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Judge explains why he denied North Philly man a new trial

A Philadelphia judge has issued his opinion explaining why he denied a North Philadelphia man a new trial in a highly publicized 2006 shooting in Strawberry Mansion in which a 6-year-old boy was paralyzed.

UPDATE, 1:30 p.m.: Pennsylvania Superior Court has ordered that Donte Rollins - who has been incarcerated since 2007 for a Strawberry Mansion shooting he said he did not commit - be released from prison by noon Wednesday.

The ruling overturns a decision by a Philadelphia judge, who had declined to grant Rollins a new trial.

Earlier story:

A Philadelphia judge has issued his opinion explaining why he denied a North Philadelphia man a new trial in a highly publicized 2006 shooting in Strawberry Mansion in which a 6-year-old boy was paralyzed.

Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford Means filed his opinion in Donte Rollins' case after the state Supreme Court on Friday directed him to submit his response by 10 a.m. Monday.

Means, in his Monday opinion, said he disagreed with the defense and prosecutors that Rollins' attorney at the time of his 2007 trial was ineffective.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office since April has agreed with Rollins' new defense team — attorney Michael Wiseman and lawyers with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project — that Rollins' trial attorney, Nino Tinari, was ineffective, that Rollins deserves a new trial and that he should be released from state prison to house arrest, his status before the 2007 trial.

Following Post Conviction Relief Act hearings earlier this year, Means denied Rollins a new trial, but did not outline his reasons. He told the defense lawyers they had 30 days to appeal 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, then left the bench.

The defense immediately filed its appeal on Nov. 14. But as of last week, Means had not yet filed his opinion.

A jury convicted Rollins of attempted murder and related offenses in the January 2006 shooting that paralyzed Jabar Wright, 6, from the neck down. Two other men, including a cousin of Rollins, were also convicted; a fourth defendant was acquitted.

Means in 2008 sentenced the three men to the maximum term: 62 1/2 to 125 years in state prison.

Jabar was in the back of a Pontiac Bonneville driven by his grandfather, Benjamin Wright, who was believed to have been the intended target of the shooting. Benjamin's then-wife, LaRhonda, who was also a passenger in the car, testified that she saw the four defendants, whom she had known for years, on the street corner just before shots rang out but did not see the actual shooting. 

Rollins has maintained that he was not at the scene of the shooting, which occurred at about 7:40 p.m. Jan. 28, 2006, at 29th and Westmont Streets in Strawberry Mansion. He contends he was out shopping at the Gallery mall and then at a South Street clothing store.

During the trial, Tinari showed jurors two surveillance videos, which the defense said showed Rollins in the Gallery at 6:18 p.m., then entering the Net store at 5th and South Streets at 8 p.m., 20 minutes after the shooting.

Through Post Conviction Relief Act petitions and hearings, Rollins' new defense team has brought to the court's attention additional evidence not shown at the trial that supported Rollins' alibi.

The evidence included statements from two friends who said they were shopping with Rollins that day; a statement from Rollins' mother, who said a third friend, who has since died, was also with Rollins; store receipts; cellphone records; and additional video footage.

One additional video clip allegedly showed Rollins leaving the Net store on South Street at 8:01 that night while speaking on a cellphone. His phone records indicated he received a call at that time.

Rollins' new attorneys contend that Tinari was ineffective by not interviewing the friends who said they were with Rollins and not presenting them as witnesses. The team has also contended that Tinari was ineffective by not investigating or presenting Rollins' cellphone records, store receipts and additional video footage.

During a February hearing, Tinari testified that he had not sought out the friends because he did not want to associate Rollins with "other young people" who could potentially make the defendant look bad.

He testified that "these young persons would give a different flavor to what we were doing through the course of the trial." He said he instead put three older women on the stand — Rollins' mother, his aunt and his mother's coworker – who "had no taint whatsoever."

In his opinion, Means wrote: "Based on Mr. Tinari's credible testimony before this Court, as well as the nature of the evidence originally presented against [Rollins] at trial, this Court found that Mr. Tinari was not ineffective for failure to investigate or present evidence."

He wrote that there was "overwhelming" evidence against Rollins, particularly LaRhonda Wright's identification. The judge contended that "it is unlikely" that additional testimony from other witnesses "would have changed the outcome of the case."

Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said Tuesday that "there are many glaring problems with the court's opinion. [Judge Means] repeatedly refers to the evidence against Mr. Rollins as 'overwhelming.' Nothing could be further from the truth. The only evidence at trial was a single eyewitness who saw the shooters at night several feet away from inside a car."