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‘Surreal’ feeling for Philly man cleared of murder after spending half his life behind bars

John Miller had denied since his 1997 arrest that he had anything to do with a killing near 30th Street Station. A key trial witness not only recanted his statements — he confessed to the crime. On Wednesday, a judge tossed out the case against Miller, ending his 22-year prison sentence.

John Miller of Philadelphia, looks on outside the SCI Mahanoy State Correctional Institution in Frackville, Pa. Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Miller was imprisoned for 22 years for murder, he was released today after his conviction was vacated.
John Miller of Philadelphia, looks on outside the SCI Mahanoy State Correctional Institution in Frackville, Pa. Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Miller was imprisoned for 22 years for murder, he was released today after his conviction was vacated.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

FRACKVILLE, Pa. — Surrounded by relatives, John Miller stood Wednesday outside the State Correctional Institution Mahanoy nearly lost for words. He was blown away, he said, by the sight of his brother’s cell phone. He wanted to eat a steak and take his niece to the zoo. Everything seemed “surreal.”

Miller, 44, had spent half his life in prison, but a few hours earlier, about 100 miles away in Philadelphia, a judge had reversed his murder conviction, making him a free man.

He said that he had kept faith for two decades that eventually he would be released, and that he was not bitter about his incarceration. “It made me stronger,” he said as he inhaled the Schuylkill County air.

The key witness in Miller’s trial — the only substantial evidence linking him to the killing of a man in a parking lot outside 30th Street Station in 1996 — had insisted for two decades that his initial statement to police was a lie.

The witness, David Williams, who faced robbery charges when he spoke to investigators, recanted his statement at Miller’s preliminary hearing in 1997 and denied it again at trial a year later. A jury had voted to convict Miller anyway.

Then, in 2002, Williams did something even more unusual: He wrote a letter to Miller’s mother, apologizing for his false assertion that had helped secure her son a life sentence — and confessing that he was the one who had pulled the trigger, saying he had acted in self-defense.

“I can’t live with this on my conscience,” Williams wrote, according to court documents. “Your son had no knowledge of this crime, he wasn’t even there.”

For years, none of this made any difference. Courts denied Miller’s appeals, citing procedural issues, and holding that Williams — whose credibility was the crux of the case against Miller — was not believable when he denied his initial statement or admitted to the crime years later.

But Wednesday, everything changed. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office said it agreed with Miller’s defense team, including the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and attorneys from Pepper Hamilton working pro bono, that Miller’s prosecution was flawed, weak, and that his conviction should not stand.

In a morning hearing at the Stout Center for Criminal Justice, Common Pleas Court Judge Lillian Ransom agreed — granting Miller the relief he has long sought, and leading to the end of his 22-year imprisonment.

The reversal marks the ninth time in 19 months — and the seventh time since January — that the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit has helped reverse a murder conviction. District Attorney Larry Krasner, formerly a career defense attorney, expanded the unit and broadened its ambitions after he took office in 2018, and he has spoken openly about what he said was once a culture in the DA’s Office to pursue and defend convictions at all costs.

In court documents this week, prosecutors wrote that they believed that evidence potentially helpful to Miller — including information that weakened the credibility of Williams’ statement to police — was not turned over before trial, violating the Constitution. That flaw “further undercut the little evidence that originally implicated [Miller] in the crime," wrote the prosecutors, who included Krasner and the supervisor of the integrity unit, Patricia Cummings.

They added that the office no longer had faith in Williams’ initial statement, and said that “there is no other competent evidence of [Miller’s] guilt.”

Miller’s mother, Velma Miller, 66, said outside the courthouse Wednesday morning that she was “overwhelmed” by the case’s dismissal. “I didn’t think my son was ever coming home,” she said.

A statement, then recantations

The crime in question was the killing of Anthony Mullen on Oct. 8, 1996. According to court documents, Mullen was fatally shot in a parking lot adjacent to 30th Street Station that night; police found shell casings from two guns at the scene, including from a .25-caliber handgun found under Mullen’s body.

