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Justice on hold: A long wait for review of discredited officer's cases leaves prisoner waiting

Editor's note: Prosecutors often say justice is more than putting people behind bars. Freeing people who are unjustly convicted and imprisoned is another part of the job, but it's more difficult and can take even longer.

Editor's note: Prosecutors often say justice is more than putting people behind bars. Freeing people who are unjustly convicted and imprisoned is another part of the job, but it's more difficult and can take even longer.

For different reasons, the two units with similar names in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office charged with reviewing prisoners' cases have kept many people in prison. "Justice On Hold," a two-part series, examines the two units.

Today: the Post Conviction Relief Act Unit.

In July 2014, six Philadelphia police officers were indicted on corruption charges in connection with a six-year racketeering scheme during which they allegedly netted $500,000 in drugs, cash, and personal property. A federal jury acquitted them in May 2015, and two months later they returned to the Police Department through arbitration.

The allegations prompted 135 civil rights lawsuits and caused the reversal of nearly 450 drug convictions. In fact, since December 2012, when the six men were transferred to other duties and their testimony was no longer wanted by the District Attorney's Office, about 1,370 petitions have been filed seeking to vacate the drug convictions of people they arrested.

Most of the petitions were filed by the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which has partnered with a unit in the DA's Office charged with reviewing appeals under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), which provides an appeal method for someone who was wrongfully convicted or who believes that a sentence is unlawful.

In less than four years, the office's PCRA Unit, directed by Assistant District Attorney Robin Godfrey, and Assistant Public Defender Bradley Bridge, who files the petitions, have had 812 convictions vacated - a pace of more than 200 per year. According to Bridge, no other similar partnership in the nation has as strong a clearance record in police corruption cases.

But Godfrey and Bridge have so much work on their plate that the PCRA Unit has not yet even begun to review the tainted cases involving ex-Philadelphia Police Officer Christopher Hulmes, who was not among the six men indicted in 2014 and acquitted in 2015.

In June, Hulmes, 44, admitted to perjuring himself in testimony against drug defendants. The DA's Office agreed to let him enter a pretrial diversion program for first offenders after he promised he would not try to get his job back.

Hulmes was a cop for 19 years, 13 of them on the Narcotics Strike Force, and his plea called into question all his drug arrests.

Bridge announced that his office would review 529 Hulmes-related drug convictions to consider if any should be vacated. But Bridge acknowledges that it could be months more before he and Godfrey can begin looking at them.

Among those 529 cases is that of Feldon Busch.

A letter from prison

The frustration is palpable in Busch's Aug. 17 letter from Rockview prison, near State College.

"I am done screwing around with these people," he wrote to his Center City lawyer, James R. Lloyd III, threatening to take his case to the news media.

"What I'm presenting to the public's attention, facts that prove my innocence and show that I should have never been arrested, convicted and I sure as hell should not be in prison still to this day."

Busch, 34, is six years into a five-to-10-year sentence for dealing crack cocaine. He has done things to make his situation worse, but his mother says he did them because he's innocent.

Busch's claim may be valid. His conviction was based only on a murky identification by Hulmes. For him and his mother, each day until the case is heard is another day of injustice.

More than a year after Busch filed his handwritten petition asking to be freed, he's still waiting. Three hearing dates this year came and went, most recently Nov. 1. His next is Jan. 30.

"I'm so depressed," said his mother, Ruth Miller, 51, a relentless advocate for his immediate release. "I've been dealing with this for so long."

Bridge, a target of Miller's campaign, said he understands the frustration.

"The damage these police officers caused to the justice system is monumental," Bridge said.

Bridge said he and Godfrey had resolved roughly two-thirds of the drug cases under review, but must finish the rest before tackling the 529 Hulmes cases just added to their in-basket.

In an interview Wednesday, Godfrey, who heads a unit with 11 lawyers devoted solely to PCRA petitions, said Busch's case may be different from Hulmes' other cases, in part because he now is represented by his own court-appointed lawyer.

Godfrey said Busch's case now has been assigned to a prosecutor in her unit, who will file a response to Busch's PCRA petition Jan. 30. If her office agrees with the petition, Busch's freedom may not be far off. If her office disagrees, she said, the appeal would follow the normal process until a judge decides.

Regardless, Feldon Busch remains in limbo, thinking of all those prisoners already released.

11th and Silver

Neighbors were complaining about drug dealing in the 1000 block of West Silver Street. That's why Hulmes, in plainclothes, was watching from a roof overlooking the southeast corner at 11th Street at 6:15 p.m. May 25, 2007.

Down on the North Philadelphia block, court documents say, eight young African American men, all wearing white polo shirts and dark jeans, were hanging out and talking.

A man in a black shirt and blue Dickies pants caught Hulmes' attention as he approached one of the men in white shirts and asked for "four." The man in the white shirt walked to a gray Pontiac Bonneville, where a heavyset man in a white T-shirt and jeans shorts opened the trunk with a key from a lanyard around his neck.

The man in the white shirt got some packets from the trunk and took them to the buyer, who, the documents say, handed over cash and left with his merchandise. After a second buy, Hulmes radioed officers, who moved in to make arrests.

