US man cleared of murder conviction after 37 years in prison

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A Philapdelphia man, one of more than 100 exonerated and released from prison in the US state of Pennsylvania, has been cleared of his murder conviction after spending the last 37 years in prison. He was cleared after a court found that his case was tainted by perjured testimony back in 1984.
Willie Stokes left prison earlier this month, after a United States federal judge found prosecutors never disclosed that they had charged his chief accuser with perjury after the trial.
The crime which has yet to be solved, a dice-game slaying, resulted in his conviction based on a the witness who had has said he was offered sex and drugs at police headquarters to frame Stokes.
“I’m not bitter. I’m just excited to move forward,” Stokes, 60, told The Associated Press news agency after the brief morning court hearing, when prosecutors announced they would not seek to retry the case.
More than 100 people have been exonerated and released from prison in recent years in the US state of Pennsylvania, according to Marissa Boyers Bluestine of the University of Pennsylvania law school, the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.
But none served more prison time than Stokes.
Homicides have soared in many American cities since the start of the pandemic with police now facing new scrutiny, including over past arrests and discrimination. That has resulted in many people being released and large amounts of compensation being paid.
In Stokes’ case, the trial witness who had identified Stokes as the killer at a preliminary hearing recanted at the murder trial, in what he later called a fit of conscience. Stokes was nonetheless convicted.
Prosecutors then charged the witness, Franklin Lee, with perjury over his pre-trial testimony, and Lee went to prison for it. Stokes never knew that until 2015.
“I didn’t believe it,” Stokes said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t believe that they would let something like that happen, that they knew, and they didn’t tell me.”
Stokes said his only child, a daughter who was two when he went to prison, died about 20 years ago. He was not allowed to attend her funeral. He now lives with his mother.
“She [has] got a beautiful three-story house, so I’m not in the way,” Stokes said on Thursday, the joy in his voice evident.
Criminal lawyer Michael Diamondstein, who handled Stokes’ successful federal court appeal, called the actions of police and prosecutors in the case outrageous. “They used perjured evidence to convict him and then charged the perjurer, and never told him. And then Willie was warehoused for 38 years,” Diamondstein said.
In his view, the official misconduct stemmed from “institutional racism, or pure bias”.
In Philadelphia in those days, “the cases needed to be closed,” Diamondstein said. “The inner-city minority were interchangeable, as long as you had someone in the defendant’s chair.”
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has championed about two dozen exoneration cases. A supervisor in his office, Matthew Stiegler, said on Thursday that the office agreed with the federal judge who found that Stokes’s constitutional rights were egregiously violated.
Both detectives who allegedly offered Lee a sex-for-lies deal to help them close the homicide case are now deceased.
“I felt weak and went along with the offer,” Lee told the federal judge in November, recalling his testimony at the May 1984 preliminary hearing.
Meanwhile, Stokes filed a lawsuit on Thursday accusing the city of “outrageous police misconduct”. The lawsuit names the estates of the now-deceased detectives as defendants.
Two surviving prosecutors also named in the suit, now in private practice, did not immediately return messages from AP seeking comment on Thursday. At least one has given a statement saying he does not remember the case, according to court files.
The Philadelphia police department declined to comment on the case. The city did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the man cleared of his murder conviction after being wrongfully sent to prison 37 years.


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Peter McLaren-Kennedy

Originally from South Africa, Peter is based on the Costa Blanca and is a web reporter for the Euro Weekly News covering international and Spanish national news. Got a news story you want to share? Then get in touch at editorial@euroweeklynews.com.



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