A Philadelphia man wrongfully imprisoned since 2007 for a murder he didn’t commit got his life back on Wednesday after a judge approved a lawyer’s request to drop the case.
It wasn’t defense attorneys who made the ask, though. It was the head of homicide prosecutions for the same office that had put Dontia Patterson away in the first place.
Patterson was only convicted because prosecutors who worked the case hid evidence from his legal team that all but proves he was not the killer, Assistant District Attorney Anthony Voci wrote in a Tuesday filing that asked the court to tear up the case instead of ordering it re-tried.
Patterson was 17 when his friend Antwine Jackson was shot and killed in an apparent battle over drug-selling turf. Patterson rushed to Jackson’s side and knelt over his body crying out for help. Police quickly established two likely suspects from a rival drug crew – but then turned around and pinned the 2007 killing on Patterson, burying eyewitness testimony to the contrary in the process.
Patterson’s conviction was reversed in January after a lengthy filing by lawyers with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project persuaded a court his case was bogus. Until Wednesday’s ruling, Patterson was on supervised release pending a new trial.
He would have faced a third trial were it not for Voci’s filing, which decried the work of earlier prosecutors as not just sloppy or negligent but willfully and even criminally dishonest. The case illustrates new District Attorney Larry Krasner’s commitment to changing how justice is meted out in Philadelphia. Krasner has revitalized conviction review work in the office, cleaned house of more than two dozen career prosecutors including the one Voci’s filing excoriates, and initiated policy changes designed to shrink the city’s jail population and give accused criminals a fairer shake throughout the pre-trial and trial processes.
“The Commonwealth will not re-try a case against a man who is probably innocent and whose case is so lacking in integrity,” Voci wrote. “Violations of [evidence disclosure rules] often occur in weak cases. The case against Patterson was weak. Without concealment of exculpatory evidence, the prosecution could not win. And in all serious cases, prosecutors feel pressure to win.”
Richard Sax, the former prosecutor who won the conviction, insisted his work was righteous in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer. He called Krasner’s office’s decision “political” and denied withholding any evidence from defense lawyers.
“Some feel the end justifies the means,” Voci wrote of Sax’s work. “Although Patterson was tried twice, neither jury heard the truth.”
The filing’s peppery description of alleged misconduct by former prosecutors is eye-catching. But set aside the flashy war of words between current and former prosecutors, and you’ll find yet another layer of complexity to how the justice system unwinds wrongful convictions.
In many other exoneration cases, the innocent person never wholly clears their name. The typical positive resolution of a wrongful conviction appeal involves a post-facto plea deal that lets a prosecutor save face but leaves a permanent stain on an innocent person’s formal record.
Letitia Smallwood, freed after four decades in prison after mistaken fire science helped wrongly persuade a jury she’d set a fatal 1972 fire, is technically still a convict because she was only released after pleading no contest to lesser charges in exchange for immediate release. Such deals, known to lawyers as Alford pleas, allow a person to formally assert their innocence but still constitute a conviction in the technical sense. Smallwood is one of four Pennsylvanians in the past eight years to leave prison on Alford pleas after the Pennsylvania Innocence Project effectively proved their innocence, the group’s site says.
Patterson looked set to face the same devil’s bargain of pleading out despite heaping evidence of his innocence. Attorneys with the Project put together such a compelling pile of evidence that Patterson’s first two trials were irredeemably tainted by dishonest prosecutor conduct and ineffectual defense counsel that a court vacated his conviction and ordered a new, third trial in the case. That’s the stage at which other prosecutors would start looking to cut a deal like the one Smallwood struck, sending the wrongly convicted person home with a scarlet letter.
But Krasner’s philosophy toward conviction integrity seems different. The unit his predecessor established to review allegations of wrongful convictions was not well regarded among exoneration lawyers and reform advocates. The office had just one staff member who worked only part-time hours. That one-man shop was not independent of the prosecutors who represent the state in criminal appeals.
Krasner overhauled the conviction integrity work early in his tenure, bringing in a veteran criminal lawyer with both defense and prosecution experience on her resume. Patricia Cummings had run conviction integrity work in Texas for years before joining Krasner’s team. She now has a team of dedicated Assistant District Attorneys, investigators, and support staffers to comb through credible claims that a person in prison is innocent, or that the casework that put them behind bars was so flawed that it should be revisited.
That doesn’t mean Alford pleas are a thing of the past. Sometimes the reviews Krasner has Cummings leading will produce evidence that a person was wrongfully convicted without persuading prosecutors that they are clearly innocent.
But it suggests a break from the practice, common around the country and born of the old-school political imperatives that have made prosecutors so allergic to admitting error in the past, of forcing pleas wherever possible. The Smallwood case is again instructive: Faced with clear scientific evidence that arson investigators had made damning errors in good faith, the Cumberland County District Attorney’s office still appealed her exoneration to the state Supreme Court. It didn’t matter that the science was provably wrong from a modern perspective; the statute of limitations for appeals was on the prosecutor’s side, and they didn’t shy away from using that leverage to force an Alford plea.
Keeping a clean convictions record through Alford pleas may help a given prosecutor’s long-term ambitions to high office. But it doesn’t serve the public interest very well. Voci’s filing Tuesday makes clear that Krasner’s team intends to put what’s good for the public first – though it’s easier to do so when cleaning up someone else’s messes than it will be should Krasner eventually find himself having to own errors made on his own watch.
“The constitutional requirements police and prosecution ignored in Patterson’s case are crucial,” Voci wrote. “They protect the innocent and re-direct the entire criminal justice system to investigate further to pursue the guilty, all of which protects the public.”