Four months after the killing, court documents say, Williams was arrested for robbery. He told detectives he could give them information about several murders, including Mullen’s. According to court documents, Williams told Detective Jeffrey Piree that Miller had confessed the killing to him, and said that he had gotten the murder weapon from a neighbor.

The neighbor, Michael Arnold, told police that Miller had taken a gun from him, court documents say. Years later, in a letter supporting Miller’s appeal, Arnold wrote that he had made that story up because he “wanted to send the police on a wild-goose chase.”

Miller was arrested in June 1997. At his preliminary hearing, Williams disavowed his statement to police, testifying that he had lied because he and Miller weren’t getting along, according to court documents.

He again recanted at Miller’s trial in 1998, court documents say, claiming that he had never spoken to police and that they had fabricated his statement. Piree and another detective, Michael Sharkey, told jurors about Williams’ initial interview with them, and jurors voted to convict Miller of second-degree murder, triggering an automatic life sentence.

Witnesses changing or recanting their testimony, sometimes called “testilying,” is not new. But Krasner’s administration, more than his predecessors, has been willing to challenge past cases plagued by questionable testimony or other problematic evidence.

Earlier this month, after prosecutors agreed that Chester Hollman, imprisoned 28 years for a murder he always denied committing, was likely innocent, Cummings said that police and prosecutors at the time had withheld evidence. It could have helped Hollman’s defense, possibly even averting a trial, she said.

In court Wednesday, Cummings said prosecutors had spoken to Mullen’s stepson, Theodore Leeks, about the decision to drop Miller’s case. According to Cummings, Leeks told them that if Miller was innocent, he should be released, and that Leeks and his relatives were sorry he had gone to prison.

Appeals denied

Miller repeatedly filed appeals seeking to prove his innocence after he was convicted, but courts routinely rejected them, often because his filings were considered untimely. An exception came in 2003, when Miller was granted an appeals hearing to litigate the alleged confession Williams wrote to Miller’s mother.

Williams took the stand and testified that he killed Mullen in self-defense, court documents say. But after prosecutors threatened him with the potential of facing the death penalty, Williams got key details of the case wrong, including calling Mullen a short white man, even though Mullen was tall, heavyset, and black.

Williams was subsequently arrested and charged with perjury. He ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one to three years behind bars, according to court documents.

Even so, the unusual trail of statements he gave in Miller’s case proved to be a key in overturning Miller’s conviction.

In June, a federal appeals court ruled that prosecutors had failed to disclose two key pieces of evidence that Miller’s lawyers could have used to challenge Williams’ credibility.

The first was that Williams lied to police about another murder — on the same day he told them that Miller had killed Mullen.

At the time, the court noted, Williams was facing his own set of robbery charges, and was thus “willing to say just about anything, including demonstrably and incontestably false information, in an attempt to reduce his sentence.”

The second was that prosecutors failed to disclose a record detailing a police interview with Mark Manigault, a codefendant with Williams in several robberies. Williams told detectives that Manigault knew about the killing, which was easily disprovable because Manigault had been imprisoned at the time.

Years later, when Miller’s team finally learned about Manigault’s connection to the case, they interviewed him. According to court documents, he claimed that Williams told him he was going to “pin a murder that he committed on someone else in order to get out of jail.”

Prosecutors did not say Wednesday whether they planned to charge Williams, or if they believed his confession that he killed Mullen.

Marissa Boyers Bluestine, assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, who worked on Miller’s case when she worked at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, called the case “insane.” She cited it as an example of how procedural disputes can sometimes prevent people in the criminal justice system from taking a comprehensive view of the facts.

Miller’s pro bono attorney, Thomas M. Gallagher, said, “It’s hard for an individual to be heard post-conviction,” even if the person’s claim is valid.

“I would suspect that judges and prosecutors alike see many claims that are obviously flawed at the outset,” Gallagher said. “And they get immune to credible claims.”

As Miller prepared to depart the prison grounds Wednesday afternoon on a bus chartered by his lawyers, he looked around, wide-eyed, and let out a deep breath.

“This is crazy,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.