Seth Williams, Philadelphia's district attorney, continues his disgraceful record of refusing to rectify his office’s history of mistakes. He has repeatedly retried cases and pursued charges in situations where there is more than enough reasonable doubt. The story of Anthony Wright is just one example. Wright has been in jail for 23 years, steadfastly claiming he is innocent of the crimes of which he has been accused.
It’s best to start with the moment police entered Wright's house. It was a Sunday in the fall of 1991, and he was at home watching television with his girlfriend. At the time he was just 20 years old.
Wright had finally gotten back on his feet after struggling with crack addiction as a teenager. His addiction was the catalyst for other reckless behaviors, and he began resorting to theft to feed his drug habit. Wright hit rock bottom at age 16 when he was arrested for breaking the jaw of a police officer while he was high. It was his first arrest. Many in the local law enforcement community demanded that Wright be charged as an adult with aggravated assault, but instead a judge sent him to a program called VisionQuest.
VisionQuest was a boot camp in the remote wilderness, one of the country's first programs of its kind aimed at helping struggling kids. Those who knew him back then say that his two years in the program did wonders—Wright got clean, grew up, and began thinking about his future. By the time Wright turned 20, he had finished the program and his subsequent supervised release successfully. He moved in with his mother (she had also suffered from drug addiction but was clean at the time) and got a job in construction, carrying bags of cement. It was tough and exhausting work but it put money his pocket, and gave him the chance to take care of his family—especially Tony Jr., his 4-year-old son.
Things were looking up—until the moment the police showed up at his door.
The cops asked him to come down to the station to answer a few questions about a recent murder in the neighborhood. Wright agreed.
According to Wright, when they got to the station he was taken straight into an interrogation room, where two officers immediately accused him of the rape and murder of Louise Talley, a 77-year-old woman who lived close by. From Rolling Stone:
Tony told the detective he knew nothing about it, and had both an alibi and witnesses to back that up. He was with a friend, he said, named Joseph Harris at N.A., a nightclub in North Philly. Furthermore, he had worked 10 hours at a construction site the day they claimed he was bingeing. But [Officer Manuel] Santiago, Tony testified, never wrote that stuff down.
Wright says the police began threatening him and eventually handcuffed him to his chair. They never read him his Miranda rights, and when he asked to call his mother, cops told him that he couldn't do anything unless he signed the confession, which turned out to be a nine-page document one of the cops had written out. The longer he refused to sign, Wright says, the more extreme the threats got. At one point, one of the detectives allegedly told him that "he’d pull his eyes out and skullfuck him” if he wouldn’t confess. Eventually, before even reading the document, he gave in and signed his name.
Unsurprisingly, the cops gave a different story about that time in the interrogation room. From Rolling Stone:
At Tony's trial, Detective Manuel Santiago testified he brought Tony downtown and had barely enough time to read him his rights when, minutes after he sat for questioning, Tony up and volunteered that he killed Talley. That night — according to the statement Tony signed — he'd been at the crack house getting high when he left to recruit [John] Richardson to help him rob Talley's house. Per the confession, Richardson agreed, but said he'd wait outside. So Tony knocked on her door himself and shoved his way in when Talley answered. He'd done the crime alone, describing the murder and theft in full before circling back to the rape of Talley[.]
Either way, Wright's signature was on the nine-page confession. He soon recanted, but it was too late. No one believed his version of the story. The jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison without parole. Wright went to state prison, where he continued to proclaim his innocence.
Nine years later, Pennsylvania passed a law that would give those convicted of a crime the chance to access DNA testing. For Wright, this was a life-changing opportunity, a chance to prove his innocence. He requested a DNA test of the bodily fluids found at the scene, but then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham repeatedly turned him down. From the New York Times in 2009:
[Abraham] argued that the defendant, Anthony Wright, was not entitled to DNA testing because of the overwhelming evidence presented at trial, including his confession, four witnesses and clothing stained with the victims’ blood that the police said was found at Mr. Wright’s home. The Pennsylvania DNA statute requires the courts to determine if there is a “reasonable possibility” that the test would prove innocence.
