Philly DA, Pennsylvania Innocence Project seek justice through improved conviction review

     Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams is shown speaking to the press in November 2013. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY, file)

    Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams is shown speaking to the press in November 2013. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY, file)

    A man erroneously accused of murder, even with the presumption of innocence, might wait as long as two years for the system to clear his name. If there’s a guilty verdict, it can take decades. The Philadelphia DA’s office is pursuing a better option with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

    In March 2012, when Eric Locke heard he was wanted in connection with the murder of Joel Blumer — a crime he did not commit — he went into a police station to clear his name. Twenty-six months later, he is back with his family. On Monday, May 12, 2014, Locke was released from jail after being held for two years without bail and facing a possible death sentence for the murder.

    According to his attorney, Anthony Voci, the information used to qualify Locke’s alibi had been available to police and investigators the moment Locke walked into that police station.

    Judge Benjamin Lerner’s appointment of Voci to the case is one major factor that turned it around. In 2012, Lerner wrote a scathing review of defenders’ inability to properly defend capital cases in Philadelphia. Another factor was the appointment of Assistant District Attorney Jude Conroy to the case.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    According to Voci, all Conroy did was to follow up on the evidence initially collected at the onset of the case, which included Locke’s cell phone records, and returning the five calls made to a homicide detective by a man named Mr. Julian.

    “Mr. Julian drove Mr. Locke from Williamsport to Philly” while the murder of Mr. Blumer was occurring, Voci said. Conroy’s corroboration of Mr. Julian’s story and Locke’s cell phone records was, according to Voci, what led the DAs office to drop the charges against his client.

    A long road to clear one’s name

    This is all still a “work in progress,” Voci told me as he waited for his lunch the day after Locke was released. “Unfortunately, Mr. Locke lost 26 months of his life.”

    Voci placed a large order for lunch — he was hungry — but he waited to eat until he answered every question I had about the case. For Voci, Locke, and even the Blumers, this case is not over. Since the murder of Joel Blumer in 2012, everyone involved has lost a part of his or her life to the case to insure not only that an innocent man go free, but that the parties responsible be held accountable.

    In 2001, Jermel Lewis reportedly confessed to participating in the murders of seven people, ranging in age from 15 to 54, in West Philadelphia. He and the three other people he implicated in the crimes spent 18 months in jail and, like Locke, faced the death penalty. The incident came to be known as the Lex Street Massacre.

    The original prosecutor, Roger King, who would retire a short time after being removed from the case, was determined to try the three men Lewis identified. The proceedings became so tense that King asked for a change of courtroom because he did not feel safe.

    After the original defendants were released, Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson took over prosecution of the case, sifting through the evidence and eventually getting a conviction for the actual assailants. Two men pleaded guilty before trial, and two others avoided the death penalty with a plea deal. Now three of them are serving multiple consecutive life sentences for murder, and one is serving 15 to 30 years.

    While the falsely accused men in both of these cases were never convicted, they each spent over a year and a half in jail awaiting trial. These are just two instances where the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has been able to turn cases around before it was too late.

    Waiting all that time in prison, even with the presumption of innocence, to learn if you will be tried for a crime you did not commit is horrendous enough. After a guilty verdict, it can become nearly impossible and take decades. Any murder case is a lengthy process, and looking into the innocence claims of those already convicted takes even more work. This is exactly the difficult undertaking the Philadelphia DA’s office is pursuing with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

    Creating the Conviction Review Unit

    In its review of Philadelphia cases since its inception in 2009, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project has recommended 10 cases for review in Philadelphia to the District Attorney’s Office.

    Over the past few years, four of these have started to see some elements of movement, but there is a problem. While the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and the DA’s office are really on the same side — ensuring the appropriate person is charged with the crime — both are legally bound to present from what seems like opposing sides. To help deal with these cases, and any that many follow, the DA’s office created the Conviction Review Unit (CRU), led by Assistant DA Marc Gilson, the very same man who turned around the Lex Street case.

    “My goal [in creating the CRU],” Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams told me on May 7, “was to try and change the culture of the DA’s office and the people’s perception of the DA’s office.”

    According to Williams, when he became DA he had to restore “trust in the system and greater faith in my office.” With the development of the CRU in his second term, he sees the Pennsylvania Innocence Project as “a mechanism for [the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office] to better respond to cases of actual innocence.”

    The Project’s legal director, Marissa Boyers Bluestine, elaborated: “There is no ‘actual innocence’ way to proceed in a trial. The language that is available doesn’t allow for that.” The only option available within the law is to appeal a conviction by finding errors in trial proceedings or bringing to light new evidence. The current DA’s office has a department dedicated to these Post Conviction Relief Act, or PCRA, filings. But the CRU process would be wholly different. For one, PIP does not deal with cases where there is only a trial error. While the cases they work on may involve issues of representation or other legal issues, they focus solely on evidence-based analysis.

    “We start from the premise of guilt. If the facts lead elsewhere, we follow that,” Bluestine told me over the telephone in early May, after the CRU was publicly announced. “We [the Pennsylvania Innocence Project] never take an aggressive position. Someone didn’t intentionally screw up. There are mishaps, and they [police officers and prosecutors] have a tremendously difficult job.”

    For the families of victims, a wrongful conviction can exacerbate the loss of a loved one. Believing that the correct person has been captured, and then suddenly learning there might have been a mistake, causes pain, fear, and guilt. In a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Gertrude Blumer, Joel Blumer’s mother, said the process left her and her family confused and devastated.

    Williams said his office makes every effort to be “very sensitive to families having to go through this. They don’t want the wrong person held accountable.” Collaboration with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project could help further strengthen the ability of the DA’s office to consider the needs of victims’ families who are dealing with a wrongful conviction.

    “Before any petition is filed, we contact statewide victims’ advocates to prepare them,” Bluestine told me. “We don’t want them opening up the paper and seeing it. We put victims first. Their rights need to be protected as much as possible.”

    These wrongful arrests and convictions take a toll not just on the lives of those immediately involved, there other costs as well. In the Lex Street Massacre case, the arrests of the initial four men found to be innocent cost the city of Philadelphia $1.9 million.

    Last year I spoke with Williams and Bluestine about the DA’s office budget and the need for improved collaborative efforts to ensure Philadelphia was not at a severe disadvantage to lowering crime and reducing incidents of wrongful imprisonment.

    “There are about 500 cases a year in PCRA that my office responds to,” Williams said. The new CRU will be handling only cases vetted by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, thereby reducing the number of cases the unit will deal with. While what constitutes “actual innocence” is still unclear, the CRU is still only in its earliest stages.

    I asked Williams what ultimately motivated him to create the CRU. He told me that “in 2009, counties began developing conviction review and integrity units. Some of those people were incorrectly put on death row.”

    At that time, he started looking at newly developed initiatives in Manhattan and Dallas for conviction integrity review. For him, what is at stake is the “legitimacy of the criminal justice system.”

    As far as mistakes in his office go, Williams said, “One is too many.”

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal