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A brutal triple murder, an eager informant, hidden evidence, and now, exoneration

After maintaining his innocence for close to three decades, Christopher Williams was finally exonerated — the 11th person cleared by the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit since Larry Krasner took office in 2018.

Notes from the District Attorney's file suggest the sole eyewitness, James White, would not have been able to identify the victims in a triple murder without first being shown their photos.
Notes from the District Attorney's file suggest the sole eyewitness, James White, would not have been able to identify the victims in a triple murder without first being shown their photos.Read moreCourt documents (custom credit)

The 1989 murders were violent and callous acts: three New York drug dealers lured to a housing project to buy guns, robbed of $26,400, loaded into a van and shot execution-style, their bodies left in different locations in North Philadelphia.

As a result of the testimony of a man serving life sentences for six murders, two Germantown men — Christopher Williams and Theophalis Wilson — were convicted of the gruesome crimes. Williams, 29 at the time of the killings, received three death sentences. Wilson, who was 17, was sentenced to life without parole.

After maintaining his innocence for close to three decades, Williams was exonerated in December — the 11th person cleared by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) since Larry Krasner took office in 2018.

And based on the discovery of “a plethora of significant, material, exculpatory evidence,” the DA argued in court filings that Wilson also should be cleared.

That he hasn’t highlights what advocates say is a glaring flaw in the system: Although Williams, sentenced to death, eventually was appointed skilled legal counsel, Wilson, as a lifer, had no one to argue his case.

“If Chris had not gotten the death penalty, I don’t think anybody would know about these cases,” said Jennifer Merrigan, a lawyer with Phillips Black, which took on Wilson’s case pro bono in 2019, along with Greenberg Traurig lawyers Brian Feeney and Kelly Dobbs Bunting. “It was only because he had really great lawyers who thoroughly litigated the case and had the money to involve experts … and then to continue that fight.”

Williams’ conviction was vacated in 2013, after the key witness, James White, recanted — and said a prosecutor met with him repeatedly before the trial, coerced his testimony, and fed him fabricated information.

But by then, White’s credibility was in shreds, and the DA’s Office refused to back down. Then, in February 2019, the CIU turned over its file to defense lawyers, revealing 22 boxes containing 42,000 pages of documents.

An analysis of the file by the CIU and the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which represented Williams in state court, comprises a catalog of deep problems in Pennsylvania’s legal system, lawyers say: concealed evidence, undisclosed deals in exchange for testimony, corrupt relationships with informants, and a direly inadequate system of appointing and funding defense counsel that doomed both men to decades in prison.

“We believe there are indeed Brady violations,” said CIU chief Patricia Cummings, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires prosecutors to share with defendants potentially exculpatory evidence. “We find that to be incredibly troubling.”

Inside the File

White was 19 in December 1989 when he was arrested for killing Michael Haynesworth, a 30-year-old who had dated White’s 13-year-old girlfriend — tying up and beating Haynesworth before shooting him and dumping his body in Fairmount Park. He faced the death penalty.

He agreed to plead guilty to escape execution — with the understanding, he would later claim, that prosecutors would assist him in obtaining a commutation after 15 years. “That was the prosecutor’s word,” White wrote in a 2016 court filing, maintaining his innocence and arguing the DA should be required to make good on the deal.

In all, he admitted to six murders, including the execution of a 60-year-old taxi driver named William Graham; the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old Cheltenham man, Marron Genrette; and the killing of the three New York men, Otis Reynolds, Kevin Anderson, and Gavin Anderson. White implicated at least five other men in the various crimes.

White accused Williams of masterminding all of the murders, along with other brutal acts — including two murders of which Williams would be acquitted, and other violent crimes that could not be substantiated.

But in the prosecution for the Germantown triple murder, the DA’s Office rigged the trial, lawyers on both sides now allege.

The files opened in February contained eyewitness accounts and 911 calls that contradict White’s account of the killings, as well as police activity sheets that identify compelling alternative suspects. And they reveal contradictory statements by White that further undermine his credibility, according to court filings.

They also contain materials that lawyers say corroborate White’s claims that he repeatedly met with prosecutors to discuss his testimony and was even provided photographs so he could identify the three victims of the triple murder, whom he had never met. One handwritten note in the file reads: “Get Morgue Photos of Jamaicans [to] show to White to alleviate I.D. problem.”

In an interview, the former prosecutor in the case, David Desiderio, now a defense lawyer, said he had no reason to doubt White’s testimony at trial. He disputed assertions of prosecutorial misconduct and questioned Krasner’s motives in revisiting the case.

“It’s garbage. It was something the district attorney made up," he said. "That man never once indicated to me that what he was saying was false. If the DA wants to believe that, then there’s something else going on with the District Attorney’s Office. A jury believed this man. I don’t know how they can invade the province of the jury.”

Also unearthed in the file were documents revealing that another key witness, David Lee, was a long-standing police informant who already had avoided charges in two previous murders. That history was not revealed by prosecutors at trial — nor was it raised as a conflict by Wilson’s defense lawyer, Jack McMahon, a former prosecutor who had handled a 1990 murder case in which Lee was listed as a witness, defense lawyers say.

