The night before Christopher Williams hoped to come home from prison, Theophalis “Bilal” Wilson met with Williams’ family to offer advice.
“He’s been in jail for 30 years. You can’t expect him to be normal,” he said. “You have to be very loving, but at the same time very strong with him, because there are a lot of things he doesn’t know, a lot of things he has to learn over. Show him love, but give him space. Don’t be pulling in all different directions. ... He’s free now. He’s had 30 years of people telling him what to do.”
Wilson was uniquely positioned to counsel them. He and Williams were both charged with a 1989 triple-murder. Both spent three decades in prison, including 25 years on death row for Williams. And both were exonerated after the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office opened up its case files and found a “perfect storm” of lying informants, prosecutorial misconduct, and hidden exculpatory evidence.
Wilson was released one year ago. But Williams — a 29-year-old carpenter from Germantown when he was pegged as a criminal mastermind, and charged with six murders in total — remained in prison on one more murder case. (He had been acquitted of the two other slayings at trial.)
“There was some cynicism in me as a human being that one individual could be wrongfully convicted more than once,” said Patricia Cummings, chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which has exonerated 18 men in three years. But ultimately her team found, “lightning did strike twice.”
On Tuesday, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Tracy Brandeis-Roman, who called the situation “mind-boggling,” agreed to toss out the sixth and final murder, the shooting of 19-year-old Michael Haynesworth in 1989. She extended apologies to Haynesworth’s family members for the “gut punch” of the system’s failing. Haynesworth’s brother attended the hearing, held via Zoom, but did not return messages Tuesday.
Williams, 61, expressed deep gratitude to the lawyers who investigated his case. “They did nothing spectacular: They did their job.” But, he added, that led to a spectacular outcome: “Never in the history of the Pennsylvania judicial system has someone been charged with six murders, acquitted of two and now exonerated of four.”
All the cases against Williams hinged on accusations by a man named James White — who, facing the death penalty for a series of six horrific murders, struck a deal to name his accomplices. White said in court filings that prosecutors had promised to help him apply for commutation after 15 years. “That was the prosecutor’s word,” he wrote in 2016.
Now, lawyers say it’s evident that White and another repeat witness both provided false testimony. Prosecutors did not disclose that other witness, David Lee, had previously taken a deal to testify in two unrelated homicide cases — and for years subsequent assistant district attorneys refused to disclose his extensive record as a commonwealth witness, they said.
“Williams’ conviction was built on a house of cards that began to collapse in 2019 when the Commonwealth opened up its files to the defense,” the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit wrote in its filings. “Once the light was allowed to shine, the Commonwealth was forced to see that the basic structure underpinning the conviction was built on the unscrupulous behavior of several bad actors.”
A third witness, a girl who was just 13 at the time, had also testified against Williams. That witness received a light sentence in exchange for her testimony. The CIU noted in its filings that she declined to cooperate with the investigation. The Inquirer’s attempts to contact her were unsuccessful.
Another codefendant, Troy Coulston, who was tried alongside Williams, remains in prison. Coulston maintains that he, too, is innocent. The proceeding did not make mention of Coulston, but the DA’s Office is reviewing his case, a spokesperson said.
Williams and Wilson are committed to helping Coulston get his day in court.
“I’m not leaving him behind,” Williams said.
The CIU ordered a review of DNA and fingerprint evidence from the crime scene, but the findings were unhelpful, Cummings said.
Victor Abreu of the Federal Community Defender Office, who has been representing Williams for three decades, extended an apology to the Haynesworth family “that 31 years later, we still don’t have the answer to who killed their loved one.”
Meanwhile, watching the proceedings via Zoom from her home in Olney, Williams’ sister Maxine Matthis, 62, “took a big sigh of relief that finally, finally, this thing had come to an end.”
She and her children strung up a “Welcome Home” banner and festive balloons on her front porch for a modest celebration in keeping with COVID-19 safety protocols. The larger reunion would have to wait, she said. Williams, who was imprisoned at the State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County, has five children. “His children have grown up and had children, and some of them even have children of their own,” said Matthis, who lost count around 18 grands and great-grandkids, scattered around the country.
When he finally arrived Tuesday evening, Williams was greeted by a tearful crowd of family and chosen family, including some of the men who came to see him as a father figure and beacon of positivity over decades of incarceration together. He carried a folder containing two execution warrants, both signed in 1999. “If Pennsylvania was a state such as Texas, we wouldn’t be standing here having this conversation right now.”
He said he watched many men around him on death row give up, abandon their appeals, or take their own lives. He focused on staying connected to his family, reminding himself that truth tends to prevail. “I couldn’t give up on myself, because I couldn’t give up on them.”
Matthis embraced her brother, and then Wilson, who was, she said, “just a baby” when he was incarcerated. Weeping, she told him: “Y’all are home now. I’m OK now.”
“A long, hard fight, right?” said Wilson, who was 17 when the crime occurred.
Williams hopes to reclaim his place as a union carpenter, who often helped get jobs for young men in the neighborhood. Now, he’d like to create an apprenticeship program that would help other formerly incarcerated people enter the building trades.
And, Williams said, he wants to be a voice for those he left behind.
“If this was done to me,” he said, “the question remains: Who else was it done to?”