Skip to content
Our Archives
Link copied to clipboard

Mystery lingers as to why judge rejected agreement by DA and defense for new trial for Donte Rollins

In a rare move, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office in April had agreed with the defense that a man convicted of attempted murder in a 2006 shooting that left a 6-year-old boy paralyzed should get a new trial.

But Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford Means on Nov. 14 denied Donte Rollins, 29, a new trial. He did not give his reasons why.

Means said the defense had 30 days to appeal his decision to the state Superior Court. "At that time, once I receive an appeal, I will file my opinion to the Superior Court," he said in court.

"That concludes this matter," Means then said, refusing to outline his reasons for his decision as one of Rollins' defense attorneys, Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, asked for an explanation. "Facts, conclusions  of law?" she asked.

Instead, Means walked out of the courtroom.

That same day, Rollins' defense team — attorney Michael Wiseman and lawyers with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project — appealed the judge's decision to the state Superior Court. 

A month has passed. Means has yet to file his opinion on the matter. He did not return a request on Tuesday or early Wednesday for an interview on his decision.

What is puzzling about this case is that the DA's Office since April has agreed again and again with Rollins' defense team that Rollins should get a new trial and that he should be released from state prison and placed on house arrest — his status before the 2007 trial in the shooting.

Prosecutors agreed that Rollins' trial attorney had been ineffective in not presenting all the evidence available to support Rollins' alibi defense — that he was not at the scene of the shooting in Strawberry Mansion.

"King's Bench power" allows the state's top court to consider a case when there is a need to address an issue of "immediate public importance." This power, based on English common law, is used only on rare occasions.

In its petition, the defense asks the state Supreme Court to reverse Means' decision. "Mr. Rollins petitions for extraordinary relief because of the vitally important matters at stake; every day that passes means the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania continues to imprison a man who the parties — the defense and the prosecution — agree should have his conviction vacated and should be immediately released from prison," the petition says.

The next day, Burns, of the DA's Appeals Unit, again wrote a letter, this time to the state Supreme Court, agreeing with Rollins' defense team that Rollins deserves a new trial.

In a blog post last Saturday on the Pennsylvania Innocence Project's website, Bluestine wrote "about the extraordinarily frustrating situation" it has been for Rollins to remain in state prison over the past several months despite the agreement with the DA's Office.

This is the case a new jury would be asked to decide.

It was about 7:42 p.m. Jan. 28, 2006, when shots rang out at the corner of 29th and Westmont Streets. Jabar Wright, 6, sitting in the back of a Pontiac Bonneville, was shot in the back of his head. The shooting paralyzed him from his neck down. His grandfather, Benjamin Wright, who was driving the car and who was believed to have been the intended target, rushed to Temple University Hospital.

Benjamin's then-wife, LaRhonda, another passenger in the car, would tell police she recognized the men on the corner as men she knew for years, including Rollins.

Rollins, then 18, and three other men were arrested. Rollins was met by police later that night as he walked up to his house on the 2300 block of Opal Street in North Philadelphia, where he lived with his mother.

During the 2007 trial, a jury convicted Rollins, then 20; his cousin Raheem Collins, 26; and a third man, Chris Powell, 19, of attempted murder and related offenses. A fourth man, Kevin Norris, 28, was acquitted.

Key to the men's convictions was the identifications by LaRhonda Wright that she saw the defendants on the corner just before shots were fired at the car.

Means in 2008 sentenced the three men to the maximum sentences allowable: 62 ½ to 125 years in state prison.

Rollins has maintained he was not at the shooting scene, but at the Gallery mall in Center City, and then on South Street at the time of the shooting.

At the trial, Rollins' then-defense attorney, Nino Tinari, had shown the jury two surveillance videos, contending Rollins was in the Net clothing store at the Gallery at 6:18 p.m. that day, then was seen entering the Net store on South Street near Fifth at 8 p.m. — 20 minutes after the shooting.

During Post Conviction Relief Act hearings earlier this year, Rollins' new attorneys presented further evidence that bolsters Rollins' alibi: two friends who gave signed statements and testified that they were out shopping with Rollins that day; a signed statement by Rollins' mother, Ava, saying a third friend, who has since died, was also with her son; store receipts; and further video footage allegedly showing Rollins leaving the Net store on South Street at 8:01 p.m. while speaking on a cellphone; and cellphone records showing he received a call at that time.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project had also obtained 6ABC TV news footage showing Rollins after he was arrested later that night outside his home. Rollins was sitting in a police car. He was wearing a gray top and something around his neck. His clothing, the defense says, matched what he was wearing while out shopping that day.

Bluestine on Wednesday said in an email: "In over 20 years of practicing law, I have never seen such a gross abuse of discretion by a judge."

The District Attorney's Office and the defense, who are usually adversaries, "agree his [Rollins'] trial was so infected we can have no confidence in the outcome or in the finding of guilt," she said. "The judge's intransigence has resulted in the continued incarceration of a man who should have been released ... This is a travesty for Donte and his family as well as the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania who must pay for his wrongful incarceration day by day."