Former “lifer” adjusts to the world on the outside

    Kenneth Granger wasn’t saved by DNA evidence. His daughter, Shakeema Welch, just wouldn’t give up.

    On July 14th of this year, a man serving a sentence of life without parole walked out of the courthouse in downtown Philadelphia a free man. He had served almost thirty years for a murder he did not commit. But his freedom did not rely on D.N.A. evidence like most overturned cases. Instead, 52 year old Kenneth Granger was freed by evidence painstakingly assembled with the help of his daughter.
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    Granger says he remembers the day in 1980 the police showed up at his door in south Philadelphia like it was yesterday.

    “The cops came in the house with guns drawn. And it was very traumatic, very shocking. And they said, look all we want to do is ask you some question, we don’t have a warrant for your arrest, we suspect you being a suspect in a crime. I said What kind of crime? Murder. Murder? I said you must be crazy, I just came home from school, cause I was in trade school. It was on a Wednesday.”

    Kenneth Granger and his daughter Shakeema Welch
    Kenneth Granger and his daughter Shakeema Welch

    Granger had already served time for a sexual assault and had recently been released from prison. Police took Granger to headquarters and 8th and Race streets where detectives took over.

    “He said do you know this person? I said no. He said well this person said that you killed this person. And I said wait a minute let me see this. And I didn’t know them from a can of paint. I didn’t know either one of them, none of them.”

    Granger’s daughter Shakeema Welch was just about four years old at the time.

    “I can remember from the story my Mom told me. She said we were at the dinner table my sisters and I and my father was in the back about to take a shower and the police had knocked on the door and said they want to speak to my father. They said they wanted to ask him a few questions and that he would be back later and from there…my mom thought he would come back. But he didn’t, that was the last time we saw him.”

    Welch says her family was tight-knit. She remembers the french toast her father made her in the morning, and his favorite dinner — pepper steak and rice.

    She grew up visiting her father in prison. But she didn’t know her father had a life sentence until she was much older.

    “She come up to visit me, and we were sitting down talking and she said I’m gonna get you out. And she said you have to be patient and I looked at her like, you know, this is my baby daughter and it struck my heart. I was like wow, what can she do? But it’s good that she feel that way, so I said whatever you can do, whatever.”

    His conviction relied on eyewitness testimony. Something that reformers now say is unreliable. Police detectives had shown witnesses Granger’s photo. So his daughter first began looking for those witnesses. And slowly, they began to reconstruct the night of October 13, 1980 when a cook named Edward Harris was killed under a bridge near Allegheny Avenue and 21st street in North Philadelphia.

    “I think the biggest question for me was that my father hung out in south Philadelphia and southwest Philadelphia. And this was a north Philadelphia crime, how did his photo get into that array. And this was always the question mark. We just don’t know today why. We just don’t know.”

    Welch attended Benjamin Franklin High School, and then Penn State University. Today, she’s a competitive athlete training for the 2012 Olympics in the long jump and triple jump. She says she applied that same competitive spirit to gaining her father’s freedom.

    Once they began digging, they discovered suppressed evidence, including interviews of a barmaid, who was never called to testify. And the reliance on an off-duty cop who at the time was under investigation by internal affairs for murder.

    “It’s stunning. I mean just stunning. It shows layer upon layer of corruption, from the police district all the way up to the judges chambers.”

    They had one clue — an evidence receipt of a hat left at the scene of the crime. But the hat was missing. He says he began to put together a timeline, something he learned by watching the television series C.S.I. in prison.

    “It was like the master key, boom. It was like the master key, everything fell right into place.”

    With evidence in hand, Granger wanted a new trial. But after speaking with the prosecutors, his attorneys began to hash out a deal. He pleads no contest, gets time served and walks free. The District Attorney gets to avoid a potentially embarrassing re-trial, and Granger avoids the risk of no new trial or another guilty verdict.

    This was a tough decision for Granger, who also had to give up his right to a civil lawsuit potentially worth a million dollars. And although all the other family members wanted him to take the deal, his daughter Shakeema wanted him to wait it out for a new trial.

    “To me its not so much about the money, its about the system admitting to their faults, bottom line. And I will stick to that until the day I am in my grave.”

    Granger himself finally consulted other lifers at Graterford prison, who told him that because he has children he should take the deal.

    So on a warm rainy day on July 14th, Granger walked out of the Criminal Justice Center.

    “I just wanted to walk. I didn’t want to get in the car or nothing I just wanted to walk. And my family was like no you can’t walk, you’re a long ways from home, we don’t live around the corner, we live 25 blocks from here. So I took them home and a couple days later I walked form there, I went back in town and walked cause that’s what I wanted to do. And I stopped in Rittenhouse Square, and I sat in Rittenhouse Square and I went to Love Park, and I went to Logan Circle, and I went to the Gallery ’cause that’s what I wanted to do.”

    But Granger still had not seen his daughter Shakeema, who was competing at a race in Germany.

    “And she said look, she said, we can Skype, you can see me for free, and I said where? how?”

    Shakeema surprised her father with a video internet call.

    “He was able to experience and see me from such a far distance and it seemed so close and I think that was such a shock for him so he was like ‘we can’t talk too long because it cost too much and I was like Dad this is free so we’re gonna have a good time.'”

    Granger says technology is not the only thing that’s taken him by surprise since leaving jail.

    “I never seen the moonlight on my face until I came home, for almost 30 years, never had the moonlight on my face. So, when I came out the other night and walked down this street I was in another world, I was like wow. People walk around at night? Kids play at night? Wow, this is deep. This is amazing I just wanted to sit on the step and watch them.”

    Granger says he’s trying to get identification, and a job.

    “Right now, I’ll take anything less than gettin’ in a cage with a lion, you know what I mean? I just want to work, and try to reintegrate back into society and try to recover.”

    But for now, he says, he walks the streets, and each morning, he kisses the sky.

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