THE ONLY TIME Anthony “Two Guns” Fletcher smiles - after a decade of solitary confinement on Death Row, after years of appeals, after telling scores of people that he was wrongly convicted of first-degree murder - is when he recalls his boxing career.
He throws a one-two punch in the air, this 51-year-old man, who speaks like a lawyer, using terms such as pro se and subpoena.
Thin, bespectacled, Fletcher is earnest as he tells his story of the clear, 40-degree March night in Southwest Philadelphia 15 years ago, when Vaughn Christopher, 26, was shot. He died 12 hours later at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
Fletcher demonstrated in a recent interview how he rushed Christopher with two hands extended to grab hold of a pistol that Christopher had pulled from his waistband.
As the two men struggled, the gun "went 'Pow! Pow!' " then "hit the ground," Fletcher said.
Prosecutors tell a different story.
It was Fletcher who pulled out the .380 semiautomatic handgun and walked toward Christopher, firing a bullet through his right thigh and another into his right side as Christopher turned to flee, they said.
Jurors in a 1993 trial agreed. They convicted Fletcher of first-degree murder and possession of an instrument of crime and sent him to Death Row.
Unlike most inmates on Death Row, Fletcher has some cards in his favor. Most striking is this: The assistant medical examiner, Hydow Park, who performed Christopher's autopsy, has said that Fletcher's version of the shooting was more likely than the version told by a key prosecution witness.
Park did not testify at Fletcher's trial. Instead, Ian Hood, the city's deputy medical examiner, did.
Since then, Hood has signed a declaration retracting part of his testimony. It was the first time in his nearly 20-year career that he did such a thing.
While Fletcher appeared to win a victory in 2004 when Common Pleas Judge John M. Younge granted him a new trial and vacated his death sentence, he was knocked down by the state Supreme Court last year, when it reversed Younge.
Ultimately, the state Supreme Court will decide whether to reinstate Fletcher's death penalty or grant him a new sentencing hearing.
Alan Tauber, a defense attorney on Fletcher's case, said: "I believe that the Supreme Court's decision is mistaken, and I'm confident that Anthony will ultimately obtain relief in federal court in this case."
Fletcher still hopes for a new trial - something he could win in federal court.
Fletcher, whose boxing nickname was "Two Guns," turned pro in the early 1980s, fighting as a lightweight and junior-welterweight contender. He was the reigning Pennsylvania lightweight champion when, in 1989, he was shot five times, including in his neck, as he sat in his BMW near a South Philadelphia playground with a friend, Eric Hurst.
Hurst died in that shooting, which Fletcher said happened when South Philly gang members mistakenly believed they were members of a rival drug gang.
The fourth-oldest of eight kids, Fletcher grew up in Southwest Philly amid drugs and crime. He is a younger brother of boxer Frank "The Animal" Fletcher, who's also in jail.
"Occasionally, I did hustle drugs," Anthony Fletcher said. He speaks softly, a result of that gunshot wound. "I needed rent money."
He said he had sold $20 or $30 bags of powder cocaine, but only in the area of 46th Street and Woodland Avenue, near where he grew up.
He said he had never used drugs because of his boxing career.
"Never in my life," he said. "I never smoked nothing."
Fletcher is the father of five kids, each with a different woman, including Patricia Fletcher, the only woman he married. The two have separated since he was sent to Death Row.
He admits he's no angel.
But he insists the March 2, 1992, shooting occurred in a struggle for Vaughn Christopher's gun.
Fletcher said that a week before the shooting, he was playing craps with other guys outside a recreation center when Christopher, a guy he knew from the neighborhood, robbed him at gunpoint of $40.
So when he spotted Christopher and another guy, Ronald "Skeet" Williams, on South 60th Street near Upland, at 1 a.m. on March 2, he parked his car and walked toward Christopher to ask for his money.
"My pride got to me and I should have never stopped [the car]," he says now.
South 60th is a street where churchgoers live amid crack addicts, where litter tumbles onto the sidewalks - where to get a Snickers bar from the Salt & Pepper deli, you now have to ask for it through thick, protective glass.
Fletcher told police that he punched Christopher in the side of the head, then Christopher pulled out a gun from under his shirt.
"I rushed him and we struggled," Fletcher said in his statement. "I got my hand on the gun and I fired it two times toward his leg."
Police, who never recovered the gun, found three fired shell casings at the scene and determined they had come from the same weapon and matched the bullet that penetrated Christopher's right side.
