By David M. Greenwald
Philadelphia – Calling the work of the Philadephia DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit “historic” and an “incredible achievement, especially compared to what happened in prior administrations,” DA Larry Krasner highlighted the work of his office in freeing more than 20 wrongly convicted people over the course of his first term in office.
“It’s about the restoration of trust between communities … communities that have good reason not to trust prosecutors and have good reason not to trust police,” Krasner said. “It’s about a criminal justice system that for decades put winning cases first and put the truth second.
“For decades, sadly with the assistance of a lot of people in the media … media that wanted to tell the same dehumanizing story over and over that ignored the evidence and ignored the facts and ignore the science and ignored the truth. And also ignored the United States Constitution, which required prosecutors to do better and required police to do better. And that’s not what happened.”
On Tuesday Krasner and his office highlighted what they called an “amazing report.”
In fewer than four years the office has helped secure the exonerations of 20 people in 21 cases. All but one of the convictions “were marred by official misconduct committed by prosecutors and/or police, such as withholding exculpatory evidence, coercing false confessions, or committing perjury.”
In one of the more extreme examples of official misconduct, Christopher Williams, a Black man, was wrongfully convicted of murder in two separate cases, and now is cleared of all crimes in both cases.
“Chris Williams is kind of tantamount to the saying that lightning can strike twice,” Patricia Cummings explained. “So often I think we all believe that it can’t.”
She said that “sometimes when you look at a case, you feel in your gut that something is not right. And when I looked at Theo’s case, I knew something was not right.”
She pointed out that Theo Wilson and Chris Williams were tried and convicted together.
“What I didn’t pay enough attention to when I looked at Theo’s case was Chris’s case. And that’s crazy because Theo and Chris were tried together,” she said.
The problem was that Williams had been convicted of another murder and she decided, based on that, “Because he’s in for another murder. Surely he committed the other murder. So how do I spend my precious time and resources?”
She focused therefore on Wilson’s case, however, “Luckily for Chris, that meant I had to look at his.”
They looked closely and found it to be a wrongful conviction based on a triple homicide that was “replete with misconduct.”
She continued, “When we realized that, we knew that we had to exonerate Theo and Chris, but then the question was, was I willing to look at Chris’s other murder conviction? And I’ll never forget when his lawyers were asking me, Patricia, can you bump his case up?
“When we looked at it, we were horrified, horrified once again, to see that yeah, the misconduct that led to the wrongful conviction.
“But I got to tell you also a little bit personally horrified that if I had left it up to my bias, Chris might not be standing here with all of us today,” Cummings said. “Lightening does indeed strike twice, and I am so, so very happy and proud that Chris is with the rest of these men today, as we celebrate the work, not that the conviction integrity unit is doing, but the work that the community of Philadelphia is doing, I couldn’t do this work without my team.
“When DA Krasner recruited me to come and lead the CIU in Philly, I had some awareness of the challenges I would face in the city that once boasted the nation’s ‘Deadliest DA,’ Lynne Abraham,” CIU Supervisor Cummings said.
She explained, “What I learned as we got the CIU up and running was nothing short of astonishing: layers upon layers of misconduct sometimes committed by prosecutors and often committed by police—including some who are still on the city payroll or receiving taxpayer-funded city pensions—and dozens of men, overwhelmingly Black and young at the time, caught up in a vicious system that lacked transparency and accountability. I am incredibly proud of the work this unit has accomplished in such a short amount of time, and I am sobered by our ever-growing caseload.”
“Since I persuaded Patricia Cummings to come to the Philly DAO, she and her Conviction Integrity Unit team have made a reality of the prosecutor’s obligation to do justice moving forward and to do justice by correcting injustice in the past. The CIU’s work to date is historic and its broader significance cannot be overstated where trust between law enforcement and communities is broken. Fostering community trust in law enforcement requires that DA and police administrations hold their own accountable for misconduct and for crimes,” Krasner said.
He continued, “Having met and gotten to know wrongfully convicted men like Chester Hollman, Terrance Lewis, Anthony Wright, and so many others, I know the human potential that was lost. That lost potential was caused by an era of criminal justice culture that was reactionary, racist, and de-humanizing in its politics and in its press; a culture that had little regard for facts, science, or truth. Even an adversarial system cannot be adversarial to the truth.”
He also pointed out this is about the victims.
Krasner explained, “We cannot forget that victims and survivors were profoundly harmed by these wrongful convictions as well. Every innocent person in jail meant the guilty one went free. We are finding our way out of that murky past and this report lights the way.”
“This report shows that the Philadelphia DA’s Office is now gold standard for what a conviction integrity unit should be. By putting an experienced defense attorney at the helm and giving her the independence to report to him directly, Larry Krasner has created an institutional model that allows his CIU to operate without the conflicts of interest and mission that have plagued other CIUs that have relied on prosecutors to police themselves,” said Professor Rachel Barkow, Director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at NYU School of Law.
She continued, “The results are powerful. The Philadelphia CIU is not just righting wrongful convictions, but also correcting unjust sentences and doing the kind of systemic reviews of misconduct to prevent these injustices from happening in the future. I hope every DA in the country takes note and learns from this.”
“Larry Krasner and Patricia Cummings have worked hard to make the Philadelphia Conviction Integrity Unit one of the most impactful in the country,” added Professor John Hollway, Executive Director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at Penn Law.
He added, “This report outlines 21 exonerations (and counting) of innocent and/or wrongfully convicted men. Each exoneration sends a message that while our criminal justice system is not perfect, our dedication to the truth and to justice must always be the priority, and that we will do what is right over what is easy. In these cynical times, that’s a breath of fresh air for our communities.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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