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Philly DA’s Office reviewing murder convictions after claims of coerced confessions by now-retired detectives

Prosecutors are seeking to determine if the former detectives coerced suspects into making false confessions by using threats, hollow promises, or physical or psychological abuse.

Patricia Cummings, who is the head of the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit, talks to a reporter outside the Criminal Justice Center on Tuesday.
Patricia Cummings, who is the head of the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit, talks to a reporter outside the Criminal Justice Center on Tuesday.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has launched a review of cases tied to two former city detectives accused of using threats, hollow promises, or physical or psychological abuse to coerce suspects into confessing to murders they didn’t commit, prosecutors disclosed Tuesday.

In newly filed court documents, prosecutors say they believe the now-retired detectives — Martin Devlin and Paul Worrell — relied on such ”coercive tactics” to get false confessions or statements in at least two murder cases in the 1990s, one of which has been overturned.

The revelations emerged in a motion the District Attorney’s Office filed recommending the release and exoneration of Willie Veasy, who has maintained his innocence since being found guilty of a North Philadelphia murder in 1993. His conviction stemmed in part from an alleged confession he gave to cops, including Devlin and Worrell.

Patricia Cummings, supervisor of the district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, wrote that prosecutors now believe that Veasy’s statement was coerced, and that Veasy — who has been imprisoned for 27 years — is “likely innocent” of fatally shooting John Lewis on a street corner in 1992.

In their motion, prosecutors said they were “reviewing other pending cases” connected to the detectives, though they declined to say how many. As part of their review, Cummings wrote, prosecutors also were seeking to determine whether Devlin or Worrell had ever lied on the stand.

Neither Devlin nor Worrell responded to a request for comment Tuesday.

The two worked as partners in Philadelphia’s Homicide Unit in the 1990s. It was not clear how many cases they investigated together.

In a sworn deposition in 2017, Devlin said he had spent almost 50 years as an officer, in Philadelphia and later in New Jersey, and had conducted interrogations in hundreds of cases.

Veasy’s case will remain in limbo until at least next week, as Common Pleas Court Judge Leon W. Tucker said he needed more time to review the documents in the case.

If Tucker vacates the conviction, it would mark the 10th reversal of a Philadelphia murder verdict since District Attorney Larry Krasner took office last year. In many of the cases, current prosecutors have conceded that their predecessors failed to turn over evidence that might have helped prove the defendants’ innocence.

Krasner was sworn into office on a pledge to curb mass incarceration and has long been vocal about what he dubbed a “win-at-any-cost culture” by city prosecutors over the years. After he assumed office, he hired Cummings, expanded the Conviction Integrity Unit, and broadened its ambitions.

An investigation into the homicide detectives and their conduct would be unusual in Philadelphia. Two of the murder cases reversed under Krasner involved allegations of wrongdoing by ex-Detective Philip Nordo, who is awaiting trial after pleading not guilty to charges of grooming and sexually assaulting male witnesses during investigations.

Scandals involving systemic misconduct by homicide investigators in Chicago and Brooklyn have led to scores of overturned cases and legal settlements costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

During his trial, Veasy presented records and witnesses saying he had been working at a restaurant in Jenkintown at the time of the murder.

Veasy’s defense attorneys — Jim Figorski and Nilam Sangvhi of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and Marissa Bluestine, the project’s former executive director — have argued during their appeal that Devlin and Worrell had a “pattern and practice” of eliciting false confessions, but that it was unknown to Veasy’s trial attorneys in 1993.

They pointed to several examples to buttress their claims, including the case against Anthony Wright, who was convicted that year of raping and murdering a Nicetown neighbor in part because he gave an alleged confession to detectives including Devlin.

Wright was exonerated in 2016 after DNA evidence discovered after the trial implicated a different suspect. He had consistently maintained he was physically coerced into signing the confession, accusations the police in the case, including Devlin, have denied.

Wright later sued the city, and thousands of pages of records were turned over to his defense lawyers during litigation. Some of those documents have proven useful to lawyers for other men who were convicted for murder around the same time.

Veasy’s lawyers called Wright’s case “the key, the Rosetta Stone, to interpreting Mr. Veasy’s false confession," in part because it helped unearth documents that they say helped Veasy’s appeal.

Wright was in court to support Veasy on Tuesday, along with several other men whose murder convictions have been vacated in recent years.

Veasy’s relatives, including his mother and sister, were also in the courtroom gallery, as was a coworker of Veasy’s from the Jenkintown restaurant where he once worked.

The crime in question was a shooting on the 700 block of West Russell Street on Jan. 24, 1992. A man named Efrain Gonzalez was wounded; Lewis later died from his injuries.

According to Veasy’s latest appeal filing, police arrested him nearly six months after the crime when a witness, Denise Mitchell, picked him from a photo array, saying she knew him as “Pee Wee” and saw him participate in the killing.

Mitchell told police she watched the episode through her second-floor bedroom window, records show. She said that Veasy and another man, whom she knew as “Guy,” were in a car with other people when Veasy and Guy got out and approached Gonzalez before shots were fired.

After Veasy was taken into the Homicide Unit, his appeal filing says, he was interrogated by detectives, including Worrell and Devlin, and ultimately signed a confession.

Veasy’s lawyers have argued that the document was signed under duress and contained assertions inconsistent with other witness testimony, including the type of gun used in the murder, the number of people at the scene, and the color of a car spotted at the scene.

Krasner’s office last month hired an investigator to interview Veasy and assess his claims of being coerced. They also said they sought to interview the detectives and a number of witnesses related to the case.

In the motion filed Tuesday, prosecutors accused Devlin of slapping Veasy in the face and attempting to kick him in the groin during the interrogation 27 years ago. They also contend Veasy was sleep-deprived when being questioned, and that detectives ultimately handed him a statement and said if he signed “he would be ‘out of here.’” Veasy signed it thinking he could go home, prosecutors wrote.

“If the jury had the newly discovered evidence regarding the homicide detectives, their pattern and practice of coercing confessions/statements, and the manner in which they interrogated Veasy, it is likely they would not have credited the statement Veasy signed, and the outcome of the trial would have been different,” the motion said.

Veasy’s sister, Ketra, said Tuesday that she was relieved prosecutors had agreed to seek relief for her brother, whom she has said was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to a life term.

If the judge agrees, the 54-year-old could be released from prison as soon as next week.