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A ‘perfect storm’ of injustice: Philly man freed after 28 years as DA condemns ‘decades’ of misconduct

“For decades and with some frequency, it appears that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office failed to comply with its obligations," the DA's Conviction Integrity Unit chief, Patricia Cummings, wrote.

Theophalis Wilson, shown here outside the Criminal Justice Center, was exonerated Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020 after 28 years in prison for a triple murder that took place when he was just 17 years old.
Theophalis Wilson, shown here outside the Criminal Justice Center, was exonerated Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020 after 28 years in prison for a triple murder that took place when he was just 17 years old.Read more

On Tuesday morning, after 28 years in prison for a triple murder he did not commit, Theophalis “Bilaal” Wilson heard the words he had been waiting for.

“Theophalis Wilson, you are free to go,” Common Pleas Court Judge Tracy Brandeis-Roman said as extended family and friends who packed the courtroom wailed, hugged, and wept.

With that, Wilson became the 12th person exonerated by District Attorney Larry Krasner’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), which in court filings offered a damning assessment of prosecutorial practices stretching back decades.

“It is time for Mr. Wilson to be allowed to go home — that he go home a free man, and that he go home with an apology," unit chief Patricia Cummings said in court, her voice trembling. “No words can express what we put these people through. What we put Mr. Wilson through. What we put his family through.”

Brandeis-Roman ordered him released immediately, finding violations of his right to due process and effective counsel, as well as to any material exculpatory evidence in his case.

“This is a great day,” Wilson said after his release. “Now we got to go back and get the other guys. There’s a lot of innocent people in jail.”

Wilson’s exoneration came a month after his codefendant, Christopher Williams, was cleared of the three 1989 killings.

Wilson, now 48, was a teenager when he was accused of participating in the slayings of Otis Reynolds and brothers Kevin and Gavin Anderson in North Philadelphia.

“Wilson’s trial was infected by serious prosecutorial misconduct, Brady violations, a critical witness who supplied false testimony, and ineffective assistance of counsel," the District Attorney’s Office wrote in a filing that called the case a “perfect storm” of injustice.

The filing, signed by Cummings, calls into question many more prosecutions.

“For decades and with some frequency, it appears that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office failed to comply with its obligations in regard to Brady," Cummings wrote, referencing the U.S. Supreme Court holding in Brady v. Maryland that prosecutors must turn over material exculpatory evidence.

At their 1992 trial before Judge Paul Ribner, Wilson and Williams were convicted primarily on the testimony of James White, who confessed to six murders. Later, he recanted, saying he provided false testimony in exchange for a deal to escape the death penalty and be released after 15 years.

White admitted his lies at a 2013 hearing in Williams’ case, at which forensics experts testified that the physical evidence discredited his narrative that the three men were shot and pushed out of a moving van at different spots in North Philadelphia. After that, Williams' conviction was vacated. But the District Attorney’s Office fought the decision for years.

Wilson only found his way back into court because of a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors unconstitutional.

Wilson, however, was denied a resentencing hearing because of his ongoing innocence claim. Given that delay, he briefly contemplated giving up the fight. “Pain is a serious motivator," he said. “But I said if I have to give up my actual innocence, that’s something that will never happen.”

Instead, he pleaded with the legal team that took on his resentencing pro bono to help with his innocence claim.

“We didn’t know what to do. But he looked right at me and said, ‘Will you please stay on the case?’” said Kelly Bunting, an employment litigator with the firm Greenberg Traurig.

The firm got help from Jennifer Merrigan, a lawyer with the nonprofit Phillips Black and, finally, a break in the case when prosecutors, who had previously denied there was additional evidence, handed over 40,000 pages of documents in February 2019.

That included never-before-revealed investigative records that pointed to different suspects and suppressed witnesses. It also revealed that a corroborating witness, David Lee, was an informant who had evaded prosecution in two other murders.

“Several of the violations in this case appear purposeful at worse or reckless at best,” the district attorney’s filing noted, naming the prosecutor, David Desiderio, as well as Bridget Kirn and Alisa Shver, who fought to keep the files sealed and to preserve the conviction.

Desiderio said he stands by the conviction, and said the district attorney “made up” any violations. Kirn and Shver did not respond to requests for comment.

Waiting for Wilson at the courthouse were a half-dozen other exonerees and juvenile lifers, and family and friends who had waited decades for this moment.

“It’s a beautiful day,” Kim Wilson, Theophalis’ mother, said. “I just thank God it finally happened.”

Carey King, 44, a friend since childhood, had been out until 9 the night before hunting for the clothing Wilson wanted to wear home after 28 years in a prison uniform.

“He has certain specifications. One of the things he had asked for was a black peacoat. He doesn’t understand that they’re putting out spring clothes now,” King said with a laugh.

On Tuesday afternoon, Wilson finally walked out of court and back into a city he had not seen since he was a teen. He experienced a few simple pleasures he’d been deprived of: a cup of coffee — La Colombe, not Maxwell House — with real cream, an Isgro cannoli he’d been thinking about for a decade, hugs from loved ones.

Then, Merrigan hailed a rideshare to the Phillips Black offices, where Wilson plans to work.

“This car is just going to pop up out of nowhere?” Wilson asked, then climbed in skeptically, grilling the driver on his credentials. He told him: “I just did 28 years for a crime I didn’t commit, I hope you drive good.”

While Wilson was freed, Williams remains imprisoned on a life sentence for a fourth murder — the 1989 slaying of Michael Haynesworth — of which he was convicted with a codefendant, Troy Coulston. Both Williams and Coulston have maintained their innocence in that crime, too. The key witnesses against them? David Lee and James White.

As family and friends gathered to celebrate, they were joined by Christopher Williams’ fiancee and children. Just then, Williams called.

“I love you, man. Keep your head up,” Wilson told him. “You’re going to get there, too.”