Three former longtime Philadelphia homicide detectives were charged with perjury on Friday after a grand jury concluded they lied on the witness stand during a landmark 2016 murder retrial that threatened to send an innocent man back to prison for life.
The allegations, unveiled in a presentment filed by the District Attorney’s Office, represent an extraordinary development in a city that has seen dozens of old homicide convictions overturned in recent years — but no significant legal repercussions for the police or prosecutors involved in building those cases. Many of them have since been accused of misconduct in court documents filed by District Attorney Larry Krasner.
The grand jury’s findings mark a stunning turnabout for Martin Devlin, Manuel Santiago, and Frank Jastrzembski, who each served more than 25 years in the Philadelphia Police Department. Devlin for years was viewed as a star investigator in one of the nation’s most violent cities, specializing in cold cases and complex investigations that no one else could crack.
But in recent years, questions have emerged about the detectives’ investigative practices, mostly during the 1990s. Krasner’s Conviction Integrity Unit has helped overturn at least five cases the detectives worked on, saying the convictions were marred by coerced confessions, fabricated or hidden evidence, or secret deals with key witnesses.
“These charges are an indication that a Philadelphia jury, in this case a grand jury, can carefully look at evidence and can understand that the law must apply equally to people, whether they are in law enforcement, [or] supposed to be served by law enforcement,” Krasner said during a news conference Friday.
The detectives have consistently denied wrongdoing. They also face charges of false swearing and the possibility of prison time if convicted. They turned themselves in at a Northeast Philadelphia police district Friday and were released on bail after being arraigned. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for the end of this month.
Their lawyer, Brian McMonagle, said his clients were “innocent of these charges,” adding: “These three good men dedicated their lives to seeking justice for victims of crime. In this case they sought justice for a woman who was brutally raped and murdered.”
A spokesperson for the police union declined to comment.
The prosecution — coming just days before the expiration of the five-year statute of limitations — is a significant undertaking for Krasner, who took office in 2018 and promised to address police misconduct while reforming an office he had harshly criticized during his previous career as a civil rights lawyer.
The charges against Devlin, Santiago and Jastrzembski are his first attempt to hold law enforcement officials criminally responsible for their actions in a wrongful conviction.
Marissa Bluestine, the former head of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and assistant director at the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at University of Pennsylvania, said personal accountability for such crimes by law enforcement is rare. The statute of limitations for criminal charges often runs out, she said, and police and prosecutors are typically shielded from personal liability in civil litigation due to qualified immunity laws.
Krasner said at his news conference: “Actual accountability is what this is about.”
Some defendants in the 1990s had accused detectives in open court of wrongdoing during investigations. But disputed confessions or claims of coercion were viewed as common among suspects and witnesses at the time, and statements given to police in that era were not taped. So police and prosecutors could present disputed confessions to jurors and let them decide whom to believe.
Questions about Devlin, Santiago and Jastrzembski resurfaced during the 2016 retrial of Anthony Wright, who was convicted in 1993 of the rape and murder of 77-year-old Louise Talley in Nicetown. Wright’s appellate lawyers later discovered DNA evidence that proved he had not raped Talley. Wright’s conviction was overturned, but then-District Attorney Seth Williams’ office sought to convict him again, saying the results did not preclude him from being an accomplice to the crime.
He was quickly acquitted in August 2016, and afterward some jurors took the remarkable step of standing beside Wright and publicly criticizing prosecutors for continuing to pursue what they called a weak case.
Williams said Friday: “There are many [cases] that I remember very specific details. This is not one of them.”
Wright, who served 25 years of wrongful imprisonment, has long alleged that detectives fabricated evidence and subjected him to a brutal, physically abusive interrogation before forcing him to sign a false confession.
He settled a civil lawsuit against the city for $9.8 million, but said it’s now time for those who framed him to face justice.
“This will mean everything to me if those guys individually can be held accountable for what they did to me. And their name is on so many people’s paperwork that were wronged,” he said, adding that the losses accrued over 25 years are hard to calculate. He missed his mother’s funeral, and watching his son grow up.
At Wright’s retrial in 2016, Devlin testified that he had never threatened an interview subject, and that he had transcribed Wright’s confession verbatim. Then, he agreed to a challenge by lawyer Samuel Silver: To transcribe the confession again in real time as Silver read it aloud. He got just six or seven words down on the page before it became clear he could not keep up.
