D.A. Seth Williams sends mixed signals on bad convictions
D.A. drops charges against men imprisoned 15 years for murder they likely didn't commit but reassigns head of new conviction review unit.
District Attorney Seth Williams' office this morning dropped charges against Eugene Gilyard and Lance Felder, two North Philadelphia men who served long prison terms for the 1995 murder of Thomas Keal — a murder that they most likely did not commit.
"It's over," said a beaming Christine Gilyard, Eugene's mother and a staunch supporter during his 15 years behind bars. "Y'all can go on with your lives."
Felder said that he felt "wonderful" as he walked out of Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi's courtroom. "I can just go ahead and live my life. This has been a heavy load on my shoulders."
DeFino-Nastasi ordered a new trial for Gilyard and Felder in October after a man named Ricky Welborn made a detailed confession to committing the murder. DeFino-Nastasi also said that the original "evidence supporting the convictions," limited to contradictory eyewitness identifications, "was terribly weak."
Welborn is currently serving a life sentence for another murder.
In April, Pennsylvania Innocence Project lawyers revealed that a second man identified as having possibly been involved with Keal's murder named Timothy Gooden had been arrested and charged in a December 2013 kidnapping and attempted murder.
The charges against Gooden were a reminder that putting the wrong person in prison not only robs an innocent person of their freedom but also leaves a potentially dangerous criminal on the street. The D.A. has not filed charges against Welborn and Gooden for Keal's murder.
Gilyard's case represents the first successful exoneration for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which was founded in 2009 at Temple University's Beasley School of Law. They're working on more.
City Paper has covered the case extensively since last May, and the paper's reporting helped prompt a critical witness to come forward.
"They're exonerated," says David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who represented Gilyard. "They were innocent to begin with and they're innocent today."
The District Attorney's office has not yet apologized to Gilyard and Felder, or conceded that a miscarriage of justice has taken place. Indeed, they had aggressively fought Gilyard and Felder's effort to prove their innocence.
"The passage of so many years and inconsistencies between witnesses from the initial investigation and witnesses that came to light more recently, has compromised the evidence to the point that we cannot proceed against Eugene Gilyard and Lance Felder," according to a statement from the District Attorney's office released today. "At the same time, the credibility of the written confession of Ricky Welborn that was put forth at the PCRA [Post Conviction Relieft Act] hearings last summer has also been called into question, as there is an abundance of evidence that Welborn, a prisoner already sentenced to life, was offered $10,000 in exchange for that statement."
Judge DeFino-Nastasi did not buy the argument, which was based on phone calls and letters from Welborn in which he claimed that he did not commit the murder and that he had been promised cash to say that he did.
The D.A. highlighted just one $500 deposit made in Welborn's commissary, made by a woman using the same first name as a relative who frequently made such deposits. DeFino-Nastasi noted that Welborn only stepped back from his testimony after City Paper's lengthy May cover story prompted friends and relatives to complain that he was snitching. In addition, the letters were sent to addresses that either had no relationship to the case or did not exist.
Welborn had also stated in a recorded phone call that he was aware his mail was being monitored by authorities.
The D.A.'s argument required Gilyard to have perpetuated a complex and more than decade-long conspiracy. At the time, Judge DeFino-Nastasi sarcastically remarked that their theory was "a little bit too coincidental."
The state is not likely to make things right for the pair either: Unlike some other states, Pennsylvania provides no financial restitution to those who have spent years in prison for a wrongful conviction. Creating such a program would require action from the state legislature.
Rudovsky says that it's too early to determine whether this marks a change in the D.A. office's approach to wrongful convictions. "I think they made the right decision in this case," he says. "Whether it will show a new approach to conviction integrity, we'll have to wait and see."
Innocence advocates have some reason to be skeptical: Williams today assigned the head of the office's newly-created conviction review unit, longtime prosecutor Mark Gilson, to run a high-profile grand jury investigation into political corruption.
Williams (pictured, right) created the conviction review unit, charged with investigating cases of wrongful conviction and seeking their exoneration, in April after resisting calls to do so for years.
Asked whether Gilson would remain focused on investigating wrongful convictions, Williams said that insufficient funding required many talented staffers in his office to perform multiple tasks, and that if he were "manager of the Phillies and it was the seventh game of the World Series I'd give the ball to Mark Gilson."
Pennsylvania Innocence Project Legal Director Marissa Bluestine says they "are concerned that the Unit's director has been named to a high-profile grand jury proceeding investigating political corruption. As there are still no other staff members assigned to reviewing cases of innocence, we have new reservations about the District Attorney's commitment to this endeavor."
Bluestine called on Williams to fully staff the unit, as district attorneys in Dallas and Brooklyn have done. She said her office had had "several productive meetings" with Gilson, and that "the exonerations of Eugene Gilyard and Lance Felder present the perfect opportunity for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office to investigate how two innocent men came to be convicted of a murder neither one committed."
The grand jury will look at the case of four state legislators and a Philadelphia Traffic Court judge allegedly caught receiving cash or jewelry without reporting the gifts. The case has generated substantial controversy since the Inquirer revealed in March that the secret investigation had been quietly dropped by Attorney General Kathleen Kane. Williams has since become a high-profile critic of Kane and has attracted substantial media attention in that role.
It's unclear what results the public should expect from the conviction review unit. Asked about its status, prosecutor Mark Gilson laughed and said, "We're reviewing convictions." He then returned to discussing the coming investigation into political corruption with a reporter.