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Could one Philly man’s exoneration prompt Larry Krasner to examine other decades-old murders?

Two Philadelphia men have been fighting for decades to prove they were wrongfully convicted of murder. The release of documents in an unrelated civil case may have helped their cause.

Philadelphia’s new conviction review chief Patricia Cummings at the DA’s office. Philadelphia, February 12th, 2018. JAMES BLOCKER / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia’s new conviction review chief Patricia Cummings at the DA’s office. Philadelphia, February 12th, 2018. JAMES BLOCKER / Staff PhotographerRead moreJames Blocker

Anthony Wright, convicted in 1993 of raping and murdering an elderly woman in Nicetown, was freed from prison two years ago when new DNA evidence unraveled the prosecution's original theory of the crime.

Now at least two other Philadelphia men serving life sentences for separate and unrelated murders may have a new shot at freedom thanks to the fallout.

Attorneys for Andrew Swainson and Willie Veasy — each convicted more than two decades ago — have seized upon 10,000 pages of police documents turned over in a civil lawsuit Wright filed against the city and the homicide detectives who investigated him.

The lawyers contend the records show that the same detectives involved in Wright's case also failed to disclose evidence that may have proved Swainson's and Veasy's innocence in the crimes.

At a minimum, the attorneys have argued in newly filed appeals, their clients had unfair trials and deserve to face a jury again — without the deck improperly stacked against them, they say.

But the attorneys also contend that the documents suggest an investigation should be launched into whether the detectives — who investigated murders during the crack wars of the 1990s — routinely placed their thumbs on the scales while locking people up during one of Philadelphia's most violent eras.

"I would have some strong hesitation about any conviction that that group of detectives had secured," said Marissa Bluestine, attorney for Swainson and Veasy and executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

Wright accuses 11 now-retired detectives of abuses, and it remains unclear how many cases ultimately could be called into question should new District Attorney Larry Krasner launch a wider investigation into their work.

Krasner, in an interview last week, declined to say whether he planned to pursue such a probe. But he praised Chicago's top prosecutor, Kimberly M. Foxx, for exonerating 15 inmates last year after questions surfaced about the conduct of police officers there who had helped convict them.

The exonerations "took place because that office was courageous enough and willing to look at people who'd been in jail for [decades] when substantial questions emerged," Krasner said.

This month he named Patricia Cummings, a lawyer from Texas, to lead a unit dedicated to reviewing problematic old cases. And he has pledged to give the unit — which was criticized for a perceived lack of production under former District Attorney Seth Williams — more staff members and seek additional funding from City Council.

Cummings, who led a similar unit in Dallas, said identifying and examining patterns of potential misconduct was "absolutely" the approach she hoped to take in Philadelphia.

"This work is all about trying to figure out: 'How do we correct the mistakes of the past?' " she said. "And we do that by learning what they are and how likely they were to have reoccurred time and time again."

READ: An accomplice will die in prison while the killer goes free: The strange justice of Pennsylvania's felony-murder law

Bluestine said the unit already has agreed to review Veasy's case, which has been featured on the podcast series Undisclosed.

It was not clear whether prosecutors also would review the investigation of Swainson, but they could face pressure to make such a decision because of the documents released in Wright's case — documents they never intended to fall into the hands of lawyers for other convicted men.

Accidental sharing

Attorneys for the city began sharing material on other homicides with Wright's lawyers in March 2017 as part of the discovery process in his civil suit. Wright had alleged that his wrongful conviction stemmed from the city's "deliberate indifference" toward homicide detectives so desperate — or willing — to manage heavy caseloads that they routinely beat false confessions out of suspects, imprisoned witnesses for days to coerce their statements, and played fast and loose with the law themselves.

In his own case, Wright said officers — including former Detectives Martin Devlin and Manuel Santiago — held him for hours while trying to force a confession out of him, then, when he refused, typed one up for him to sign anyway. After Wright declined to sign it, his lawsuit states, Devlin threatened to "rip [Wright's] eyes out" — a claim Devlin and Santiago have denied. But Wright eventually relented and signed the document on a false promise that he would be allowed to go home, his lawsuit says.

To prove that similar tactics were applied outside of Wright's case, his lawyers requested the files on eight other homicide investigations handled by Devlin and the other detectives who investigated him. The city, in handing those files over, failed to mark them confidential, which would have barred Wright's lawyers from giving others access to them.

The District Attorney's Office, realizing the mistake, later tried to claw those documents back — but the damage had been done. By that time, Wright's team already had shared them with lawyers for the other convicted men.

In the cases of Veasy and Swainson, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project discovered that the files contained information that not only might help Wright's civil case, but also could help their own clients' chances on appeal.

Two new appeals

In Swainson's case, the Innocence Project claims the files obtained from Wright's lawyers show that police and prosecutors withheld key evidence before Swainson's 1989 trial, in which he was convicted of killing Stanley Opher in a drug-related shooting in West Philadelphia. The undisclosed materials, according to defense filings, included the identity of two other potential suspects; additional witnesses who contradicted the prosecutors' theory of the crime; and the fact that one witness failed a polygraph test when asked to identify Swainson.

The information, Bluestine said, furthers the argument that Swainson could not have formed a proper defense because so much of the investigation — led by Santiago — was hidden from him.

"Can it be honestly said that Mr. Swainson got a fair trial?" Bluestine asked. "We think clearly no."

Swainson, now 52, has maintained his innocence since his arrest, and defense attorneys previously claimed that the case's two key witnesses recanted their testimony. One of them, Paul Presley, said that Santiago, when asking Presley to identify the shooter, only showed him photos of one person: Swainson.

Presley also admitted giving statements to Santiago under a promise that drug-related counts against him would be dropped, according to defense filings. Swainson's trial attorneys were unaware of the arrangement, the filings claim, because Presley had been charged under a different name.

Veasy, too, repeatedly has said he is innocent.

Convicted in 1993 for a double shooting in North Philadelphia — which left one man, John Lewis, dead — Veasy signed a confession, but later said that Devlin wrote it and assaulted him until he agreed to put his name on it, according to defense filings.

Trial prosecutors, seeking a first-degree conviction and a death sentence, presented the confession to the jury, as well as testimony from an eyewitness, Denise Mitchell.

And even though Veasy's lawyers presented evidence that he'd been working at the time of the crime at a Houlihan's restaurant in Jenkintown, jurors voted to convict him of second-degree murder — sparing him from death row but triggering an automatic life sentence. No one else has ever been charged.

Mitchell, meanwhile, has recanted her testimony, defense filings claim. And the Wright documents, according to Veasy's lawyers, include a previously undisclosed statement from Mitchell's stepsister casting further doubt on the accuracy of her trial testimony.

Veasy's appeal also includes another curious claim: The victim, Lewis, and several witnesses in the case had been suspects in the murder of another man — an investigation Devlin had also been involved with. That information, defense filings claim, also never was disclosed to Veasy's attorneys.

What's more, the filings say, the man whom detectives eventually arrested, Shaurn Thomas, was freed from prison last year when the District Attorney's Office found another set of previously undisclosed homicide files raising questions about his guilt and agreed to vacate his conviction.

Bluestine said she was shocked when she discovered that key figures in Veasy's investigation also had turned up in Thomas' case files. But so far, she's been unable to determine if it's simply an odd coincidence — or something more.

"Was there a connection between these two [investigations]?" she said. "I certainly have that question."

It may now be up to Krasner and Cummings to seek an answer — and determine whether any more connections exist among other cases handled by prolific detectives.