"If I throw one punch and deadly force is returned, I have a right to self-defense," Fletcher said, speaking during a three-hour interview at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, where he has been housed since Younge's 2004 decision got him off Death Row for the time being.
The district attorney's office says eyewitness evidence against Fletcher was "overwhelming." The D.A.'s office has also raised questions about Assistant Medical Examiner Park's analytical abilities and downplayed Hood's retractions.
Prosecutors point out that before being found guilty of murder, Fletcher had two convictions: one for robbery and one for dealing drugs.
In the trial, the prosecution argued that Fletcher approached Christopher that night about drug-sale proceeds, not about getting robbed.
Fletcher said he wasn't dealing at the time of the 1992 shooting.
Marc Costanzo, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Fletcher, said recently that Fletcher's claims of a struggle have no backing.
"There was no evidence of any struggle given by any of the eyewitnesses that observed the shooting," said Costanzo, who now works in the state attorney general's Norristown office. "The eyewitnesses described the shooting more like an execution than a struggle of a gun."
As for Park's statements supporting Fletcher's version of a struggle, Costanzo said, "No medical examiner can say with any certainty there was any struggle or not."
Costanzo presented two eyewitnesses in Fletcher's 1993 trial: Natalie Grant, then 27, and Ronald "Skeet" Williams, then 25.
Both were drug addicts.
Grant, an admitted crack-cocaine user who said at trial that she'd been clean for months, testified that Fletcher had approached her, Christopher and Williams as they were talking in front of a drug house.
"He walks up and he asked Vaughn, did he have his money, and before Vaughn could even give an answer, he [Fletcher] pulled out a gun" from about seven to eight feet away, Grant testified. "He [Fletcher] fired, then he stepped up on the pavement."
Fletcher continued firing, Grant testified, adding that she heard at least three shots.
Grant, when reached by phone recently, did not want to comment publicly on the case. She did not say anything that significantly differed from her testimony.
When he was on the witness stand, Williams denied seeing the shooting. But in an earlier statement to police, he identified Fletcher as the shooter. He told police the reason for the shooting was drug money.
"Vaughn told me that he f----- up a package of dope that belonged to Ant [Anthony]," Williams said in his statement to police. "He smoked up all of the crack in the package and Ant never said anything.
"Listen, you couldn't see the gun when Ant [Anthony] walked up. Ant got up on Vaughn and Ant raised his arm and fired three shots."
Williams' mother, Sarah Williams, said that her son is in jail now and is not allowed to communicate with outsiders.
A third person who told police she had seen Fletcher shoot Christopher, and who was high on crack when it occurred, recently told this reporter that she did not see the shooting. She asked that her name not be used.
Prosecutor Costanzo told the trial judge that Park, the assistant medical examiner who had performed Christopher's autopsy, was in Africa and could not testify.
That was true on Jan. 26, 1993, when Hood testified as Park's substitute. However, Park said that he would have been available to testify at the trial on its first two days of testimony - Jan. 19 and 20. Afterward, he went to Kenya for two weeks.
Costanzo said it was not his practice to call the medical examiner on the first days of witness testimony.
The prosecutor read Park's autopsy report into evidence.
When Hood testified, he said he saw no evidence of a struggle between Fletcher and Christopher, but could not rule one out.
"I don't think it's probable that the victim had his hands or wrists around the barrel or close to the barrel of the gun when it was fired," Hood said under cross-examination by Fletcher's court-appointed trial attorney, Stephen Patrizio. "I would see no evidence of that . . . but it doesn't mean that [a struggle] didn't occur."
Without Christopher's clothing as evidence (the clothes were last seen at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, but then lost), it was impossible to check for gunshot residue to determine if Christopher and Fletcher were close to each other when the shooting occurred.
Court documents also show that Christopher's body was likely cleaned at HUP, thus wiping away any possible gunshot residue on his hands.
Hood also testified that from his reading of Park's report, he believed that a bruise under Christopher's left nipple resulted from the bullet that penetrated the victim's right side, coursed through the right kidney and liver, then lodged on the left side of his torso.
In his closing statement, the prosecutor told jurors that Hood's testimony was "absolutely important to this case because it refutes the defendant's version of what happened."
Janine Vinci, another defense attorney who has been retained by Fletcher (but who has not been recognized by the court in this case), thinks the D.A.'s office purposely had Hood testify instead of Park.
