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Police shot a Philly man, then accused him of rape. He was exonerated after 19 years.

Joseph Tremaine Hicks, his lawyer said, “is going to be returned to something that he should have had ... when police encountered him ... the presumption of innocence.”

Termaine Hicks was released from SCI Phoenix on Wednesday after a wrongful incarceration of 19 years. His brothers Tone Hicks (left) and Tyron McClendon were there to greet him upon release.
Termaine Hicks was released from SCI Phoenix on Wednesday after a wrongful incarceration of 19 years. His brothers Tone Hicks (left) and Tyron McClendon were there to greet him upon release.Read moreJason E. Miczek / AP Images for The Innocence Project

It was before dawn on Nov. 27, 2001, and Termaine Joseph Hicks was at the wrong place at precisely the wrong time.

A woman had been pistol-whipped, dragged into an alleyway behind what was then St. Agnes Hospital in South Philadelphia, and raped — until the rapist was startled and fled the scene. Hicks heard her screams and rushed to help. But, seconds later, police officers arrived, took him for the rapist and shot him three times. Hicks survived, but was charged with the rape and sentenced to 12½ to 25 years in prison.

On Wednesday, after 19 years’ incarceration, Hicks, 45, was, at last, exonerated.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit agreed with Hicks and his lawyers, civil-rights attorney Susan Lin, and the Innocence Project, that the case was built on lies — possibly to cover up the unjustified shooting — that were contradicted by newly analyzed and compelling forensic evidence.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Tracy Brandeis-Roman vacated the conviction and offered a “bittersweet congratulations” to Hicks. She also extended an apology to the victim, whose name was withheld. “I am quite cognizant of the pain and the trauma of the victim, and then more pain in realizing that the wrong person was convicted,” Brandeis-Roman said. But, she added, “I do feel that, one case at a time, this system is being improved.”

At the time of his arrest, Hicks was an assistant manager at a South Philadelphia Popeye’s, raising a 5-year-old son. One of the bullets that entered the back of his arm lodged in his chest, collapsing a lung and requiring emergency surgery. He was arraigned while handcuffed to a hospital bed.

When he was sentenced to a maximum of 25 years, he told the judge: “An innocent man can’t sit in jail for long.” But at parole hearings, according to his lawyers, he was penalized for refusing to accept responsibility for the crime.

Now, said Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin, “He is going to be returned to something that he should have had on Nov. 27, when police encountered him, but he didn’t: the presumption of innocence.”

The new analysis outlined a case in which ample physical evidence available 19 years ago ought to have been enough to clear Hicks, who was known in court records as Jermaine Weeks.

Police Officer Martin Vinson said he shot Hicks in the chest or stomach as Hicks was pulling a gun from his pocket and lunging toward him. Hicks said the officer shot him in the back as he was reaching into his pocket for his phone to call 911. Both a forensic analysis of Hicks’ medical records and a review of his clothing — with bullet holes in the back, but none in the front — supported Hicks’ account, according to the city’s chief medical examiner.

Potkin said further evidence suggests police planted the gun they said they retrieved from his jacket pocket. She noted that the gun was smeared with blood, while the inside of Hicks’ coat pocket was clean.

“He has always maintained that he arrived at the scene when he attempted to help the victim,” she said. “He had his hand in his pocket because he was going to attempt to call the police when they arrived and shot him in the back. Police claimed that Mr. Hicks had a gun on him as part of their effort to cover up the circumstances of the shooting, but the weapon that was attributed to Mr. Hicks was registered to an active Philadelphia police officer.” The officer had not reported the gun missing.

Vinson and then-partner Sgt. Dennis Zungolo, who was with him at the scene, did not return phone and email messages Wednesday. A spokesperson for the Philadelphia Police Department had not provided a comment as of Wednesday afternoon. Vinson and Zungolo remain employed by the department. In 2016, the city paid $15,000 to settle a civil-rights lawsuit naming Vinson as one of two officers who dragged a taxi driver falsely accused of stealing a cell phone out of his cab, assaulted him, and told him if he did not like it, he could “go back to his country.”

The Police Advisory Commission’s executive director, Anthony Erace, said he was not familiar with Hicks’ case but would seek a review. “When you have a circumstance where at a minimum misconduct is discovered, and at a maximum potential criminal behavior is possible, it’s got to be examined.”

Hicks is the 16th person exonerated by the Conviction Integrity Unit since District Attorney Larry Krasner took office in 2018, and the first to be cleared of a rape.

CIU chief Patricia Cummings said her office would not retry the case, as it was tainted beyond repair. “False testimony was used, and I believe it’s impossible to say that did not contribute to the conviction.”

Before finalizing the decision to drop charges, she consulted with the victim’s family. “They have told me that the trauma of a retrial would be unbearable,” she said.

Going back to the morning of the crime, the victim was not able to identify her assailant. It was dark, and she suffered a head trauma during the assault. What she remembered was that after bright lights appeared, the assault stopped. She assumed those were police spotlights.

Surveillance tape from that night could reconcile her account with Hicks’. According to lawyers, it shows a man in a hoodie dragging the victim into the alley. The footage then shows a delivery van arriving, the flash of its headlights flooding the alley. Hicks’ lawyers argue that was the light that caused the attacker to flee before Hicks, and then police, arrived. That matched other witness statements that the attacker wore a gray hoodie, while Hicks’ coat had no hood. But the surveillance footage was not provided to Hicks or his lawyers until after his trial had concluded.

Hicks fought for years to get the forensic evidence in his case reviewed. Now, Potkin said, he’s focused on returning to society, building on his relationship with his son, now 24, and meeting a 2-year-old grandson for the first time. Hicks didn’t want his grandson to see him in prison.

He wrote and directed 12 plays in prison. Now, he hopes to produce work for the wider community, including a play about his own life and performances inspired by the “oldheads” who shared their wisdom over decades in prison.

On Wednesday afternoon, released from the State Correctional Institution Phoenix to his brother’s home just a few miles away in Montgomery County, Hicks said he was both overjoyed and overwhelmed.

“I feel 100 pounds lighter,” he said.

But, he added: “It’s unfortunate and sad that it took how long it took for me to clear my name. I’ve been saying the same thing since day one. ... The things that are promised to citizens should be delivered: a fair trial, and a fair look at what’s being presented.”