Philly DA Office Secures Exoneration of Former Death Row Prisoner Daniel Gwynn

Via Pxfuel

By Rena Abdusalam 

PHILADELPHIA, PA – Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office has recently dropped all charges against former death row inmate Daniel Gwynn regarding the 1994 arson murder of an unhoused woman in West Philadelphia.

According to the District Attorney’s Office, Gwynn has been released after “nearly 30 years of imprisonment for a conviction and sentence secured by police and prosecutors who suppressed information to which he was legally entitled.”

Gwynn was exonerated by Judge Barbara McDermott of the state’s Court of Common Pleas, adding to the list of exonerations District Attorney Larry Krasner has supported.

“The wrongful conviction of Daniel Gwynn, and his unjust imprisonment for nearly three decades, is a cautionary tale of tunnel vision in policing and prosecution,” said ADA David Napiorski, lead investigator of Gwynn’s federal habeas relief claims.

“The oath sworn by prosecutors to seek justice compels us to follow the facts, even when they contradict assumptions and biases. Not only were Mr. Gwynn’s rights violated at trial, but his conviction and sentence to death row likely allowed the person actually responsible to escape accountability,” continued Napiorski.

“We also apologize to the survivors of Marsha Smith for the retraumatization they have likely experienced. They were deprived of justice in 1994 and are deserving of justice now,” added Napiorski.

On Nov. 20, 1994, Smith passed away because of an arson fire on the 4500 block of Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia. Gwynn was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to death after his jury trial that used testimony from two witnesses and his confession to the police.

“An alternate suspect in the 1994 murder had been identified by witnesses to police, but information about that suspect was never turned over to Gwynn, in violation of his constitutional rights,” stated the DA’s Office.

“With no eyewitnesses, the police relied on information from two people who, like Smith, were squatting in that residence, and who police said identified Gwynn as ‘Rick’ from photo arrays used in a separate murder investigation. Those photo arrays were never turned over to Gwynn’s defense counsel,” continued the office.

According to the DA’s Office, it was maintained for decades that the two murders were unrelated to each other and that the photo arrays did not exist.

“But during recent federal habeas proceedings, the DA’s Office under the Krasner administration disclosed the full case file to Gwynn – which included black and white photo arrays and other previously suppressed information pointing to a plausible alternative suspect for Smith’s murder,” stated the office in a press statement.

Such evidence consisted of the photo arrays not including Gwynn’s photo, the other murder being committed in the same building, and the same witnesses cooperating with police, as stated by the DA’s office.

“Those witnesses had testified against the defendant in the other homicide – the alternative suspect whom they identified was known as ‘Rick’ in the neighborhood – three days before the arson that killed Smith,” noted the statement.

However, this information was never revealed to the defense during Gwynn’s prosecution in addition to further evidence that included the suspect threatening the lives of the witnesses if they cooperated against him in the other trial, according to the DA’s office.

“The defendant in the other case was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, which he is serving to this day,” stated the DA’s office.

In 1998, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld Gwynn’s conviction and death sentence despite two justices affirming the trial court had erred in failing to suppress his confession due to issues with his initial arrest, as stated by the DA’s Office.

In Dec. 2020, the DA’s Office and the state’s Court of Common Pleas agreed Gwynn should be sentenced to life without parole.

“The Federal Litigation Unit and Gwynn’s counsel engaged in voluntary discovery, during which Gwynn was finally provided all of the exculpatory information to which he’d always been entitled, leading him to raise new claims for habeas relief,” said the DA’s Office’s press release.

Finally, in February of last year, the DA’s Office filed a response with the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, stating Gwynn’s “federal constitutional rights were violated under Brady v. Maryland, that his confession to police was not reliable, and that his conviction should be vacated.”

“In June 2023, the federal court granted Gwynn habeas relief and ordered the Commonwealth to inform the state court of its intent to retry or nolle pros charges against Gwynn,” the DA’s Office stated.

“I am proud of the justice-seeking work done by our Law Division Federal Litigation Unit, led by ADA Katherine Ernst and ADA David Napiorski. The exoneration of Daniel Gwynn today frees a man who is likely innocent,” DA Krasner said.

“Sadly, it also exemplifies an era of inexact and, at times corrupt, policing and prosecution that has broken trust with our communities to this day. The public expects the right consequences for those who commit violent crimes, and wants the innocent to be free,” Krasner added.

“When law enforcement wrongly arrests, prosecutes, and imprisons the innocent, the guilty go free and are emboldened to do more harm. I will continue to encourage our justice partners, including the Philadelphia Police Department, until we have the forensics we need to solve crimes the right way – with accuracy and integrity,” DA Krasner said.

About The Author

Rena is a junior at Davis Senior High School and is currently exploring her interest in the criminal justice system. After high school, she plans to attend college and continue to pursue a career in law.

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