A federal court Thursday ordered the release of Louis Mickens-Thomas, 82, who has spent more than 40 years in prison. Mickens-Thomas was convicted of the murder of 12-year-old Edith Connor back in 1964 largely on the word of a crime lab worker who was later discredited.
The former shoe repair man has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
A team of lawyers, activists and scientists have believed for years that Thomas was wrongly convicted.
On Thursday, three federal judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that Mickens-Thomas can be released from Graterford prison as soon as his lawyers demonstrate that they can find suitable housing for the 82-year-old.
"We've already found that," said James McCloskey, who heads Centurion Ministries, a group devoted to helping exonerate the wrongly convicted and a longtime champion of Thomas.
McCloskey said Mickens-Thomas will live with a retired 62-year-old nephew and his wife in the town of Tobyhanna, in the Poconos.
Mickens-Thomas was never exonerated, but his conviction was commuted in 1995 by then-governor Robert Casey Sr. The state parole board refused to let him out until 2004, when a federal court ordered his release.
Mickens-Thomas went back to prison a year and a half later for a parole violation. He allegedly made hostile comments to a counselor who was leading a course for sex offenders that Mickens-Thomas was required to take even though he maintains he had nothing to do with the crime for which he was convicted.
The victim, Edith Connor, had lived in the same West Philadelphia neighborhood as Thomas, near 40th and Girard. Her body was found in an alley about 50 feet from the back of Mickens-Thomas' apartment. The medical examiner determined that she'd been raped and strangled.
The initial conviction of Mickens-Thomas was based entirely on "trace" evidence, including microscopic fibers and paint chips found on Connor's body that crime lab workers said resembled materials from Thomas' apartment and adjacent shoe repair shop.
The crime lab worker who testified against him, Agnes Mallatratt, was later exposed as a junior high school dropout who had repeatedly committed perjury by inventing scientific credentials. In a second trial in 1969, crime lab director Edward Burke, said he supervised all of Mallatratt's work, and the conviction was upheld.
Still, court transcripts from the two trials reveal a number of inconsistencies. In the first trial, Mallatratt testified that she worked alone, while in the second trial, Burke said he supervised her at nearly every step.
Both Burke and Mallatratt have since died.
Samples taken from the body might have contained DNA that would give much stronger evidence - or exonerate Mickens-Thomas - but the technology to analyze DNA didn't exist at the time.
McCloskey tried to get the samples tested in the 1990s but discovered they had been destroyed just three weeks earlier.
In an interview in Graterford last October, Mickens-Thomas said he enjoys reading and likes to discuss books with other inmates. He's active in the Christian Science Ministry and has held a number of jobs including making shoes, cutting hair and caring for pigs on a prison farm.
Before his conviction at age 36, Mickens-Thomas had been married and divorced, and had several children. He now has a number of grandchildren. He said he still hoped to be released so he could reconnect with his family.