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North Philly man cleared of murder after 27 years in prison, the 10th exoneration under DA Larry Krasner

Wednesday morning, Willie Veasy’s long-running appeal reached its final step, as a city judge ruled that his conviction should be tossed out.

Willie Veasy, center, walks out of the Center for Criminal Justice as a free man after being in prison for 27 years next to his sister, Ketra Veasy, right, and mother Bonnie Marell on Wednesday.
Willie Veasy, center, walks out of the Center for Criminal Justice as a free man after being in prison for 27 years next to his sister, Ketra Veasy, right, and mother Bonnie Marell on Wednesday.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Willie Veasy walked out of the Center City courthouse just before 4 p.m. Wednesday, his sister on his left arm, his mother by his side.

He had new clothes. New shoes. And for the first time in 27 years, he no longer could be labeled a murderer.

A judge in the morning had vacated Veasy’s conviction in the 1992 shooting death of a North Philadelphia man. Prosecutors said they believed he was likely innocent and would not seek to retry him.

Exiting the courthouse, Veasy was soft-spoken but smiling as he took in his surroundings.

“I get to walk out of here the same way I walked in,” he said. “An innocent man.”

Veasy’s exoneration marked the 10th time since District Attorney Larry Krasner assumed office last year that prosecutors in his Conviction Integrity Unit have helped reverse a murder conviction.

“Innocent people shouldn’t be sitting in jail cells," Krasner said at a news conference hours after the order by Common Pleas Court Judge Leon W. Tucker. "It’s not that hard. The system should be just. It should be fair.”

Sworn in on a promise to transform the District Attorney’s Office, Krasner last year expanded his Conviction Integrity Unit and broadened its ambitions. He also appointed Patricia Cummings, formerly based in Texas, to lead the unit that examines inmates’ claims of wrongful convictions.

Cummings said that in 22 months, the unit has reviewed requests involving about 200 cases, most of which prosecutors have left intact. Still, Krasner said that 10 exonerations means that investigators determined 5% of those cases were marred by fundamental errors.

“We are reviewing these cases extremely carefully,” Krasner said. "We are not trying to play politics with these cases. We are not trying to be on any side. We are simply trying to complete our obligation, which is to seek justice.”

Veasy had insisted since his arrest that he did not kill John Lewis on a North Philadelphia street corner. His family has consistently supported him, and a podcast series chronicled his case.

As he announced his decision Wednesday, the judge told Veasy, “Patience is a virtue. Patience is a skill.” He then said he had agreed to toss out Veasy’s case, and prosecutors announced that they would drop all charges against him.

“You’re a free man,” Tucker said, as a crowd in the courtroom erupted into applause.

Veasy’s fortunes took a turn last week when Cummings filed a motion agreeing with Veasy’s lawyers — Jim Figorski, Nilam Sanghvi of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, and Marissa Bluestine, the project’s former executive director — that he should be freed.

Cummings said prosecutors now believed a confession he signed after being interrogated by homicide detectives was coerced. She also said the office was investigating whether two of the cops involved in the case, Martin Devlin and Paul Worrell, had committed misconduct in Veasy’s case or others.

Veasy’s alleged confession was a key piece of evidence in his 1993 conviction. He was charged a year earlier with fatally shooting Lewis on the 700 block of West Russell Street. A man named Efrain Gonzalez was also wounded. Authorities at the time said Veasy and several other men approached Gonzalez and Lewis on the corner and shot at them during a robbery attempt.

The evidence against Veasy at trial also included an eyewitness who said she saw Veasy participate in the killing, even though she admitted that her eyesight was poor.

Veasy’s trial lawyers presented witnesses and records to show that he had been working at a restaurant in Jenkintown at the time of the killing. Prosecutors sought to discredit the alibi as less than airtight.

One of Veasy’s former restaurant coworkers, Seth Schram, 54, attended Wednesday’s hearing at the Stout Center for Criminal Justice because, he said, the conviction had gnawed at him for years.

“There’s no way” Veasy wasn’t at work at the time of the killing, said Schram, who said he testified at the trial. “There’s no way.”

A jury deliberated for four days in 1993 before convicting Veasy of second-degree murder and related counts. He was automatically sentenced to life without parole. No one else was ever charged in the crime.

In his most recent appeal efforts, Veasy and his attorneys argued that his trial attorneys were unaware that Devlin and Worrell, who were partners, had a “pattern and practice” of coercing confessions out of other defendants arrested around the same time.

They pointed to several other convictions they dubbed questionable, including the now-overturned case against Anthony Wright, who said that Devlin assaulted him before forcing him to falsely confess to raping and killing a neighbor in Nicetown. Devlin has long denied that allegation.

Wright, originally convicted in 1993, was acquitted at a retrial in 2016 after DNA evidence pointed to a different man.

In her motion in Veasy’s case, Cummings said prosecutors agreed that the detectives likely coerced his confession, and that they no longer believed it. Cummings also said her office was reviewing other cases tied to the detectives.

Devlin and Worrell have retired from the Police Department. Neither has spoken publicly about the allegations related to Veasy.

Mark Gilson, the prosecutor at Veasy’s 1993 trial, said this week that Veasy’s alibi and the eyewitness’ vision problems were both considered by a judge and the jury that found him guilty. If prosecutors now believe that Veasy’s statement was coerced, he added, they should have a hearing before a judge and present evidence to prove it, rather than filing motions filled with new accusations.

“I think the process to, in essence, exonerate them ... should be similar to the public trials in which they were convicted,” said Gilson, who was among the 31 prosecutors Krasner fired during his first week in office.

Veasy’s family members and supporters packed the courtroom Wednesday. Several other former inmates who had been exonerated — including Wright — were among those in the crowd.

When Veasy left the courthouse, he said he looked forward to enjoying a meal surrounded by his family.

As for his future, he said, “I’ve got to take this one day at a time.”

Staff writer Julie Shaw contributed to this article.