EUGENE GILYARD and Lance Felder, two men serving life prison sentences without parole for a 1995 murder, cried with their families and attorneys yesterday after a judge ruled they were convicted on weak evidence and must be granted a new trial in light of recently discovered evidence.
Common Pleas Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi told the packed courtroom: "This is the type and quality of evidence that needs to be put before a jury."
Over protests from prosecutors from the District Attorney's Office, DeFino-Nastasi said the defendants were entitled to a new trial because the evidence used to convict them in 1998 was questionable. She said that was because it was largely based on testimony from eyewitnesses who gave conflicting versions of the crime, and because new, compelling evidence that someone else committed the crime had been presented by the defendants' attorneys.
The District Attorney's Office has 30 days to appeal the ruling.
"It is too early to comment on what our next course of action will be," said Tasha Jamerson, the office's spokeswoman.
"I'm overwhelmed. I wasn't sure this day would come, but I always knew the truth was going to set him free," said Gilyard's mother, Christine Gilyard Ellison, 51.
"I can't stop shaking, I can't stop crying. I'm about to cry now because I've been waiting for this for 15 years," said Felder's sister Sandra, 30.
Gilyard and Felder, both 34, were high-school dropouts dealing drugs in North Philly when neighborhood businessman Thomas Keal, 52, was shot dead near his seafood store on 17th Street near Erie Avenue on the early morning of Aug. 31, 1995.
They were convicted of his murder and given life sentences largely based on testimony from Keal's daughter, Tonya Keal, who witnessed the killing from her obstructed second-floor-bedroom window. But she did not pick them out of a police photo lineup until two years after the slaying, and now supports giving them new trials.
Also yesterday, the judge reaffirmed a previous ruling that testimony from the man who now claims to have helped kill Keal is admissible evidence.
Gilyard's attorneys from the nonprofit Pennsylvania Innocence Project argued that Ricky "Rolex" Welborn, 35, confessed to them in 2011 to helping a man known as "Tizz" murder Keal during a botched armed robbery.
Welborn is serving a life sentence for an unrelated murder.
"We believe 100 percent . . . that we have two innocent men," said Felder's attorney, Jules Epstein, a professor at Widener University School of Law.