McMahon said he remembers Wilson’s case, but not Lee. “I never heard that name in my life,” he said.

Williams’ conviction was vacated in 2013, and a new trial was ordered. But even after that, the District Attorney’s Office fought to keep the case file confidential. Then-Assistant District Attorney Bridget Kirn argued in court that there were no relevant materials to turn over. (Attempts to reach Kirn for this article were not successful.)

Robert Dunham, a former federal defender in Pennsylvania who runs the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said false testimony by jailhouse informants is common — especially in death-row cases. A Northwestern University study found that 46% of death-row exonerations involved such informants.

“Everything that goes wrong in the criminal system goes wrong worse in capital cases,” Dunham said. “Generally speaking, the more high-profile a case is, the more prone it is to government misconduct. There is greater public pressure and greater political pressure to solve the case and to convict somebody. There is greater political gain to a prosecutor who has ambitions beyond his office.”

Two systems of representation

In 1993, Wilson and Williams were moved into the state prison system — Wilson to general population, Williams to death row.

Williams would spend 25 years in solitary confinement, leaving his cell only for showers, hour-long trips to the exercise cage, or visits to the law library. Each time he left his cell or returned, he was strip-searched and shackled.

Still, one advantage he had as a death-sentenced prisoner was an enhanced right to counsel. Eventually, he was appointed a lawyer from the Federal Community Defender Office, which has overturned more than 100 death sentences in Pennsylvania.

After Williams already had spent two decades on death row, the defenders convinced a judge that his trial lawyer had been ineffective for failing to bring in scientific experts who would have contradicted White’s account that the three men were shot and then pushed out of a moving van onto the sidewalk. That was impossible, experts testified in 2013, because none of the victims had any injuries beyond the fatal gunshot wounds.

Each time Williams’ case inched forward, Wilson used a typewriter to pick out a claim piggybacking on his codefendant’s arguments.

But six years after Williams’ conviction was overturned, Wilson still has not had an evidentiary hearing.

“It’s emblematic of how unfair our system is, and how it’s stacked against defendants without resources,” said Merrigan, Wilson’s lawyer. His case finally returned to court — and sparked the CIU’s review of both cases — only because he was entitled to resentencing under a U.S. Supreme Court decision that automatic life sentences for juveniles are illegal.

Marc Bookman, of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, said it’s just a small part of how Pennsylvania — the only state that provides no general funding for indigent defense — has created a system ripe for wrongful convictions.

One study of Philadelphia murder cases from 1994 to 2005, published by RAND, underscored the deficiencies of court-appointed lawyers, who at the time were paid just $2,000 for pretrial preparation — work that could take weeks or months. It found that cases assigned to public defenders resulted in a 19% lower murder conviction rate, a 62% lower chance of a life sentence, and a 24% shorter average sentence length.

“As long as we refuse to properly fund effective lawyers in our most serious cases, be they life without parole or death, we’re going to have the kind of injustice these cases represent,” Bookman said. “We tend to think all these cases are in the past and it would never happen now, but we’ve done nothing at all to make changes from then to now. The system we have today is the exact system we had 30 years ago.”

A fourth murder

After Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn Bronson accepted the DA’s request to withdraw charges against Williams in the triple murder, he was ushered into a holding cell in the courthouse basement and put on a bus back to state prison.

That’s because Williams is still serving a life sentence for one more murder: that of Michael Haynesworth. Again, the sole eyewitness was James White, supported by David Lee, who testified he’d supplied the weapons. White’s 13-year-old girlfriend, initially charged as an adult, also testified, saying she had lured Haynesworth to the crime scene, but did not witness what happened next.

Notes in the file the DA’s Office shared in February could shed light on that case, too. According to court filings, they revealed inconsistent statements by White about how that murder was committed and who the perpetrators were.

Cummings, of the CIU, said that her office has not taken up that case for review, but that she’d take a look at any conviction that hinged on White’s testimony. Another man, Troy Coulston, was tried together with Williams and is also serving a life sentence for that murder.

Outside Bronson’s courtroom on Dec. 23, Williams’ extended family, including three of his children, and his fiancée, Dawn Jonson, waited for the court proceeding that would bring the family patriarch one step closer to home.

“It’s been so long,” said Greg Banks, who was 11 when the police came, guns drawn, to arrest his father. “But we see progress. It’s hope. Before, I had no faith at all. Now that you see change, it gives you belief. It’ll be a slow process, but it’s moving.”

It’s hard for them to process why Williams’ conviction in the Haynesworth case remains intact.

“It was just one witness who told all these lies. He’s involved in all of it,” said Jonson, the mother of Williams’ youngest son, Chris Hartwell, who was 6 months old when his father was arrested.

Sherrie Bradley was 14 when her father was arrested. She said she knew him as a hardworking family man who, since he was finally moved off death row, has embraced working in carpentry, exercising skills he’d been forced to neglect for decades.

“What they said about him was just totally impossible to me,” she said. “When a person is innocent, it will show.”