Dontia Patterson — arrested for murder in 2007, convicted in 2009, and then sentenced to life in prison — has always insisted he was innocent.
On Wednesday, the city's criminal justice system agreed.
During a brief hearing at the Criminal Justice Center, Common Pleas Court Judge Kathryn Streeter Lewis dropped all remaining charges against Patterson, fulfilling a request prosecutors had made a day earlier in an extraordinary motion filed in support of what they described as Patterson's likely innocence.
Anthony Voci, chief of the office's homicide unit, told Lewis that the District Attorney's Office did not believe Patterson's case was investigated or prosecuted correctly, and that unanswered questions in his case file — some of which were never turned over to defense attorneys, violating protocol — led the office to doubt he was the killer.
"The enormity of what is at stake cannot be measured," Voci said.
Lewis granted his request without asking questions or explaining her decision. Patterson, dressed in a white shirt and navy tie and seated next to his attorneys, dipped his head into his hands while family members in the packed gallery cried.
After the hearing, Patterson said he felt "great" and had not lost faith he would be vindicated eventually. He was hoping to make it out of the courthouse in time to pick up his 11-year-old daughter after school.
Hayes Hunt, Patterson's appellate attorney, said he was thrilled for Patterson, and described Voci's motion and emotional argument in court as "unprecedented," saying he had never heard prosecutors use such language in asking to dismiss a case.
Patterson was charged in 2007, under former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, and convicted at a retrial in 2009 after his first case ended in a hung jury. He spent 11 years behind bars until prosecutors agreed this winter to vacate his conviction and allow his release on house arrest.
His case marks the first homicide conviction that District Attorney Larry Krasner has sought to overturn and dismiss due to questions about a defendant's guilt. Krasner took office in January after campaigning against what he called a city District Attorney's Office that was "off the rails" and hell-bent on winning cases at any cost.
Voci, during his address to Lewis, referenced the Declaration of Independence, saying prosecutors are duty-bound to ensure that no one is ever improperly denied the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
"You have to be right, and you have to be sure, and you have to be fair," Voci said.
He reiterated much of what was said in the motion filed Tuesday, including the assertion that police documents generated in the initial aftermath of the crime pointed toward another suspect as more likely to have been the shooter, and that those documents were not turned over to defense attorneys before either of Patterson's trials. The motion called the case "an egregious example of police and prosecutorial misconduct."
The other suspect, who is not named in the document, was murdered several months after Patterson's arrest a few blocks from the scene of the shooting Patterson was accused of committing, according to Voci's motion.
Voci acknowledged Wednesday that his office has been unable to reach relatives of the victim, Antwine Jackson, to tell them about the decision to free Patterson. Voci said prosecutors reached out by phone and letter, and sent detectives to addresses associated with the relatives but had no success in speaking to them.
Richard Sax, the now-retired prosecutor who handled Patterson's second trial, said it was "shocking" that prosecutors would believe their re-investigation was thorough enough to dismiss a murder conviction if they also could not reach a single relative of the victim.
Sax, a frequent critic of Krasner, sat in the front row of the courtroom gallery Wednesday. After the hearing, he again denied that he or his former colleague who handled Patterson's first trial, Beth McCaffery, had committed prosecutorial misconduct.
Attempts to reach McCaffery for comment were unsuccessful.
Sax said defense attorneys regularly make accusations of prosecutorial misconduct in seeking to free their clients, but "I just didn't expect that the representative of the commonwealth, the district attorney, would allege that, especially when it was nonsense. And it was nonsense."