Will Bunch and the overturning of the Shaurn Thomas conviction are exposing the Philadelphia justice system

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Shaurn Thomas

As discussed in Episode 40 of our podcast, blind faith in the state’s legal and justice systems is bound to end with a lot of innocent people behind bars.  It’s the nature of the incentive structure and those who are more easily corrupted exacerbate an already bad problem.  Consider the typical District Attorney: most are serving their own interests to advance their careers.  Their main marketing point to garner support for their political aspirations is to show how “tough” they’ve been on crime.  Their numbers are important and they’re simple for people to understand.

An average person assumes that gaudy homerun numbers for a baseball player means that he is talented.  And that would be correct: scoring runs is obviously important for winning baseball games, so a player who drives in a lot of them tends to be valuable.  In baseball, it’s never a bad thing to score runs, so using homeruns to make a judgement on a player is fine.

But there’s something about the justice system that makes the number of convictions by a District Attorney different.

The goal of a healthy justice system should not be to throw people in prison.  The goal should be to see justice served, which means correctly identifying and dealing with the actual criminals and protecting the rights of the innocent.  Putting innocent people in prison flies in the face of that.  And bragging about and showing off conviction numbers doesn’t help put the focus where it ought to be.

The sooner people can start to see through all of this, the sooner people will begin to demand accountability of those in charge of the justice system.  It looks like it may be beginning to happen in Philadelphia.

Shaurn Thomas is set to be freed from prison tomorrow, May 24, 2017, after serving 24 years of a life sentence without parole for his wrongful conviction of taking part in a murder.  Will Bunch of Philly.com covered his story.  There was exceedingly strong evidence that he was innocent but he was found guilty and locked up anyway.  The entire case was disgracefully handled.

Bunch writes:

Thomas seemed to have a cut-and-dried alibi for where he was on the November 1990 morning when Puerto Rican businessman Domingo Martinez was gunned down while transporting $25,000 to a check-cashing store he owned. He said he was checking into the former Youth Study Center for juvenile offenders on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway after he’d been locked up the night before in a completely unrelated matter. He even had a signed subpoena from that morning to prove it.

There was also a missing police homicide folder that detailed information that was never presented to Thomas’ lawyers.  The closest eye witness to the actual murder was told that his testimony would not be needed.

It doesn’t get any better with the handling of “confessions”:

By early 1992, an arrestee seeking lenient treatment — Nathanial Stallworth — fingered six participants, including his cousins John and William Stallworth, who are brothers, and Shaurn Thomas and his brother, Clayton “Mustafa” Thomas. A short time later, John Stallworth was busted on an unrelated charge, and signed a confession that also named those three but implicated another man named Louis Gay, who was later shown to have been in prison the morning of the murder.

That false confession was put aside and Stallworth signed a second one that omitted Gay and added an unknown individual. Told he’d been named and that his brother faced the death penalty, William Stallworth also confessed to his role and testified at Thomas’ trial that he was in the alleged second murder car with him. Those confessions led to the conviction of Shaurn’s brother, who supporters say is still imprisoned and lacks a strong alibi like his brother’s.

How can someone who is proven to be lying be trusted with a confession, especially when the prospect of leniency is on the table?  No amount of incompetence can explain that away.  It makes much more sense that those involved in the prosecution of the case had motives other than justice.  I would be willing to bet that their motives were to get their convictions and close the case.  That way they can “pad their stats” and then quickly move on to their next case.  The more rapidly they go through cases, the quicker they can build up their numbers.

Shaurn Thomas wasn’t the only innocent man convicted of a crime that he did not commit by the Philadelphia justice system.  Bunch mentions Anthony Wright and Jimmy Dennis as men who, like Thomas, ended up sitting in prison cells despite plenty of evidence that showed they didn’t belong there.  And these are not recent cases—they are all from the early 1990s.  If it’s not already clear, it shows that it can take years and years for sentences and convictions to be overturned.  It’s a human rights disaster.

There’s also another connection shared by these three men:

“Tragically, Shaurn has spent 24 years imprisoned for another man’s crime,” Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said Monday. “In addition, the officers who investigated the murder of Domingo Martinez are the same officers who investigated crimes that led to the wrongful arrest of both Anthony Wright and Jimmy Dennis. As we did after Mr. Wright’s acquittal, we call on the Philadelphia district attorney to investigate every case these officers handled.” She noted that a similar probe of just one rogue detective in Brooklyn recently led to 22 convictions getting tossed out.

The problems are clearly systemic.  And coupling this with the recent indictment of DA Seth Williams on 23 federal corruption charges, much more attention will hopefully be given to the practices of Philadelphia “crime fighting.”  The potential problem, however, is that Seth Williams is an easy target and will probably be sacrificed to preserve the corrupt system that he represents.  Williams is not the problem but is rather a symptom of it.  If his career ends in a conviction and/or disgrace, people will pat themselves on the backs for a job well done.

But if the conversation stops at Williams, then nothing will change.  Just look at the previous two Philadelphia District Attorneys.  Lynne Abraham was called the “Deadliest DA” and “Queen of Death” for how frequently (though fortunately never successfully) she pursued the death penalty.  Her predecessor, Ronald Castille, also pursued the death penalty at a high rate and even withheld important details from a case in order to manipulate the jury.

The power these people hold is much too great and their lack of accountability only makes it worse.  People must stop believing in the myth that those accused of a crime will “have their day in court” and be guaranteed a fair trial.  I am not suggesting that there is any system that would be infallible but the current system is absolutely doomed and unworkable.  Philadelphia has an opportunity to start correcting these issues, so let’s be the ones who point out the real problems.

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