The Director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project has urged the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to conduct an internal review of cases from the 1980’s and 90’s following a spate of overturned murder convictions in the past year. But Seth Williams is not admitting there’s a problem with his office’s record.
Maryclaire Dale of the Associated Press writes that three murder convictions and a death sentence have been thrown out by state and federal judges in the past year due to prosecutorial misconduct and/or shoddy police work. The Open File has been following two of thes cases: Terry Williams and James Dennis.
In the case of Terry Williams, who came close to execution last year, Judge Teresa Sarmina of the Court of Common Pleas found that prosecutors had hid evidence that supported Mr. Williams’ contention that the man he killed had sexually abused him in his teens.
In the case of James Dennis, Judge Anita Brody of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania said prosecutors and investigators withheld three pieces of exulpatory evidence that supported Dennis’ claims to innocence and may have given jurors reasonable doubt. (Read David Love’s recent commentary on the case at HuffPo here.)
In the third case involving teens Eugene Gilyard and Lance Felder, Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi threw out their murder convictions citing the “extremely weak” case against the two men at trial compared to the “detailed” and fully corroborated confession of one of the actual murderers.
Yet despite the allegedly unethical behavior of prosecutors in all these wrongful conviction cases, Assistant District Attorney Robin Godfrey, who runs the Post Conviction Relief Appeals unit for DA Williams’ office, told Dale, “Sometimes I expect the Innocence Project wishes we would investigate for them and come to the same conclusion as them. If we see anything (troubling), believe me, it will be brought to the right people’s attention. The process is working.”
Williams’ office is not backing down on two of the three overturned convictions, appealing both the Williams and Dennis cases and considering an appeal in the Gilyard and Felder cases. Even so, Dale notes that a Philadelphia Inquirer review found “scores” more cases out of the Philadelphia County DA’s office where a conviction was later overturned in a review it conducted in 2011.