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He died in prison from the coronavirus — three days before a breakthrough in his 30-year fight to clear his name

“When he was doing everything right, everyone seemed slow to respond, and when he was doing wrong, they acted quickly,” his son said. “That seemed to be the story of his life.”

Rudolph (left) and Rudolpho Sutton (right) pictured at Graterford prison in Montgomery County in 2015. Rudolph Sutton died April 8, making him the first prison inmate in Pennsylvania to succumb to complications from the coronavirus.
Rudolph (left) and Rudolpho Sutton (right) pictured at Graterford prison in Montgomery County in 2015. Rudolph Sutton died April 8, making him the first prison inmate in Pennsylvania to succumb to complications from the coronavirus.Read moreCourtesy of Rudolpho Sutton

On Saturday, Rudolph Sutton’s son said he got news he had waited 30 years to hear: Philadelphia prosecutors would review his father’s claim that he’d been wrongfully imprisoned for a 1988 murder in South Philadelphia.

But the son had news of his own for the defense lawyers on the other end of the line: Sutton, 67, had died three days earlier, the first state prison inmate to succumb to the coronavirus.

In an interview days after that call, Sutton’s son, Rudolpho, said life never did move quite quickly enough to work in his father’s favor.

It took decades for witnesses supporting his story to come forward. It had taken years for father and son to rebuild their relationship after Sutton’s life sentence took him away. And over the last month as Sutton’s chest pains and trouble breathing grew increasingly worse, it took medical examiners days after he died to pinpoint exactly why.

The impact of the virus on inmates has been growing exponentially across the country and the state. Seventeen have fallen ill at State Correctional Institution-Phoenix, the prison where Sutton was held. His death reinforces how quickly the disease can spread in cramped correctional facilities — and the fateful consequences of an outbreak behind bars.

“When he was doing everything right, everyone seemed slow to respond, and when he was doing wrong, they acted quickly,” Rudolpho Sutton said. “That seemed to be the story of his life.”

Rudolpho, now a 37-year-old real estate investor in Collingdale, was only 7 when a jury found his father and three other men guilty in the fatal stabbing of 33-year-old Dewey Mackey in a battle over drug turf in South Philadelphia.

Prosecutors contended that Sutton had rounded up the others to commit the crime after learning that Mackey was selling fake drugs in a house normally used by a Jamaican gang.

Though Sutton had always maintained his innocence, his family cut off contact between him and his eight children after the conviction. It wasn’t until Rudolpho was 21 that he had his next conversation with his father.

Despite their years of separation, father and son quickly forged a bond — first with weekly phone check-ins, then periodic visits. Eventually, they were talking every day and within years Rudolpho had become his father’s greatest advocate.

A Marine veteran, Sutton had become an avid reader in prison, studying philosophy, computer science, art, and poetry.

“My relationship with him became everything I could have hoped for,” Rudolpho said.

To help his father, Rudolpho hired a new lawyer and lobbied the Pennsylvania Innocence Project to take on his case.

The justice system moved slowly, but father and son deepened their bond by the day.

An abrupt decline

The first signs of trouble with Sutton’s health came in early March — days before Montgomery County would report its first coronavirus case.

Complaining of chest pains, Sutton was taken to Einstein Medical Center. He returned to the prison after 10 days.

But instead of getting better, Sutton’s condition only grew worse. Still, even after SCI Phoenix confirmed its first inmate coronavirus case, it did not immediately occur to Rudolpho that his father might have been infected.

“He had complications with diabetes, a possible heart attack, liver problems, and high blood pressure,” he said. “He had an inability to smell and taste food, [but] we didn’t know that was a symptom at the time.”

Sutton, though, was growing increasingly anxious about his declining health, especially as prison officials announced a lockdown in an effort to curb transmission.

“Every day he would tell me, ‘I don’t know how much longer this is going to last,'" Rudolpho said. "He would say ‘I’m trapped in here waiting to die.’”

In late March, father and son managed to connect over video chat after the prison suspended in-person visits.

With his dad on the screen — frail-looking, confined to a wheelchair, and with a mask hanging around his neck — Rudolpho shared with him for the first time relics of the life he had missed: A photo of Rudolpho’s 10-year-old daughter, the first Sutton had seen since her birth. The obituary for another of Sutton’s sons, who had also served in the armed forces but died in 2013 without ever mending his relationship with his father.

“You could hear the pride in [Sutton’s] voice,” Rudolpho said. “He finally got to see what his son looked like as an adult.”

Questions of justice

Meanwhile, the Innocence Project was wrapping up its five-year investigation of Sutton’s case, concluding that he and his codefendants were likely innocent. Attorneys reached out in early March to the unit in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office charged with reviewing past convictions to share their findings.

Among them: The central witness during the 1990 trial — a man who had also been charged and testified against the four others — had initially identified another man as the killer.

Also, a new witness had come forward, saying he had seen the killing as a 12-year-old and had tried to tell detectives back then that Sutton and his codefendants, whom he knew from the neighborhood, weren’t to blame.

Sutton and his son would talk a few times more in the following days. Each time, the elder man’s breathing grew noticeably worse, pausing and panting between words.

During one call April 6, Rudolph fell silent midsentence.

“I wondered if he died on the phone,” Rudolpho said. “He said he just needed to catch his breath.”

Rudolpho missed four calls from his father the next day. The next time he picked up a call from the prison, it was another voice on the other end of the line. His father was dead.

‘As long as you know who you are’

It took three days for medical examiners to confirm Sutton died from the coronavirus.

That same day, the Innocence Project called Rudolpho to say that it had submitted his father’s case to the District Attorney’s Office.

“We waited 30 years for this," Rudolpho said. "I was concerned he wasn’t going to make it out in time. That’s exactly what happened.”

Rudolpho has spent this week wrapping up the details of his father’s life — arranging for cremation and picking up his belongings from the prison in Montgomery County. But his mind still races with questions.

What might have happened if authorities had agreed to look into Sutton’s case sooner? And could prison officials have done anything more to improve his chances of survival?

A spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner declined to confirm or deny Wednesday that Sutton’s case was under review by the Conviction Integrity Unit, as did the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

But in a statement, Innocence Project Legal Director Nilam Sanghvi said: “Mr. Sutton should never have been incarcerated in the first place. ... His tragic death underscores the urgent need for the governor, the Department of Corrections, the legislature, and the courts to act quickly so that another factually innocent person does not risk death in prison due to COVID-19.“

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, citing privacy concerns, refused to discuss his care in prison. Rudolpho has retained a lawyer to look into the circumstances surrounding his father’s death.

In the meantime, he said he intends to live by advice his father gave him.

“He would always tell me, ‘It didn’t matter where you are, as long as you know who you are,’ ” Rudolpho said. “I’m focused now. I want to see him get the justice he never got while he was alive. I want to know what happened to him in that prison. And I want to see his conviction overturned.”