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A third man is exonerated in debunked 30-year-old murder investigation. Two others are suing the city.

Three men were convicted of a series of 1989 murders, based on the word of a 19-year-old informant who said he was coerced with the threat of the death penalty. Now, all are exonerated.

Christopher Williams (right), exonerated of four murders after three decades in prison, prays with his sisters Maxine Mathis (left) and Cynthia Williams and attorney Ben Crump before a news conference Dec. 1, 2021, announcing a lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia, police and prosecutors.
Christopher Williams (right), exonerated of four murders after three decades in prison, prays with his sisters Maxine Mathis (left) and Cynthia Williams and attorney Ben Crump before a news conference Dec. 1, 2021, announcing a lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia, police and prosecutors.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

For 30 years, Troy Coulston said he was innocent of the 1989 murder of Michael Haynesworth, one of a web of cases prosecutors now say were all tainted by the same informant’s testimony.

This week, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and a Common Pleas Court judge agreed to vacate his conviction, setting into motion a process his lawyers believe will lead to his release.

Coulston’s exoneration is the latest fallout from six murder cases that were handled by the same prosecutor and relied on false testimony by James White, who was 19 at the time of his arrest and is now serving concurrent life sentences for the six homicides.

Christopher Williams — who was prosecuted for all six murders but was acquitted of two and exonerated of four — was released from prison in February. He filed a lawsuit Wednesday morning in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, naming as defendants the city, former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, trial prosecutor David Desiderio, and 17 police detectives.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia's record number of exonerations raises questions about decades of homicide investigations

Joseph J. Santarone, a lawyer for Desiderio, said the former prosecutor could not comment while litigation is pending. In 2020, Desiderio told The Inquirer the exonerations were “garbage,” and questioned the DA’s motives. “A jury believed [White]. I don’t know how they can invade the province of the jury.”

Williams is represented by a legal team that includes Ben Crump, the high-profile civil rights lawyer who represents the families of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Crump said that, as in those cases, Williams’ story reflects both a historic injustice and “a historical teachable moment for America.”

“Chris Williams ... is almost like the symbol for wrongful conviction of Black men in America,” he added. “We have to be better than this. We cannot continue to let racism cloud our judgment when it comes to not even just wrongful convictions but administering justice.”

At a news conference Wednesday, Crump called for accountability. “What is the price for stealing his life?” he asked.

Williams said he was “elated” that the case against Coulston was dropped. He said that when he spoke with his codefendant this week, he counseled patience.

“There has to be a process to this, because you can’t consume a whole meal with one bite. And what we’ve been through? I would view that as a buffet,” he said. “No one in the history of the United States of America has walked away exonerated of six homicides, who spent 25 years on death row with two execution warrants signed for his death.”

» READ MORE: Accused of 6 murders, a Philly man spent 25 years on death row. Now, his record is cleared.

The District Attorney’s Office, in agreeing that Coulston should be cleared, called the evidence in the case “a house of cards” that began to collapse in 2019.

“Once the collapse began, a complete collapse was inevitable,” Assistant District Attorneys Arlyn Katen and Michael Garmisa wrote. They noted there was no physical evidence against Coulston, only testimony from White and two other discredited witnesses, and said critical evidence had been suppressed.

Kevin Haynesworth, the brother of the 19-year-old victim who was found beaten, bound, and shot repeatedly in a car in Fairmount Park, appeared by videoconference at a hearing for Coulston on Tuesday and expressed dismay. “It sounds like another murderer, or murder conspirator, is going to be released,” he told Judge Scott DiClaudio. Haynesworth did not respond to an interview request.

DiClaudio, however, said the case had been irreparably tainted by the undisclosed evidence.

In the original theory of the case, Williams, a father of five in Germantown, was cast by the prosecution as the leader of a violent drug gang that routinely robbed other drug dealers.

But Williams was acquitted at trial of the 1989 drug-related murder of Marron Genrette, 19, and the fatal shooting of William Graham, a 60-year-old cabdriver who was shot in the head in his taxi. He fought from death row for decades to be cleared of Haynesworth’s killing and the murder of three young men, Otis Reynolds, Gavin Anderson, and Kevin Anderson, drug dealers who were all shot at close range and left on the street in locations around North Philadelphia on the same day in September 1989. They were killed in shootings that prosecutors say appeared to be linked to a member of the Jamaican Shower Posse, a gang so named because members showered their victims with bullets.

Jennifer Merrigan, a lawyer with the nonprofit firm Phillips Black who represented Coulston and Williams’ other codefendant, Theophalis “Binky Bilal” Wilson, said information in the police and prosecutor’s file made clear all three men were innocent. “Where was the oversight in the office?” she said.

» READ MORE: A Philly exoneree works to free other wrongly convicted people. First up: His codefendant.

In his lawsuit, Williams alleged police “buried leads; they hid and destroyed evidence of alternative suspects; and they coerced troubled teenagers to tell fictitious stories to fit the evidence. And they did it all to obtain convictions at any cost, despite the truth.” The complaint alleges a campaign of coercion by police and prosecutors to obtain false testimony from White, alternately threatening him with the death penalty and promising him early release from prison.

Wilson, who was exonerated of the triple murder and released in February 2020, filed his own lawsuit against the city, police, and prosecutors earlier this year.

Desiderio, the former prosecutor, and Abraham are seeking to dismiss that suit. In their filing, Desiderio said he was acting within the scope of his duties, and therefore is entitled to absolute immunity.

Since Pennsylvania is one of a minority of states providing no compensation to exonerees, Wilson and Williams were released from their decades in prison into precarious financial positions.

Williams, a union carpenter before his arrest, launched back into the workforce at age 61 — tackling everything from construction punch lists to metal fabrication. He dreams of starting a construction company that will offer training and employment to men coming out of prison. But now he is living paycheck to paycheck.

Williams said his lawsuit is about accountability — but also about the full restoration of his freedom. To him, that means regaining control over his time and his destiny. “I am alive. I don’t feel that way sometimes,” he said, adding, “To this day, I don’t know what freedom feels like, but I’m trying to figure it out.”

» READ MORE: As Philly tops two dozen exonerations, city may face tens of millions in civil liability

Wilson, 50, once a jailhouse lawyer, has been working as a paralegal with Phillips Black, while starting a foundation called Before It’s Too Late that has helped link others with innocence claims to legal aid.

As for Coulston, his path to release is not straightforward, because he was also convicted in Montgomery County of assault by a life prisoner, for a 1997 fight with another prisoner in the State Correctional Institution Graterford. That charge carries an automatic life sentence. He’ll seek to vacate that conviction, as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that an assault-by-a-lifer conviction can’t stand when the underlying life sentence is removed.

Coulston, 52, said he’s eager to return home — but uncertain what awaits him. He has no place to stay, and no job lined up.

“I’ve been locked up for so long, I don’t know what type of skills I have,” he said.