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Santiago firebombing case: A chronology

Following is a chronology of events in the Santiago firebombing case:

Oct. 5, 1975:  At about 3:20 a.m. a firebomb is thrown into the Feltonville home of Radames Santiago. In the fire, Mrs. Santiago and four children are killed.

Nelson Garcia, 14, who was on the Santiago porch when the fire started, tells police he saw Robert (Reds) Wilkinson throw the fire bomb.

Police charge Wilkinson, 26, and Ronald Hanley, 37, with five counts of murder. Police say the bombing was the climax of a long "neighborhood dispute."

Oct. 10, 1975:  More than 500 Puerto Rican city residents demonstrate outside City Hall, calling for "justice in the Santiago case."  One poster says:  "We want Hanley and Wilkinson to pay with their lives."

Feb. 24, 1976:  Common Pleas Court Judge Alex Bonavitacola rules in a pretrial hearing that a "confession" by Wilkinson is inadmissible as evidence. Bonavitacola says that Wilkinson, who is mildly retarded, was unable to understand his constitutional warnings during a police interrogation.

In the confession, Wilkinson allegedly said:  "I lit the bomb and threw it through the Puerto Ricans' window. I heard a ba-boom saw a little flame."  Wilkinson testifies that he was beaten by police and forced to sign a false confession; he also says he was not the firebomber.

March 15, 1976:  Common Pleas Court Judge Theodore B. Smith rules, in another pretrial hearing, that a "confession" by Hanley is inadmissible as evidence. The judge writes that Hanley was severely beaten by police during his interrogation. In the confession, Hanley allegedly said that he and Wilkinson had plotted the firebombing and that Wilkinson was the firebomber.

March 26, 1976:  Wilkinson's trial is scheduled to begin, but Assistant District Attorney David Berman, the prosecutor, asks for a delay. The reason is that David McGinnis, a neighbor of Wilkinson and Hanley, has volunteered to give the prosecutor new evidence.

McGinnis comes to the district attorney's office, but before speaking he asks for and is given immunity. He then tells the district attorney he threw the fatal firebomb. He says that Hanley plotted the bombing and that Wilkinson was not involved.

March 29, 1976:  Jury selection begins in Wilkinson's trial before Common Pleas Court Judge John A. Geisz. Berman makes no mention of McGinnis' statement of three days before.

April 6, 1976:  As jury selection continues in the Wilkinson trial, the district attorney drops murder charges against Hanley. Berman says that after Judge Smith threw out Hanley's statement, the prosecution did not have sufficient evidence to convict him. Again, Berman does not mention the March 26 McGinnis statement, which incriminated Hanley.

April 9, 1976:
  The Wilkinson jury is selected. Berman gives an emotional opening argument. "The piper will be paid for five lives," Berman tells the jury. "In one violent act, all his (Wilkinson's) intentions and motives culminated in the massacre of five people who did nothing more than move onto the wrong street – and who this man (Wilkinson) decided to punish."

April 16, 1976:  The prosecution's only eyewitness, Garcia, testifies that he watched from the Santiago porch on North Fourth Street on the night of the firebombing and saw Wilkinson throw the bomb.

April 19, 1976:  After the prosecution closes its case, defense attorney Robert Matthews calls for a special hearing without the jury present. He calls Berman as a witness and asks him about the McGinnis confession on March 26.

Berman admits that McGinnis made the statement, but the prosecutor says he dismissed the confession as "garbage and a pack of lies."  He says he threw away a tape recording of part of the McGinnis statement. He explains his actions by saying he believed that McGinnis was trying to clear himself and Wilkinson as part of a "neighborhood conspiracy" to prevent anyone from being prosecuted.

Judge Geisz decides that a written portion of the McGinnis confession of March 26 is not admissible as evidence. He also defends Berman's handling of the McGinnis statement by saying:  "The district attorney has done everything he can . . . There is nothing to show me . . . that the district attorney has not lived up to the highest ethical standards."

April 22, 1976:  The defense opens its case before the jury. Wilkinson testifies that he was on his way home from buying his wife cigarets when he spotted the fire. He says he quickly drove to a fire alarm box; he was the first person that night to pull a fire alarm. Wilkinson tells the jury he had nothing to do with the firebombing.

April 28, 1976:  Both the prosecution and defense have rested their cases. But before the closing arguments, a Feltonville neighbor of the Santiagos – Judy Cucinotta – comes forward with dramatic new evidence.

She testifies that she saw the entire firebombing incident from her bedroom window. She says that McGinnis threw the firebomb, while standing alongside Hanley. She says she did not see Wilkinson on the street.

April 29, 1976:  In his closing argument, Berman tells the jury that Mrs. Cucinotta was lying as part of the neighborhood conspiracy to free everyone from prosecution. He accuses Wilkinson and a "traveling show of murderers" – the white neighbors of the Santiagos – of conspiring to drive the Puerto Rican family from North Fourth Street.

In Wilkinson's defense, Matthews argues that Mrs. Cucinotta and Wilkinson were telling the truth, and that Garcia lied in naming Wilkinson as the firebomber. Matthews says that McGinnis and Hanley were responsible for the killings. "Davie (McGinnis) got away with it," Matthews says. "Nobody saw him – or so he thought. He didn't know Mrs. Cucinotta was standing at her window."

At 9:20 p.m., after four hours of deliberation, the jury convicts Wilkinson on five counts of second-degree murder. He faces a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment; sentencing is deferred pending post-trial motions by the defense.

May 1, 1976:  The U.S. attorney's office, after hearing complaints from Puerto Rican groups that the district attorney's investigation had failed to crack a widespread conspiracy among the Santiagos' neighbors, announced that it will conduct an independent investigation.

