Two years ago, Anthony Wright was acquitted by a jury of the 1991 rape and murder of an elderly woman in her North Philadelphia home due in large part to DNA evidence that did not exist when he was convicted in 1993 and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
In June, Wright, 47, received a nearly $10 million settlement from Philadelphia, the largest wrongful-conviction payout in city history.
Now, Bridget L. Kirn, the lead prosecutor in Wright's 2016 retrial, who told the jury he was guilty and should remain in prison despite the DNA evidence, stands formally accused of official misconduct in a scathing complaint that Wright's legal team filed with the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
In the complaint, the Innocence Project attorneys allege that Kirn did not correct the record when two retired city police detectives gave testimony that she knew to be false during the retrial of their client, who had spent nearly 25 years in prison by then.
"What prosecutors could not do was violate the law and the rules of professional conduct in their zeal to secure his re-conviction. There is compelling evidence that Ms. Kirn crossed that line here, and egregiously so," Nina Morrison, one of Wright's attorneys from the Innocence Project Inc., wrote in the 29-page complaint, which was released Thursday morning.
"Had she succeeded in her efforts to convict Mr. Wright of murder a second time, he would still be behind bars, spending the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole," Morrison wrote. "The fact that she did not ultimately achieve this objective should not minimize the severity of her misconduct. Nor should it prevent the board and the Supreme Court from holding her fully accountable for her actions."
If the board conducts an investigation and finds merit in the charges it could impose sanctions on Kirn that range from reprimand to public censure to suspension of her law license to disbarment. Kirn was among 31 employees terminated in January by newly elected District Attorney Larry Krasner. Ben Waxman, Krasner's spokesperson, said the office would have no comment about Kirn's latest troubles. Kirn moved on to work for the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, writing briefs on a contractual basis, but is no longer working there, spokesperson Kate Delano said.
Attempts to reach Kirn through her former employer and at her house were not successful.
Kirn provided retired homicide detectives Manuel Santiago and Frank Jastrzembski with detailed information about the newly discovered DNA evidence during preparation sessions prior to the retrial, including that the DNA found in the body of victim Louise Talley, 77, came not from Wright but from a homeless crack cocaine addict named Ronnie Byrd who squatted in an abandoned house near the victim's, the complaint alleges.
During those pretrial prep sessions Kirn also told the detectives that Wright's DNA was not found on clothing stained with Talley's blood that police said they recovered from Wright's bedroom. Only the victim's DNA was recovered from the clothing, Kirn told the detectives, according to the compliant.
Despite Kirn's having shared that information with the detectives, the complaint states, Santiago and Jastrzembski testified that they had only general knowledge that DNA evidence had been developed since the 1993 trial and that they did not know DNA taken from the victim had been positively linked to Byrd, who died in a South Carolina prison years earlier.
Santiago and Jastrzembski committed perjury, the complaint alleges, and Kirn failed to alert the judge or jury to what she knew was false testimony. This came to light when the former detectives gave sworn testimony in a deposition last year as defendants in Wright's civil rights lawsuit, according to the complaint.
Santiago and Jastrzembski admitted during their deposition that Kirn had told them that DNA taken from Talley came from Byrd and that only Talley's DNA was on clothing police allegedly recovered from Wright's bedroom, according to the complaint, which contains excerpts of the retrial and deposition transcripts related to the perjured testimony.
"It is difficult to conceive of a more textbook violation of this rule than when an attorney for the commonwealth fails to correct a pivotal law enforcement witness's false denial of knowledge about facts that she herself provided to the witness in their pretrial preparation session," the complaint states. "Here, Ms. Kirn stood mute while not one, but two, of the commonwealth's most critical witnesses perjured themselves in this fashion. And she did so as an experienced homicide prosecutor, serving as lead counsel for the commonwealth in a case where the defendant faced mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted."
Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, called the allegations in the complaint "very serious" and said prosecutors "must be held accountable" for their misconduct.
"Prosecutors enjoy broad immunity for committing misconduct in the performance of their duties," Shuford said. "There are very few mechanisms available for holding them accountable. The disciplinary board is one of those mechanisms, and our hope is that the board will investigate this complaint thoroughly, provide Ms. Kirn with due process, and reach a fair conclusion."
Despite its allegations against Kirn, the Innocence Project is well aware that states are reluctant to discipline prosecutors. A survey the organization conducted with the Veritas Initiative that looked at five diverse states including Pennsylvania identified 660 cases between 2004 and 2008 in which courts found prosecutors committed misconduct. Of those cases, only one prosecutor, from Texas, was disciplined; that case involved a man who served time on death row who was later exonerated, the survey found.