Prosecutors say they are concerned that convicts will seek DNA testing as a delay tactic or a fishing expedition, and that allowing DNA tests undermines hard-won jury verdicts and opens the floodgates to overwhelming requests.
“It’s definitely a matter of drawing the line somewhere,” said Peter Carr, the assistant district attorney who handled the case of Mr. Wright, who was accused of raping and killing a 77-year-old woman. The defendant did not request testing until 2005, three years after the statute was passed, Mr. Carr said, and in his view there was no possibility that the test would show innocence.
“There’s also the idea that you want finality for the victim’s sake,” Mr. Carr said. “If someone else’s semen was found at the crime scene, we’d have to talk to the victim’s family about whether the victim was sexually active.”
Abraham's refusal—crude politicking disguised as logic—presents a number of concerns. First, there's a general, almost philosophical issue: It's frankly ludicrous to imply that evidence against Wright should therefore prohibit him from attempting to prove his innocence. The two may be pragmatically related, at least according to Abraham, but they certainly aren't constitutionally related. Refusing a person access to scientific tests that were not available when he was convicted helps literally no one—not the defendant, not the victim. It only benefits the prosecutor's office. And the idea that a defendant shouldn’t get DNA testing because it would require the victim’s family to answer hard questions is a clear indication that the prosecutor office’s priorities were haywire. Abraham and Carr's statements are disturbing, especially coming from an elected official whose job is to ensure justice.
And, in the case of Anthony Wright, their statements are even more problematic. Yes, evidence of guilt that Abraham cites sounds irrefutable, doesn't it? But the whole story proves otherwise.
Let's take the evidence step by step.
First, there's the confession, which, of course, Wright says was coerced. Then there are the four witnesses Abraham mentions, all four of whom have proven to be unreliable. From Rolling Stone:
[Prosecutors] brought in Roland St. James, an addict who ran a neighborhood crack house and who was placed near the scene by a witness. Rather than charge him, the cops took — or induced — a rambling statement from St. James that put Tony at the center of the crime. Then, they got St. James' former tenant John "Buddy" Richardson to back his ludicrous story: that Wright was really a zombie crackhead who'd raped and butchered an old woman for the money to feed his binge…
[T]heir performance on the stand seemed a transparent sham — when they weren't contradicting each other. St. James couldn't even recall telling the cops that Tony had admitted "beating up or stabbing" a lady that night (the prosecutor helpfully showed him his witness statement, whereupon it all came back to him), and he and Richardson disagreed wildly on the events of the evening and couldn't remember what he was wearing when he killed her. Moreover, St. James had an open arrest warrant at the time he gave his statement to police; nonetheless, the cops let him leave the precinct after he implicated Tony.
There were also the two other witnesses, both young boys who were sitting on the stoop in the neighborhood during the crime. From Rolling Stone:
They claimed to have seen Tony pacing the street before pushing into her place — but on every other important point, they disputed each other before one of them, Shawn Nixon, admitted, on cross-exam, that it was too dark to make anyone out. Twenty years later, they'd both recant their statements. According to sworn statements from Innocence Project investigators, the boys claimed detectives had coerced them into testifying as they had. The other teen, Gregg Alston, was told he'd never see his mother again if he didn't testify that he'd seen Tony enter Talley's house that night; Nixon said that he, too, felt compelled by the detectives to make his statement. This broke every rule in the police conduct book: Not only weren't their parents present, as is usually required, Nixon's mother, as she told the investigator, wasn't even informed that her son had testified at trial.
Lastly, Abraham cites those clothes with the victim's blood on them as another reason she would not approve a DNA test. But that, too, wasn’t clear. When the clothes were brought in as evidence, Wright stated clearly he had never seen those clothes in his life. Turns out they weren't even his size. Part of the reason Wright was requesting a DNA test was to prove that the clothes did not belong to him.
Carr and Abraham said there was no way Wright could be innocent. But a closer look into their evidence shows that it was a more speculative conclusion than is comfortable.
After Abraham denied the defense's request for DNA testing, Wright and his attorneys took the case to state district court, where they found their request similarly rejected. Wright then appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, the state's lower appellate authority—but it, too, found that Wright was not entitled to a DNA test.