Oct. 28, 1976:  A federal grand jury indicts McGinnis and Hanley on charges that they firebombed the Santiago house. Wilkinson is not indicted. U.S. Attorney David W. Marston says, however, that the federal indictment is not "necessarily inconsistent" with Wilkinson's conviction.

Nov. 14, 1976:
  The Inquirer reports that Garcia had recanted his trial testimony against Wilkinson and that a new witness had come forward to say that she saw two men, neither of them Wilkinson, throw the firebomb.

The Inquirer also reports that the prosecution had apparently withheld evidence from the defense during Wilkinson's trial – including the confession by McGinnis and additional statements Garcia had not given police.

Nov. 19, 1976:   Vincent Cucinotta, another Feltonville neighbor, is indicted by the federal grand jury as a co-conspirator with McGinnis and Hanley in the firebombing. Again, Wilkinson is not indicted in the federal investigation.

Dec. 5, 1976:  The Inquirer reports that Philadelphia homicide detectives beat, threatened or coerced at least seven persons into making false statements against Wilkinson. The Inquirer reports that the interrogations began early on the day of the firebombing after police rounded up neighbors, including three married couples and questioned them for as long as 20 hours.

Police records also showed that Hanley and at least two other witnesses told detectives that day that McGinnis, and not Wilkinson, was the firebomber. However, police apparently ignored the evidence against McGinnis after they had charged Wilkinson.

Dec. 6, 1976:  U.S. Attorney Marston, after reading that article, says he will begin a criminal investigation of the Philadelphia police officers who handled the Santiago case.

At the same time, defense lawyers for Wilkinson are filing motions on almost a daily basis trying to win the release of Wilkinson from jail. Judge Geisz, however, turns down requests for a bail reduction from $250,000 and refuses to hear the new testimony of Garcia. The judge says that any new evidence should be presented at formal post-trial hearings. He points out that Wilkinson still stands convicted on five counts of murder.

Dec. 10, 1976:  McGinnis, in open court, tells Chief U. S. District Judge Joseph F. Lord 3d that he threw the firebomb that killed five persons. However, Judge Lord refused to accept a proposed plea-bargain arrangement, saying that a suggested 22-year jail sentence for McGinnis would be too light.

Dec. 15, 1976:  Judge Lord, after hearing arguments from U.S. attorney and McGinnis' lawyers, agrees to accept McGinnis' guilty plea. McGinnis says in open court that he and Hanley plotted the Santiago firebombing and that Wilkinson had nothing whatsoever to do with the crime.

Dec. 16, 1976:
  After spending 15 months in jail, Wilkinson is released on $5,000 bail. "For a while there, I thought I was really going to be put away,"  Wilkinson says as he walks beyond the barbed wire fences of the city's Detention Center. "I'm happy. I'm glad to be here."

Dec. 20, 1976:
  Judge Geisz reverses Wilkinson's conviction and orders a new trial after hearing Garcia testify that he lied at Wilkinson's trial. Garcia says he was actually asleep during the firebombing and that he did not see who threw the firebomb. He says he lied to police and to the jury because he "really believed" Wilkinson was the firebomber since Wilkinson was the first person he saw after he awoke.

"The ballgame is over," says Thomas McCormack, Matthews' co-counsel for Wilkinson. "There is no evidence against Wilkinson. He is innocent."

But First Assistant District Attorney John Morris says his office will review the evidence further before deciding to drop the charges or retry Wilkinson.

Feb. 1, 1977: 
The district attorney says that he has not yet decided whether to retry Wilkinson. He says he will await the outcome of the federal trial against Hanley and Cucinotta before deciding.

Feb. 21, 1977:  Hanley is convicted by a federal jury. Cucinotta is acquitted. McGinnis, who had already pleaded guilty, testified for the prosecution against both Hanley and Cucinotta. He again testified that Wilkinson was not involved in the firebombing.

March 3, 1977:  District Attorney Emmett Fitzpatrick announces that he will retry Wilkinson for the firebombing. Wilkinson says in reaction:  "I don't think it is right the way they are playing around with me . . . The district attorney is afraid to admit he made a mistake."

March 14, 1977:  In preparing for Wilkinson's new trial, defense lawyers are permitted to look through the district attorney's files. They find that police took statements from two people on Nov. 3, 1975 – a month after the firebombing and five months before Wilkinson's trial – saying that McGinnis and Hanley plotted and carried out the firebombing.

The statements, one from McGinnis' sister and another from a neighbor, outline the McGinnis-Hanley conspiracy in some detail. In addition, the statements indicate that Wilkinson was not involved and that McGinnis had started to feel guilty for allowing an innocent man to be charged and jailed for the crime.

March 24, 1977:
  Citing the newly discovered evidence, other statements in the district attorney's files and other past acts by police and the prosecutor, defense lawyers argue before Common Pleas Court Judge Merna Marshall that the charges against Wilkinson should be dismissed. The lawyers argue that the district attorney and police acted in "bad faith" and that Wilkinson had been denied his right to a fair trial. They also say that there is no evidence against Wilkinson.

Assistant District Attorney Clifford Haines defends the prosecution, saying that his office never intentionally withheld evidence. He asks the judge to allow the new trial to proceed.

Hearings continue for six weeks, until Judge Marshall takes the arguments under advisements.

June 2, 1977:
  Judge Marshall, in a 12-page written opinion, dismisses all charges against Wilkinson, saying that there has been prosecutorial misconduct. She writes:  "Had the trial facts been known as they are known today, there is no doubt that the defendant would have been acquitted."

Her ruling is made "with prejudice" – meaning that Wilkinson can never be rearrested for the Santiago firebombing.