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Philly DA's Office: Meek Mill should get a new trial

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office said in court Monday that because of questions about the credibility of his arresting officer, the rapper's decade-old conviction on gun and drug charges should be vacated and he should be granted a new trial.

Rapper Meek Mill, right, arrives at the Criminal Justice Center with his lawyer Brian McMonagle, left, in Philadelphia, PA on November 6, 2017. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Rapper Meek Mill, right, arrives at the Criminal Justice Center with his lawyer Brian McMonagle, left, in Philadelphia, PA on November 6, 2017. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff PhotographerRead moreDavid Maialetti

Meek Mill is one step closer to freedom.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office said Monday that due to questions about the credibility of his arresting officer, the imprisoned rapper's decade-old conviction on gun and drug charges should be vacated and he should be granted a new trial.

The recommendation, disclosed by Assistant District Attorney Liam Riley during a status hearing in Mill's case, marked the first time prosecutors have publicly said they agree with the claim by Mill's lawyers that his original arrest in 2007 might have been improper. It could also signal they would not press forward with a new trial  — possibly freeing Mill from the legal trouble he's had for a decade.

Still, Mill's release from prison is not yet secured, nor has his case been officially tossed out.

Common Pleas Court Judge Genece E. Brinkley, who in November sentenced Mill to two to four years in prison for violating his probation, ultimately would have to agree to vacate the conviction — and she did not do so Monday. Instead, she scheduled another hearing for June, and refused to hear arguments from Mill's attorneys that he should be let out on bail.

She also was quick to spar with his attorneys and repeatedly told them she would handle Mill as she did any other defendant.

"This case is not going to be done any differently," she said.

Brian McMonagle, one of Mill's lawyers, said his team planned to filed motions with higher courts seeking to secure Mill's release "immediately." McMonagle said his team was "elated" by the decision of the District Attorney's Office, and said it would be "reprehensible" if Brinkley did not sign off on it.

Lawyer Joe Tacopina, who also represents Mill, added: "Now the fact that he's in jail is even more egregious."

Mill, 30, did not attend Monday's hearing, but upwards of 100 people rallied in support of him outside the Criminal Justice Center.

He has been incarcerated since November, when Brinkley sentenced him to prison and told him: "I gave you break after break, and you basically just thumbed your nose at this court." Neither city prosecutors nor his probation officer at the time had recommended sending him back to prison.

Her sentence sparked immediate outrage, with athletes, musicians, and other celebrities saying the outcome demonstrated the flaws of the criminal justice system. Protesters rallied outside the Criminal Justice Center to call for Mill's release, and political leaders including Mayor Kenney and Gov. Wolf have since expressed varying degrees of support for the Philadelphia-born Mill, whose legal name is Robert Rihmeek Williams.

Perhaps his most concrete reason for optimism came when District Attorney Larry Krasner — who took office after Mill was sentenced — said his office had questions about whether Mill's original conviction should stand. That position, made public in a motion Krasner's office filed last month, was taken after Mill's legal team produced evidence accusing his arresting officer, Reginald V. Graham, of lying to secure his conviction.

Krasner's office also disclosed in February that prosecutors had placed Graham on a list of police officers with credibility questions — something Mill's attorneys said they had not previously been told.

Riley, the assistant district attorney, said in court Monday that prosecutors reviewing Graham's history have since identified 56 cases with similar credibility issues, and that the office believes his questionable conduct dates back to 2005, well before he arrested Mill.

Still, the fate of the entertainer's case — at least for the moment — lies in the hands of Brinkley, the judge whom Mill's supporters have spent months petitioning to have removed from the case and accused of ethical improprieties.

Late last month, the judge defended herself in an opinion filed in court, writing that she had "committed no error" and that her sentence of Mill was "not manifestly excessive." She also struck back at his legal team, accusing the lawyers of making evidence-free allegations about her behavior in overseeing his case.

While lawyers for Mill and the District Attorney's Office wrangled with Brinkley in a ninth-floor courtroom Monday, "Free Meek Mill" protesters outside the building raged against what they called her tyranny and called on the governor to pardon the rapper.

The peaceful gathering — which resulted in police closing off Filbert Street in front of the courthouse — included the rapper's mother and son, fans, criminal justice reform advocates, 25 Boston teens in town for a service project, and a smattering of politicians.

"The flaws of our criminal justice system are many," State Sen. Sharif Street said from a platform. "Meek Mill is one of thousands of citizens, many from my district in North Philadelphia, trapped by its imperfections. As we examine ways to reform an imperfect system, we as leaders are charged with meeting our constitutional mandate of a fair and equitable system for all Americans."

"Free Meek Mill," Papi Williams, 6, the rapper's son, chanted while hoisting a portrait of his father, to the delight of the crowd.

"I miss my dad very much," the boy told reporters after he and his grandmother left the stage. "He picks me up from school sometimes. We do fun things."

"I'm more optimistic now that things have changed and turned around," said Kathy Williams, the rapper's mother. "Hopefully, by the time May gets here, he'll be out. Hopefully, this weekend, really."

At various times during the rally, loudspeakers blasted the rapper's profanity-heavy recordings, including "Dreams and Nightmares," causing his supporters to break into frenzied dancing while singing along. A large contingent of police officers, in uniform and street clothes, stood watch.