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A Philly exoneree works to free other wrongly convicted people. First up: His codefendant.

Exonerees Terrance Lewis and Theophalis Wilson started nonprofits to help other wrongly convicted people. Lewis' co-defendant, Jehmar Gladden, was the first person released with their help.

(Left to Right) Maraj Martins, front left, Alir Gladden, Zayn Curley, Jehmar Gladden, Minnah Gladden, and Mekhi Gladden.
(Left to Right) Maraj Martins, front left, Alir Gladden, Zayn Curley, Jehmar Gladden, Minnah Gladden, and Mekhi Gladden.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

It took Terrance Lewis 21 years to convince a Philadelphia judge that he was innocent of a 1996 robbery and murder. He was released in 2019.

It only took Lewis and his allies two more years to prove to another judge that his codefendant, Jehmar Gladden, had also been subjected to a wrongful conviction.

On Tuesday, Gladden’s conviction and life sentence were vacated. He pleaded no contest to third-degree murder in return for a 10-to-20-year sentence that enabled him to be released from prison immediately.

Released from county prison Tuesday evening, Gladden hoisted his 19-month-old grandson, Zayn — whose mother, Maraj Martins, was the exact same age when Gladden was last free. Because the pandemic cut off visits, it was his first time meeting his grandson.

“It’s been a long time,” said Gladden, 43. “This is just the beginning. There’s a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of people just like me fighting for a second chance.”

Then, he embraced Lewis, whom he described as his best friend of 35 years.

“This is a new start,” said Lewis, 43. “My friend don’t have to no longer rot away in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.”

It’s also a big first win for Lewis’ start-up nonprofit, the Terrance Lewis Liberation Foundation. That organization is running one of several new initiatives in Philadelphia to provide lifelines to wrongly convicted people. He said the need has only grown as the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit has moved to either exonerate or resentence dozens who were innocent or whose convictions were rife with misconduct — while acknowledging a backlog of about 1,400 cases it has yet to review.

» READ MORE: Life after 'life': After 21 years, an exoneree's return home is nothing like he expected

Another exoneree-led organization, called Before It’s Too Late, was created by Theophalis “Binky Bilal” Wilson, who worked collaboratively with the nonprofit law firm Phillips Black to clear his name of a 1989 triple murder.

Both Lewis’ and Wilson’s groups are developing programs they hope will reduce crime and incarceration — Wilson by working with children in schools, and Lewis by running a reentry support program called Project Hope that will be piloted at the State Correctional Institution Coal Township starting in September.

In addition, both are focused on addressing the wrongful convictions of innocent men they left behind in prison, by helping research their cases and connect them with legal representation.

Wilson said that after decades as a jailhouse lawyer, he is intimately familiar with many of the cases. He’s already found attorneys for several men with whom he was incarcerated — people whose cases might not have the type of evidence, such as DNA, to satisfy the criteria of legal organizations focused on innocence cases.

» READ MORE: Losing Conviction: Philly’s exonerations raise questions about decades of homicide investigations

Wilson and Lewis know the need firsthand: They each wrote to such nonprofits for years without success.

“We’re just trying to help guys who are wrongfully convicted regain their freedom before they die in jail,” Wilson said.

Gladden’s resentencing was both proof-of-concept and a personal life goal for Lewis, Gladden’s best friend since childhood.

The association between the two friends may have contributed to Lewis’ wrongful conviction for second-degree murder, a crime in which a third man, Jimel Lawson, pulled the trigger and killed Bernard Hulon Howard. According to multiple witnesses, Lewis was not even there. Gladden acknowledges being present — but has long insisted he merely walked in on the robbery and narrowly avoided becoming a victim himself.

Gladden testified to that at an evidentiary hearing in 2010. A federal judge found him credible and concluded Lewis appeared to be innocent — but said legal procedural barriers prevented his release. Even so, Gladden’s testimony helped lead to Lewis’ exoneration a decade later.

Afterward, Lewis vowed not to leave his friend behind.

“Morally speaking, I couldn’t,” he said.

Lewis said he was inspired by David Laigaie, a lawyer who was appointed to represent him at the 2010 hearing in federal court and then stayed on pro bono for a decade.

“Mr. Laigaie did it for me, and I took that model and concept and did it for Jehmar. We’re dismantling mass incarceration brick by brick,” he said.

Lewis collaborated with a group of University of Pennsylvania students to launch the first phase of that effort: a “student justice initiative” dedicated to researching and investigating cases. They got a major boost earlier this year when core organizers Carson Eckhard, Natalia Rommen, and Sarah Simon, then graduating seniors, won Penn’s President’s Engagement Prize, a $100,000 grant that also comes with a $50,000 stipend for each student to continue their reentry support work.

“It doesn’t take millions of dollars to save a life,” Lewis said. “It takes time, energy, and a group of college students.”

Now, he’s seeking to grow the network of pro bono lawyers in Philadelphia to keep up with an influx of submissions. The foundation provides support and covers costs, like hiring investigators.

In Gladden’s case, their contribution was part advocacy, part administrative work: organizing the case file, indexing transcripts and evidence.

Troy Crichton, who agreed to step in as Gladden’s lawyer, said that was “instrumental” in easing the burden of taking on this unpaid work on top of his busy private practice.

In a filing, Crichton contended that the trial prosecutor illegally hid several pieces of evidence. Those included documents showing that the sole eyewitness, who acknowledged in her testimony that she was on crack at the time of the murder, was not sober as she testified and was on probation for a drug arrest.

Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wellbrock said the CIU had not uncovered sufficient evidence to exonerate Gladden, but acknowledged there were serious questions about the case. “The witness testified that one of the men fired a shotgun into the ceiling. There was no hole in the ceiling,” he said. “By the time the trial came around, she had a different story based on the coaching of the detectives.”

» READ MORE: Jailhouse informants say Philly detectives traded 'sex for lies' in murder cases

Wellbrock added that Howard’s family did not oppose his release.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Scott DiClaudio accepted findings by the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit that prosecutors had improperly, if possibly “inadvertently,” failed to disclose pivotal information.

“Now you start wondering if the evidence is sufficient and reliable. ... You have reasonable doubt,” he said.

In an interview, Wellbrock said he’d met Gladden two years earlier while investigating Lewis’ case. “He never stopped to ask, ‘What about me?’ I’m just glad that he’s able to finally return to his family.”