Wearing a blue button-down shirt and a black blazer, Tony Wright paused before speaking to a group of reporters on Wednesday to consider his nearly quarter-century of confinement in the face of evidence that suggests he didn’t deserve it.
“Oh, my God. Oh, man. Twenty-five years, man,” Wright whispered to himself, wiping tears away from his eyes.
After convincing a judge to order DNA tests of a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt and the blue jeans he allegedly wore during a 1991 rape and murder, Wright was granted a new trial, and the jury acquitted him Tuesday.
Wright said the police framed him, and he was coerced him to sign a confession that wasn’t even in his words. When police arrested him, at 20 years old, Wright was a seventh-grade dropout and had a toddler.
“I want someone to look at my son in the face and explain to him why his dad was gone for 25 years. For what?”
The district attorney’s office decided to retry him, instead of allowing his release, after his conviction was vacated by a judge in 2014, in light of the new evidence. Prosecutors argued that though forensic tests demonstrated that another man’s sperm was found in the victim, and his DNA was not discovered on the clothes detectives said he wore, Wright may have still been an accomplice to the vicious murder of a 77-year-old woman in her home in North Philadelphia in 1991.
Shaina Battis didn’t believe prosecutors. She was juror No. 1.
“This was truly emotionally draining, mentally exhausting and soul-stirring thing that I’ve ever done in my life. I literally cried tears of sadness at times during the trial, and tears of joy after the foreperson announced our verdict,” said Battis, reading a statement she said she had posted on Facebook.
That forewoman was Grace Greco.
“I almost felt like I knew Tony personally as I was listening to the evidence for the last two weeks. You know, I just felt like … I can’t even put it into words. It was overwhelming,” Greco said.
The Innocence Project helped win a new trial for Wright. The group said he is the 344th inmate in the country to be freed after DNA tests. Wright said the public knowing he wasn’t a murderer was more important to him than being released.
“When the DNA results came back and said I wasn’t the guy, I didn’t care what happened after that. Whatever happened after that, the world knew I was innocent of this crime for which I was accused, charged and convicted of,” Wright said.
Wright had been fighting in appeals courts for years before landing a new trial. During this frustrating process, he’d see similar cases in other states, prompting him to ask himself why he wasn’t as lucky.
“Every time I turn on the news, I felt like I was being tortured in a sense. What I mean by that is, every time I turn on the news, whether it was in Kentucky, whether it was New York, whether it was Tennessee. People were being exonerated for these cases. And I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t happening for me,” said 44-year-old Wright.
One of the first things he did Tuesday night when he walked out of the prison cell? Asked his legal team for a sweet confection.
“They got me the best piece of cheesecake,” Wright said, laughing. “I think it was a vanilla cream. It was unbelievable, man. I think I was eating it so much they had to take it away from me.”
Wright’s attorney wouldn’t comment on whether he’ll be filing a civil suit seeking monetary damages for the time Wright spent in prison. While that’s being mulled over, Wright said he has another priority: going to Florida to visit his 90-year-old grandmother to give her a big squeeze.
“We don’t want to overwhelm her,” Wright said. “But I can’t wait to go see her face and see her face and just hold her in my arms.”