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Editorial: DNA shows defendant innocent of rape

A new trial for Anthony Wright, who has spent 23 years in prison, begins this week. Maybe this time justice will be served.

Seth Williams, Philadelphia district attorney.
Seth Williams, Philadelphia district attorney.Read moreYONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

A new trial for Anthony Wright, who has spent 23 years in prison, begins this week. Maybe this time justice will be served.

Wright recanted his confession soon after his arrest in the 1991 slaying murder and rape of a 77-year-old Nicetown widow. Wright said he signed the confession written by a detective without even reading it after police chained him to a chair and threatened him.

Improvements in DNA testing could have freed Wright, but District Attorney Lynne Abraham continually fought defense requests to have that done. Abraham's successor, Seth Williams, finally agreed to DNA testing in 2011 after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court.

Subsequent tests concluded that the rapist was a man identified as Ronnie Byrd, a felon with a long criminal record who died three years ago. Tests also revealed that the clothes police said Wright was wearing during the crime were actually worn by the victim, Louise Talley.

Wright's conviction was thrown out by the courts, but despite the DNA evidence, Williams insisted on trying him again, apparently convinced that Wright's original confession was valid. Williams should know that defendants confessed or pleaded guilty in a quarter of the cases in which DNA testing later proved them innocent. It is clear now, based on the DNA tests, that Wright didn't commit the rape that he confessed to as a scared 20-year-old.

Williams is seeking Wright's conviction on a charge of first-degree murder, which carries a minimum sentence of life. At least he isn't seeking the death penalty, which the jury in Wright's 1993 trial refused to grant. Williams apparently will attempt to prove that Wright acted with an accomplice. It will be interesting to hear how he will recast the crime.

Wright is represented by attorneys for the Innocence Project, which is dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing. The group pointed out that none of the prosecution's original witnesses, including two admitted drug users, mentioned Byrd, who raped the victim found naked and stabbed in her bedroom.

Given the DNA tests and false testimony, Wright's retrial seems unnecessary. But if, as suspected, this new trial ends with him being found not guilty, it would be reasonable for Williams to open a new investigation in the pursuit of justice not only for Talley, but for Wright.

All the available evidence suggests Wright is innocent of the crime for which he has spent two decades in prison. Perhaps a new investigation will reveal exactly how a rape confession was extracted from a man who according to DNA tests didn't commit that crime. A new investigation might also show how police got Wright to confess to murder after being in custody for only 14 minutes.