Wrongly convicted, Philly man released from Graterford [updated]

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Donte Rollins leaves the Criminal Justice Center a free man after serving 10 years for a crime he didn't commit. He is accompanied by his mother, Ava Rollins. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Donte Rollins leaves the Criminal Justice Center a free man after serving 10 years for a crime he didn't commit. He is accompanied by his mother, Ava Rollins. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For Donte Rollins, Jan. 28, 2006, will always be a life divider, a way of forever sorting the rest of his days. 

Eighteen years old, he remembers coming back to his home in the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia after buying a sweatshirt at a shop with his friends. He had a date with a girl that night and wanted a fresh outfit. 

“It was crazy, like it was a regular day, and I came home, and seen cops and got arrested. I wasn’t expecting it, but it happened,” Rollins said.

And he’s been locked up ever since. While he was shopping, a shooting near his house left a 6-year-old paralyzed. Rollins was a suspect, charged with attempted murder and other counts. The jury that convicted him never heard from his alibi witnesses who were with him that day.

Prison, he said, has been “pure hell.”

“I lost my freedom. I didn’t lose my mind, but damn near lost it,” Rollins said, who is now 29. “I know I wanted to have children at a certain age, and I didn’t have that.”

Rollins was assisted by attorneys from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. He’s the sixth wrongfully convicted inmate whose freedom the group has won.

Rollins is looking forward to small things — being able to shower by himself; in fact, he says one of the first things he wants to do when he goes to his mother’s house is take a long bath. He said he ate every meal in prison with a spoon rather than a fork. He’s happy that will end.

But, bigger picture, Rollins wants to become active in criminal justice reforms. Much can be learned from someone who’s been on the inside, he said.

“There’s people in jail still that shouldn’t be there. There’s people who died in jail who should’ve been home. It’s people in jail for sentences that are too long for their crimes,” Rollins said. “There’s a lot going on in jails that people need to be aware of.

“I’d like to try help guys in situations like mine, or similar to mine, and help them get out.”

‘Merry Christmas’

Earlier on Wednesday, as Rollins’ mom, Ava Rollins, listened to the judge sign off on her son’s release, she patted her wet eyes with a tissue. 

“I knew he was innocent from the beginning,” Rollins said later outside of the Criminal Justice Center courthouse in Philadelphia. “The wheels of justice finally turned.”

Marissa Bluestine, who leads the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said the jury who convicted Rollins heard only a sliver of the evidence in the case, which is why he was mistaken for one of the offenders, she said. 

“That is why Donte is going home,” said Bluestine, who is one of Rollins attorneys. “Had it all been presented, neither the district attorney nor I believe that Donte would have been convicted.” 

In a press gaggle outside the courtroom, District Attorney Seth Williams read a long statement about the virtues of questioning the process, saying new information casted reasonable doubt upon the evidence used to convict Rollins. 

“We cannot, and should not, be afraid to question ourselves, question our decisions, and even question the guilt of someone who has been convicted.” 

When asked if he thinks Rollins was innocent, Williams trod carefully. 

“What we’re saying is, had we had the evidence that we have today, he would have been charged,” he said.

Assistant District Attorney Sam Ritterman approached a visibly emotional Ava Rollins after the hearing and said,  “Are you Donte’s mom? Merry Christmas.”

62 to 125 years in state prison

On Jan. 28, 2006, a group of men fired at a Pontiac Bonneville carrying the boy in the backseat. The boy’s grandfather, whom police say was the intended target, was driving and was not hit. But one bullet hit Jabar Wright in the neck, injuring him so severely he’s expected to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

“They were all wearing black clothing. They all had hoodies down to their eyebrows, and they were shooting. So you’re talking about an event that happened maybe one to two seconds in length during extraordinary stressful conditions,” said Bluestine.

Authorities at the time said the shooting was thought to be collateral damage springing from rivalries between neighborhood youth.

The boy’s grandmother, another passenger in the car, identified the shooters as men she’d known for years, testimony that proved key at trial. Overcome with emotion at the sight of Jabar testifying while seated in his wheelchair, some jurors wept.

In 2008, Rollins received the same sentence as his two co-defendants: 62 to 125 years in state prison, effectively a life sentence. He has been confined at Graterford state prison in Montgomery County. 

But Rollins had an alibi, including friends who said they were shopping with him at the time of the shooting on South Street and the Gallery in Philadelphia. They never testified. There were also cell phone records and store receipts the jury never considered as evidence.

“He wasn’t there,” Bluestine said. “He was miles away shopping with friends.”

When an appeal was filed pointing this out, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office eventually said in April it would not oppose his release, an exceedingly rare position for prosecutors.

“This information and evidence was not known to the district attorney’s office, or the prosecutor, or the trial judge, or the jury. Nobody knew about this when the case was tried, or when the case was charged,” said Mark Gilson, who leads the district attorney’s unit that reviews convictions.

Judge Rayford Means of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, who presided over the original trial, has refused to release Rollins on house arrest, during which a new trial date was supposed to be set. Instead, Means denied a new trial after a long string of court-listing delays.

The two other convicted co-defendants remain incarcerated. One other suspect was acquitted during the trial.

“The district attorney’s office and I agree: Donte’s trial counsel was ineffective for not providing the full alibi evidence, which was available to them,” said Bluestine, saying Means’ resistance to letting Rollins out of prison has always “left her scratching her head.”

On Tuesday, the Superior Court ruled that Rollins must be released no later than noon Wednesday. 

Still, Means on Wednesday would not dismiss Rollins’ charges, so the case was transferred to another courtroom, where Rollins’ dismissal was approved by Common Pleas Judge Scott DiClaudio. 

“I’m still a little upset about what happened,” Rollins said outside of the courthouse Wednesday night. “That’s why I don’t have a lot of emotions. I knew I was gonna get out. I just didn’t know when.” 

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