."
“It shows a very significant shift away from just defending every conviction no matter what, but instead saying, let’s analyze what’s really going on here and test each of these claims as carefully as we can, and then make an evaluation," she said. "That’s a very big difference.”
Now, Outlaw is hoping the district attorney will decide to stop fighting his quest for freedom.
“I’m living off hope that I’m going to get out one day,” he said.
Recently, he’s been pursuing his education, daring to plan for the future.
“A lot of times it becomes embarrassing, because people look at you like, ‘You have a life sentence, what are you going to school for?’ Even the teachers will say that to you sometimes," he said. "But I live off of hope that one day the justice system is going to work for me.”