For 24 years, Shaurn Thomas insisted he couldn’t have committed the North Philadelphia murder for which he had been convicted because he was in custody the day of the killing for an unrelated attempted motorcycle theft.
For 24 years, it seemed no one in the court system believed him.
But in 2017, his conviction was overturned on appeal, and the District Attorney’s Office agreed that the case should be tossed out.
And a lawsuit filed by Thomas against the city afterward led to a surprising discovery: Decades-old documents in his original case file suggested for the first time that the detectives who arrested him were aware of his potential alibi, but did virtually nothing to find out if it was true.
Instead, Thomas’ lawsuit said, the cops charged Thomas based on statements made by two alleged coconspirators, who both had stories that frequently shifted, and who have since recanted their testimony.
One of the men claimed in a sworn statement for the lawsuit that the detectives, Martin Devlin and Paul Worrell, fed him a false story and assaulted him until he repeated it.
And the judge overseeing Thomas’ suit wrote in an opinion that Devlin and Worrell had omitted from arrest papers a host of information damaging to their case, including the fact that days after the killing — and months before Thomas was charged — they had interrogated three other men who were pulled over in a car that resembled the one used in the murder.
Last week, instead of seeking to litigate such claims at a trial, the city agreed to pay Thomas $4.15 million to settle the case, one of the largest payouts for a wrongful conviction in city history.
It was one of three taxpayer-funded awards handed out in 2019 for an overturned conviction, according to the city’s Law Department. In June, a man cleared of rape in 2017 received a $3 million payment, and the city agreed in October to pay $900,000 to a man whose attempted-murder case was overturned in 2016.
Thomas, in an interview Thursday, called the award “life-changing,” saying that he was glad the process was over and that it was surreal to relive portions of a case that had put him behind bars for most of his adult life.
“I’m just, like, amazed that stuff like this happened, and that it happened to me,” Thomas, 45, said. “I’m not bitter toward nobody. I don’t hate nobody. This is just life, and this is the hand I was dealt.”
Thomas had been convicted of second-degree murder for participating in the 1990 robbery and fatal shooting of 78-year-old Domingo Martinez. The verdict earned him an automatic life sentence.
Three other men also were convicted, including Thomas’ brother, Mustafa, the accused gunman. Prosecutors dropped plans to retry his case last year, although he remains imprisoned for another murder.
The two other coconspirators, brothers William and John Stallworth, pleaded guilty and received shorter sentences. They have since recanted their testimony.
Shaurn Thomas claimed in his lawsuit that his conviction was secured due to misconduct by Devlin and Worrell, both of whom he accuses of knowingly pushing a bogus case, and violating the law by failing to turn over evidence that might help his defense.
The detectives, both of whom retired years ago, have come under scrutiny for similar allegations in recent months, an effort driven in part by District Attorney Larry Krasner.
In October, Krasner’s office declined to pursue further prosecution after a judge vacated another conviction tied to Devlin and Worrell, and said in court documents that it was investigating an unknown number of others for potential wrongdoing.
Devlin also was involved in the investigation of Anthony Wright, a North Philadelphia man acquitted of rape and murder at a 2016 retrial after newly discovered DNA evidence implicated a different suspect. Defense attorneys in other cases involving Devlin and Worrell have alleged that Wright’s case is a “Rosetta stone” in understanding how detectives in the early 1990s used coercive tactics to secure faulty convictions.
Wright settled his case against the city in 2018 for nearly $10 million, the largest payout in Philadelphia for a wrongful conviction.
City officials declined to comment on the allegations in Thomas’ lawsuit. In a statement, city solicitor Marcel Pratt said: “This resolution avoids further, protracted litigation and provides financial support to Mr. Thomas as he and his family try their best to move forward.”
Mayor Jim Kenney, meanwhile, said in a statement: “I hope this resolution can assist Mr. Thomas and his family after the difficulties they experienced during his 24 years of incarceration.”
One of Thomas’ lawyers, Jim Figorski, said he was certain Devlin and Worrell had a lengthy record of investigations, but “whether they involve wrongdoing, I don’t know.”
“Maybe somebody should take a look and see,” he added.
Figorski said that he was glad to help resolve the case and that he has been consistently humbled by Thomas’ regularly optimistic demeanor.
“He’s the most positive person I know,” Figorski said.