Decades of misconduct have caused many Americans to lose faith in the criminal justice system, said a former Philadelphia police officer who has worked with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project to fix what he called “a broken system.”
That loss of faith was heightened after a spate of killings of unarmed black men, women, and children by police in recent years. Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Mo., was killed in August 2014, and Tamir Rice, 12, who was playing with a toy gun in a playground, was killed in Cleveland months later, in November 2014. A 2015 Harvard University study showed that nearly half of all millennials believe the system is flawed.
James Figorski, a 25-year Philadelphia police veteran and now an attorney at Dechert LLP, has seen inequity firsthand, he told high school students at the Acel Moore High School Journalism Workshop in February. But now he is attempting to fix that “broken system” by providing legal assistance to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.
In addition to police killings, many Americans don’t trust police and prosecutors who have charged African American men with crimes when the evidence points elsewhere, he said. According to a guest editorial on PennLive, nearly 60 people have been wrongfully convicted between 1989 and 2016 in Pennsylvania.
Started in 2006 by lawyers David Rudovsky and David Richman, the nonprofit project began as an extension of the New York Innocence Project.
Since its opening in 2009, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project has helped exonerate 14 innocent people, according to Marissa Boyers Bluestine, executive director of the project.
One such exoneration was the case of Shaurn Thomas, 43, of North Philadelphia.
But his long journey of being imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit began when he was 16.
In his address to workshop participants, Figorski described the case this way:
On the morning of Nov. 13, 1990, Domingo Martinez, a 78-year-old businessman, was murdered on his way to deliver cash to his Northeast Philadelphia business. The night before, Thomas had been arrested for attempting to steal a motorcycle. He was held in custody for the night until his mother signed for his release.
The next morning, Thomas attended an intake meeting with a court administrator to discuss sentencing options.
While Thomas was in that courtroom meeting, according to witnesses for Thomas’ defense, Martinez was killed miles away. Other witnesses said a red-and-white car swerved into Martinez’s car. Three men got out, and one of them shot Martinez through the windshield. The men took his car, leaving Martinez’s body on the road.
Two years later, Nathaniel Stallworth confessed to the crime and named five accomplices: Thomas and his brother, Mustafa; William Stallworth; and two other men.
Later that year, Stallworth’s cousin John Stallworth confessed, and gave significantly different details than his cousin. John Stallworth named a different man as one of the accomplices: Louis Gay, who police later found was in prison at the time of the murder. And John Stallworth said the cars at the scene were blue and gray.
The court dismissed testimony from Thomas’ court administrator and four witnesses who could have established Thomas’ alibi. And despite clear discrepancies between the two confessions, Thomas was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Figorski was the lead attorney in the fight he and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project waged to prove Thomas’ innocence. He was released from jail after 24 years in May 2017. While he had been arrested at age 16 for attempted theft of a motorcycle, Thomas was 19 when first held on charges of murdering Martinez.
For this and every case, the Innocence Project staffers rifle through hundreds of letters from inmates, digesting mountains of details in order to determine which cases to pursue.
The selection of a case involves the creation of a 40- to 50-page report. This report is presented to experienced criminal defense lawyers — two of whom must be former prosecutors. Their approval of the case leads to an exhaustive investigation conducted by the organization followed by litigation.
Bluestine said the Innocence Project works within the system to demand change. This includes aiding departments with implicit-bias training and effective suspect lineups, among many other things. Implicit bias is an unconscious association with crime that police and witnesses sometimes make about members of certain racial minority groups.
“If we don’t, as a society, learn from that error [Thomas’ conviction] and that person’s suffering, then it just makes it worse, to me,” Bluestine said. “If we don’t try to take the lessons from that … and say ‘OK, how could we have prevented this tragedy by making very concrete changes?’ And if we don’t do that, then that person’s suffering is in vain.”