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Philly man claims he's innocent of 1991 killing. Courts say it's too late

Eric Riddick was sentenced to life in prison for a 1991 shooting death in Southwest Philadelphia. He and his family contend he's innocent. One issue is the state's narrow window for bringing forward new evidence.

Christine Riddick, mother of Eric Riddick, demonstrates outside the District Attorney’s Office in Center City. She, her son, and others contend he has been imprisoned for a murder he did not commit.
Christine Riddick, mother of Eric Riddick, demonstrates outside the District Attorney’s Office in Center City. She, her son, and others contend he has been imprisoned for a murder he did not commit.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

For more than 26 years, Eric Riddick has been locked up for a Southwest Philadelphia murder. He's been trying to persuade judges that he didn't commit the crime.

But Riddick offered his petitions too late under the rules for criminal appeals. In fact, accompanying the December opinion denying his latest appeal was a judge's blunt assessment that Riddick may not be a killer, but a victim of a flawed system.

"It is clear to all," Superior Court Judge John T. Bender wrote, "that it is likely that an innocent man sits behind bars for no better reason than a poorly conceived statute."

Then-Senior Judge James J. Fitzgerald III joined in Bender's statement.

Under the state's Post Conviction Relief Act, a defendant must file a petition for relief within a year of the judgment becoming final. There are a few exceptions, one of which is if the defendant obtains new evidence. But even then, a petition must be filed within 60 days of when the claim could have been presented.

Twenty-eight states place no time limit on appeals based on newly discovered evidence, according to Michelle Feldman, a legislative strategist with the Innocence Project in New York. But she noted the standard of review in some of those states is high.

Since 2011, state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has regularly introduced legislation to increase Pennsylvania's 60-day deadline to one year. But there has been "a lot of resistance to it," said spokesman Aaron Zappia.

Zappia said Greenleaf, who will not seek reelection this year, is expected to reintroduce his legislation in Harrisburg soon.

Greenleaf's argument is simple: It "often takes years to determine whether fragments of new evidence, added together, are enough to construct a solid case," he has written. "And, given that the persons involved are often incarcerated with no attorney actively working on their case, it makes complying with the rule next to impossible."

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association in the past opposed Greenleaf's efforts to extend the deadline, arguing that it opens the window to frivolous claims. But Executive Director Richard Long said his group "would be in a better position to not oppose" the bill if safeguards were put in place to help determine if claims are legitimate.

On Wednesday night, Riddick's mother, Christine, 69, attended a community meeting with new District Attorney Larry Krasner at a Powelton church. She lined up at a microphone and asked Krasner about her son's case and whether his office has the authority to expedite the release of someone wrongfully convicted.

Krasner said he couldn't speak about individual cases. He said if his office agrees with the defense argument, someone who was wrongfully convicted could be released "in the interest of justice," according to a Facebook video of their interaction.

He highlighted the hiring of Patricia Cummings, an expert on innocence issues who moved from Texas to head his office's Conviction Integrity Unit (formerly the Conviction Review Unit). But he said the unit needs more staff.

Spokesman Ben Waxman said last week that Krasner regards issues of innocence seriously. In general, Krasner would favor changing legislation on measures that would allow for previously unknown evidence claims to be reviewed, Waxman said.

Waxman said Riddick's case is still being reviewed by the Conviction Integrity Unit.

Riddick, now 47, is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder and possession of an instrument of crime in the Nov. 6, 1991, shooting death of William Catlett, 20, at 58th and Belmar Streets.

After his direct appeal was denied in 1995, Riddick filed a Post Conviction Relief Act petition on March 31, 2003, saying he had only recently learned that the lone witness, Shawn Stevenson, who had identified him at his trial as shooting at Catlett, had recanted. Stevenson, in a July 1999 affidavit, wrote that he had lied against Riddick because he was pressured to do so by Catlett's friend.

Riddick, in his petition, wrote that he had heard from his family in early 1999 that Stevenson wanted to recant and that his family then hired a private investigator to obtain Stevenson's affidavit. But Riddick says he believes the investigator never turned the affidavit over to him because of a financial dispute. It wasn't until a Jan. 28, 2003, letter from another source that Riddick learned the affidavit actually existed, and it was a few days later when he received it.

Common Pleas Judge Amanda Cooperman denied Riddick's petition as untimely. In her ruling, she didn't specifically address the recantation, but cited the state's filing deadlines. State courts by law do not have the power to address an exception claim if it is filed beyond the 60-day deadline.

Later, attorney Barnaby Wittels, court-appointed to represent Riddick in 2012, hired a ballistics expert, William E. Conrad, to examine crime-scene, autopsy, and trial documents. Conrad submitted an Oct. 31, 2012, report concluding that Riddick did not fire the shots that killed Catlett.

Cooperman granted an evidentiary hearing on the ballistics evidence.

In June 2016, during a hearing before Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Minehart, Conrad testified that it didn't make sense for a person on a balcony — as Stevenson had described Riddick's location — to have fired at and killed Catlett on the sidewalk. Conrad said that four of the five bullets that wounded Catlett traveled in his body in an upward trajectory and the fifth traveled in a level direction with no vertical deviation.

Minehart that October denied Riddick's latest petition, finding that it was filed beyond the one-year deadline and that the exceptions didn't apply. In a December 2016 opinion, he wrote that everything the ballistics expert based his report on was available at the time of Riddick's 1992 trial. Thus, the evidence was not new.

Minehart also wrote that Riddick did not meet his burden of proving that Stevenson's recantation was newly discovered evidence. And he wrote in a footnote that he found Conrad "to be lacking in credibility." Riddick, acting as his own attorney, appealed to Superior Court.

The Superior Court panel, in its Dec. 26 decision, affirmed Minehart's ruling. Still, Fitzgerald wrote in a 15-page memorandum, Riddick's case "is deeply troubling, since Conrad's report points out that the case against [Riddick] is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with the ballistics evidence. Unfortunately, it is clear that all information used by Conrad was in the public domain at the time of trial in 1992."

Riddick on Jan. 24 appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

For Christine Riddick, the last 26 years have been "110 percent agony," she said. Last month, she demonstrated with her daughter-in-law, Dana Baker-Riddick — who married Riddick while he was in prison — as well as Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania activist Asa Khalif, and others outside the District Attorney's Office calling for Riddick to be exonerated and released.

"I'm asking," the mother said, "I'm praying that the new DA looks at my son's case."