"I think the whole thing about Dr. Park not being available was a little bit too coincidental," Vinci said. "This is certainly not a Death Row case. His [Fletcher's] statement is very clear and consistent with Doctor Park. That's why they had Hood testify."
She added: "This was not a cold-blooded murder like the [prosecutor] kept saying. . . . If they want to kill you, they shoot you in the head or chest."
Things started going in Fletcher's favor when a team of Wolf, Block lawyers- including Jerome Shestack, Joseph Crawford, Jarett Decker and Lindsey Pockers - took up the boxer's case, pro bono, in 2001. Then-Gov. Tom Ridge had signed a death warrant for Fletcher to die by injection that May, but the lawyers won a delay.
They also interviewed Park and Hood. Park in a signed declaration said he believed that Fletcher's statement of a struggle was more consistent with his autopsy report than eyewitness Natalie Grant's account of an execution-style shooting.
Park cited "the haphazard trajectory of both bullets" and "the location of the two wounds" as being "consistent with shots that could have been discharged during a struggle ensuing as the right-handed decedent [Christopher] drew a gun in a face-to-face confrontation with a left-handed man [Fletcher]."
Park also said that the bruise "under Christopher's left breast is consistent with a struggle."
At a 2003 post-conviction hearing before Judge Younge, Park restated his belief that the shooting had occurred amid a struggle.
Hood signed a declaration saying he erred at the trial when he testified that the bullet entering the victim's right side caused the bruise on his lower left chest.
"The bruise on the left side of Christopher's chest could have been inflicted by an elbow or fist in the midst of a struggle," Hood said.
At the 2003 hearing, Hood went back and forth as to whether there was evidence to support Fletcher's version of a struggle.
At one point, he testified that his retraction about the source of the bruise "doesn't necessarily mean it had to be a struggle." The bruise could have been caused by Christopher's falling onto the ground or on something hard, or during treatment at HUP, he said.
Eyewitnesses had told police that Christopher briefly fell onto a car as he walked away from the shooting. Police later found him slumped against a wrought-iron fence around the corner in the 5900 block of Greenway Avenue.
Hood, through his office's spokesman, did not want to comment for this article.
Among its arguments against Fletcher's claim of a self-defense struggle, the D.A.'s office pointed out that Fletcher never said he hit Christopher in the chest (thus causing the bruise).
Prosecutors at the post-conviction hearing also tried to show that both Hood and the Philadelphia medical examiner at the time, Haresh Mirchandani, questioned Park's ability to analyze autopsies correctly.
Park, who grew up in Korea and speaks English as a second language, said in his defense at the hearing: "The only thing I can say was I was a little different from other assistant medical examiners. The other assistant medical examiners were really commonwealth-oriented. . . . They tried anything to please assistant prosecutors, but I did not do it."
Park, now the medical examiner in Atlantic County, N.J., recently reviewed his autopsy report and said he still stands by the statements he made in his declaration to Wolf, Block.
In granting Fletcher a new trial in his 2004 decision, Judge Younge cited the "failure by [defense] trial counsel to call Dr. Park, the pathologist who performed the autopsy and failure by trial counsel to expose a critical error by Dr. Hood."
The state Supreme Court, in upholding Fletcher's conviction (the second time it did so), wrote in its decision last year that the post-conviction testimonies of Park and Hood concerning the bruise would not have changed the outcome of Fletcher's case.
"As the Commonwealth develops, even if it is accepted that the fatal bullet did not cause the bruise to the victim's chest, there were several other likely causes . . . other than a struggle between Appellee and the victim," the court wrote.
It also held that Fletcher could not claim he had received ineffective counsel because he at times had acted as his own counsel.
Jeffrey Krulik, the assistant district attorney now handling Fletcher's case, said recently: "We do agree with the ruling of the [state] Supreme Court. They made their ruling and they found that the verdict should stand."
As things now stand, Younge needs to address certain penalty-phase issues before the state Supreme Court decides whether to reinstate Fletcher's death sentence or grant him a new sentencing hearing.
For now, Fletcher at least is spending his days at the less harsh, communal Curran-Fromhold prison. He has a cellmate. (On Death Row at the State Correctional Institution in Greene County, he was in solitary confinement with minimal yard time.) He does laundry for his block. And he looks up legal books in the library and helps other prisoners with their cases. A Baptist, he prays three or four times a day.
“I look out the window of my cell” onto State Road, he said. “I wish I was out there.” *