(Editor’s note: The Philadelphia DA’s Office released the first of what will be regular reports on the work of the CIU, which in fewer than four years has helped secure the exonerations of 20 people in 21 cases. The report, “Overturning Convictions – and an Era,” is available for download: tinyurl.com/CIUreport. The Vanguard is publishing stories on each exoneration).
By Linh Nguyen and Joshua Vega
PHILADELPHIA, PA – Twenty eight years after he was wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder, Chester Hollman was exonerated after forensic evidence proved him to be not guilty.
On the evening of Aug. 20, 1991, a foreign exchange student named Tae Jung Ho was attacked and subsequently shot by two men in Philadelphia. The attackers fled the scene by jumping into the back of a white Chevy Blazer.
In addition to getting the make and model of the vehicle, several letters of the vehicle’s license plate, “YZA,” were identified.
Two women were also believed to be in the vehicle, with one of the women acting as the driver. A couple of minutes after the first 911 call was made, Chester Hollman, who was 21 years old at the time, and a passenger named Dierdre Jones were pulled over by police officers a couple of blocks from where the crime scene had occurred.
Hollman had rented a vehicle that matched the description of Tae Jung Ho’s attackers. Hollman’s rented car also had the letters “YZA” on its license plate which were believed to be on the attackers escape vehicle (there isn’t a lot of info in the document provided on his arrest and trial).
Both Hollman’s and another vehicle, rented to Denise Combs, were rented from the same rental car service, Alamo Rent-a-Car and the license plates being so similar was likely a result of both vehicles being registered in the same transaction.
It was also learned Combs had returned her rental car before its expected due time at 5 a.m. on the same morning of the attack on Tae Jung Ho.
Nonetheless, Hollman was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.
In 2018, Hollman was allowed access to his case and his attorney had discovered that “exculpatory evidence had been suppressed by the Commonwealth” regarding Hollman’s case.
The evidence in question had linked three other people to the crime with one of them, Denise Combs, renting a white Chevy Blazer with a license plate with the “YZA ” letters at the same time of the attack.
The prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Roger King, also failed to disclose to the defense a full and accurate report of a witness’s criminal history. This witness, Andre Dawkins, was a homeless man with substance addiction and a history of schizophrenia and alcohol abuse. He identified Hollman as the person who held and searched the victim.
Further evidence that was unveiled after being initially suppressed showed that an anonymous caller had identified Combs as a potential suspect in the murder. The police did initially pursue this lead, but only to see if there existed a link between her and their initial suspect of Hollman.
In 1997, Hollman and his defense team filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus based on the prosecutor’s suppression of critical information. The petition was denied and the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld that denial in 1999. They justified the denial, stating that it was a clerical error because Dawkins had two police identification numbers.
The Court ruled, “Without some record of evidence that it was something more than a mistake we cannot conclude that the government withheld information that was readily available to it or constructively in its possession.”
In February 2018, Hollman’s lawyers, Alan Tauber and Marissa Bluestine, and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project asked the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) to review the conviction. Patricia Cummings, head of the CIU, led the investigation.
Once it was learned that no link existed between the two, Combs was not considered a suspect.
There were fingernail clippings taken from Ho after his death in an effort to obtain forensic evidence on his attackers.
Despite being taken, the forensic evidence was not analyzed until 2019 where it was discovered that there was DNA of two people, Ho, and someone who wasn’t Hollman.
“It was pretty clear to us that, unfortunately, the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office actually had evidence in their possession back at the time of trial, (and) had they disclosed it to the defense as they’re constitutionally and ethically required to do, Mr. Hollman might not have ever even stood trial,” Cummings said.
“I apologize to Chester Hollman. I apologize because he was failed, and in failing him, we failed the victim, and we failed the community of the city of Philadelphia,” he added.
With the evidence that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence at the time of Hollman’s trial, and in addition to the newly acquired DNA evidence, Chester Hollman was exonerated on July 30, 2019, 28 years after he’d been charged.
Earlier this year, he was awarded $9.8 million by the city of Philadelphia for his unjust incarceration.
Linh Nguyen is a third year Political Science student at UC Davis, also pursuing a minor in Professional Writing. She is an aspiring investigative journalist from San Jose, California, who also shares interests in literature and baking
Joshua Vega is a recent graduate from Westmont College with a undergraduate degree in History and a minor in Psychology. He is from Mission Viejo, CA. He hopes to improve his professional writing skills for graduate school and gain insight on the American criminal justice system.
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