From his vantage point, Hulmes reported that the seller and the man with the lanyard entered a house around the corner in the 2700 block of North 11th Street.

About 7 p.m., according to Hulmes' report, he spotted the seller leaving 2711 N. 11th. The suspect walked to the Bonneville and sat on the trunk.

Police then arrested Busch and searched him. They found $162 in his right front pants pocket, but no drugs.

The man with the lanyard was never found, according to police reports.

A search of the Bonneville's trunk, police said, turned up 126 packets of crack cocaine and a loaded .40-caliber pistol.

Busch had had run-ins with the justice system dating to 2002, including a 2004 arrest on murder charges, of which he was acquitted. His only conviction was a 2002 drug case in which he got two years' probation.

Busch denied any involvement with the Silver Street drug dealing. Miller said her son had gone there to attend a prom party for the sister of the mother of his infant daughter.

At trial, Busch's attorney, Gary S. Server, argued that Hulmes' identification of Busch as the drug seller was based on nothing more than race, as no other details distinguished Busch from the other eight men on the corner.

Although Hulmes' identification was the only evidence against Busch, the testimony of a veteran drug cop was enough. On April 12, 2010, the jury convicted Busch on drug and conspiracy counts but acquitted him on three gun charges for the pistol.

On June 4, 2010, Judge Glynnis Hill sentenced Busch to five to 10 years in prison, followed by a year's probation.

Frustration growing, Busch then fired his lawyer and told Superior Court he wanted to handle his own appeal.

In February 2011, the Superior Court granted his request and gave him a schedule for filing briefs. He missed a deadline, and on Sept. 19, 2011, the court dismissed his appeal.

Some defendants might have accepted the verdict. But Busch maintained his innocence despite a compelling reason not to do so: State prison officials calculated that with credit for time served pending trial, Busch would be eligible for parole on Oct. 28, 2012.

In fact, court records show that on Nov. 28, 2011, Busch was transferred from prison to Gaudenzia Inc. Diagnostic and Rehabilitation Center in East Falls, which had a state contract to provide halfway house services to inmates nearing release.

On March 11, 2012, Gaudenzia officials granted Busch a "social pass" to leave the building from noon to 8 p.m. According to court records, Busch returned at 8 but tested positive for alcohol. Shortly after 10 p.m., video cameras caught Busch leaving Gaudenzia again. He remained on the lam for nearly three years, until his arrest on Dec. 15, 2014.

"He ran," said Busch's mother. "I think he felt he was innocent and shouldn't be there, and he wasn't going back."

Busch was lucky. The escape charge was dismissed last October after a Gaudenzia witness failed to show for court. But parole was now out, and Busch went back to Rockview to finish his term.

A "reprehensible" cop

Meanwhile, Hulmes was having his own legal problems.

In January 2012, Common Pleas Court Judge James Murray Lynn tossed the evidence against alleged drug dealer Arthur Rowland after Hulmes admitted lying to get a May 2010 search warrant for Rowland and lying again at Rowland's preliminary hearing.

Hulmes said he had tried to protect a confidential drug informant's identity, but the judge labeled him a liar and called his conduct "reprehensible."

Still, the District Attorney's Office used Hulmes as a witness for two more years, although the Police Department removed him from street duty and the city paid $150,000 to settle Rowland's civil rights lawsuit against him.

In 2014, Philadelphia City Paper published an article about Hulmes and the Rowland case. The Inquirer and Daily News followed, and in May 2015 Hulmes was arrested for perjury and obstruction of justice for falsifying paperwork for drug arrests.

Frustration, sympathy

News of Hulmes' arrest was slow to reach Rockview, but when Busch read about it he filed his own petition under the PCRA, citing "newly discovered evidence": Hulmes lied in drug arrests.

Like other Hulmes cases, Busch's was referred to the Defender Association of Philadelphia for review by Bridge and by prosecutor Godfrey.

The pace was not fast enough for Busch or his mother, and they pushed for a court-appointed lawyer. Lloyd took over Busch's appeal April 5, and three months later filed a PCRA petition in Common Pleas Court.

Today, mother and son are baffled by what they see as a lack of action. They're not alone.

"I'm sure Feldon Busch is frustrated. His frustration is real, and it's appropriate," said Bridge. "Everyone sympathizes."

Bridge said the problem is numbers: too many cases, too few lawyers and judges to review them.

Some people whose cases have been vacated had already finished their prison terms. A few had died. Others, like Busch, remain in prison waiting for their cases to come up.

"When we started down this road, reexamining all these cases, we didn't realize how monumental the task was for evaluating each case individually," Bridge said. "We didn't realize the numbers. It's staggering."

Name of unit: Post Conviction Relief Act Unit
When formed: Unknown. Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act was enacted in 1988, modifying the original Post Conviction Hearing Act enacted in 1966.
Director: Assistant District Attorney Robin Godfrey, chief.
Number of staffers: Eleven assistant district attorneys.
What is it supposed to do?: Review criminal conviction appeals filed under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act.
What has it done?: 812 convictions vacated.

215-854-2985 @joeslobo

Staff writer Mark Fazlollah contributed to this article.