There were also allegations of perjury involving Santiago and Jastrzembski, raised in the form of a disciplinary complaint filed by the Innocence Project in 2018 against Assistant District Attorney Bridget Kirn. (No action was taken publicly against Kirn by the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.)
The complaint alleged that Kirn failed in her duty to correct false testimony by Santiago and Jastrzembski when they told jurors they had not been briefed on the damning DNA tests conducted after Wright’s first conviction. The tests showed that semen taken from the victim’s body matched Ronnie Byrd, a Nicetown man with a crack addiction — not Wright.
It also showed that “wearer DNA” on bloody clothing Jastrzembski said he had recovered from Wright’s home, an aspect of his supposed confession, was a match for the victim, and not for Wright.
The complaint noted that a year after the retrial, during depositions for Wright’s civil lawsuit, both detectives acknowledged that the District Attorney’s Office had informed them of the test results in pretrial briefings. Kirn and other detectives confirmed that in their depositions.
“All of them perjured themselves during their testimony at the retrial,” said Peter Neufeld, cofounder of the Innocence Project and one of Wright’s lawyers. “They perjured themselves on all kinds of things. Jastrzembski perjured himself when he said he found clothing he didn’t find, and Santiago and Devlin both perjured themselves about the way the interrogation went down. They all lied.”
The grand jury said it believed charges were necessary “to correct the historical record and hold the three former detectives — Santiago, Devlin, and Jastrzembski — accountable for lying under oath to condemn an innocent man and cover up their wrongdoing, and for perverting the integrity of the law.”
The detectives have been the subject of mounting criticism as cases they investigated were revealed to be some of the most shocking wrongful convictions in Philadelphia history.
Media coverage over the years portrayed Devlin as a brilliant eccentric — “Detective Perfect” — who wore a loud shirt and carried a shotgun when he allowed a reporter to ride along as he chased a suspect in North Philadelphia. He retired in 1995 and had a storied second act as a detective for the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office. An Inquirer profile, written after he helped win the high-profile conviction of Cherry Hill Rabbi Fred Neulander for hiring a hit man to kill his wife, called Devlin “street smart and feisty, with intense green eyes that display both the joy and seriousness he brings to the job.”
He has been accused of participating in violent interrogations that ended with forced, false statements in at least five different murder cases. In one, Devlin was accused of coercing a false confession from Willie Veasy, while Jastrzembski, the lead detective, allegedly hid evidence that cast doubt on Veasy’s involvement.
Jastrzembski and Santiago were among three detectives who refused to testify in a 1994 court proceeding about a murder case they investigated, instead invoking their Fifth Amendment right to avoid incriminating themselves. In that case, Commonwealth v. Percy St. George, there were also suggestions of perjury — as the detectives had testified to taking statements that witnesses said were fabricated or coerced.
Marc Bookman, then a public defender on the case and now the executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, said that case should have led to punishment decades ago.
“The fact that all these cops were guilty of misconduct was not a secret,” Bookman said. “It all took place in open court. In a real criminal justice system, the DA’s office would have done a full investigation and probably ended up prosecuting the police. But Philadelphia during those years was a rigged town — there was no oversight.”
Lynne Abraham, District Attorney from 1991 to 2010, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Jastrzembski and Santiago also built the case against Jimmy Dennis, whose murder conviction was vacated after he spent 25 years on death row. Dennis had compelling alibi evidence that was in the possession of police or prosecutors but was not disclosed at his trial.
And Santiago was accused of overseeing an investigation in which a key witness with an implausible story was also secretly facing drug charges under a fictitious name. The man who was convicted, Andrew Swainson, was released from prison last summer after Krasner’s office called his case “fundamentally flawed and unfair.”
The detectives’ arrest was welcome news to Walter Ogrod, who spent 23 years on death row for the murder of 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn based in part on a confession taken by Devlin and his then-partner Detective Paul Worrell — one Krasner’s office now contends was false and coerced. Ogrod was exonerated last year.
In his view, perjury charges would be a fair starting point.
“What’s the statute of limitations for attempted murder?” he said. (It’s five years in Pennsylvania.) “I’m an innocent man and what did they go for? Death. They wanted to kill an innocent man.”
Staff writer Anna Orso contributed to this article.