Wright had one last appeal to the state Supreme Court. This time the court agreed. "A confession, even if previously and finally adjudicated as voluntary, does not constitute a per se bar to establishing a prima facie case demonstrating that DNA testing would establish actual innocence," stated the court’s 2011 decision, “and the convicted person may, therefore, obtain post conviction DNA testing if he or she meets all of the pertinent requirements for such testing."
The Supreme Court ordered the case remanded back to district court to determine if Wright did indeed meet the requirements under the new standard. But by then Seth Williams had been elected the new district attorney in Philadelphia, and he agreed to go ahead and test the DNA. The results were stunning proof that Wright’s claim of innocence may actually be true.
The victim’s rape kit had tested negative in 1991, but now vast improvements in forensic science told a different story. New tests showed traces of sperm in Talley's vagina and rectum—sperm that did not belong to Anthony Wright. Instead, it matched Ronnie Byrd— a drug addict who regularly squatted in an abandoned house behind Talley's home. By the time Talley was killed, Byrd already had a long list of convictions, from theft to bad checks to drug possession, and he managed to rack up even more over the following 20 years. By the time they discovered this evidence, though, it was too late to question Byrd—he was on life support, barely alive and in a coma from which he would never wake. He died in 2013.
The police officers that investigated the murder in 1991 claimed that Talley's sheets had fresh semen stains on them, but back then the science hadn't been advanced enough to analyze them for DNA. When they finally tested the sheet more than 20 years later, the results actually showed not a single trace of semen at all.
Tests were also done on the clothes that the cops said Wright was wearing that day, clothes with Talley's blood on them that he swore he'd never seen. From Rolling Stone:
[A]mazingly — the articles of clothing were still in city storage when…Tony's Innocence Project attorney, succeeded, after six years of litigation, in getting them tested with STR analysis, which can pick up DNA from dead-skin cells. Lo and behold, the truth was revealed: The clothes had been worn by [Talley], not Tony Wright. […]
[O]nly one scenario seemed plausible now: The cops had taken the clothes from Talley's bedroom shortly after her murder, held them till they brought Tony Wright downtown, then lied about finding them in his room.
If this seems far-fetched to you, perhaps you should find out more about the cops. The two who investigated Wright, Officer Martin Devlin and Officer Santiago, are retired now, but while they were still on the force in Philadelphia there were numerous stories of misconduct—bullying witnesses, lying about evidence, violating rights, and coercing false confessions through threats and intimidation, both mental and physical. From Rolling Stone, here's just one example of the way they blatantly violated the rights of defendants:
In 1989, a young man named Andrew Swainson was convicted of murder on the statement of a single eyewitness. Nineteen years later, that witness recanted, saying he hadn't seen Swainson at the time of the shooting, and only knew what he looked like because he'd been shown his picture by Santiago in a photo lineup. How did he pick Swainson out of the pile? Simple: All seven photos Santiago showed him were of Swainson. Twenty-six years later, Swainson sits in jail, waiting for lawyers to help get his tainted conviction overturned.
The DNA tests that the former district attorney was so confident could only show guilt actually strongly indicated innocence. They also made real the terrifying possibility that the police in this case had blatantly lied and violated countless of Wright’s constitutional rights.
It’s been almost half a decade since Williams agreed to test the DNA. Now there's good news and bad news.
The good news is that in 2014, the new DNA evidence led the district court to overturn Wright's conviction.
The bad news? This week Wright was back in the defendant's seat, being tried for Talley's murder once again.
Williams had agreed with the decision to vacate Wright's conviction, admitting that the new evidence meant the defendant’s old conviction couldn't plausibly stand. But before the overturned conviction was even final, Williams announced that there would be a retrial. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson said the decision to retry Wright was made out of fairness to address "scientific evidence that simply was not available when this case was tried in 1993."
But Gilson [...] maintained that the new DNA evidence proved only that Wright had an accomplice and that the totality of evidence "overwhelmingly proved that he murdered Louise Talley."
“Gilson … said the new DNA evidence only proves that Wright did not rape Talley and did not act alone: ‘It doesn't exclude him as the murderer,’” said another Inquirer article.
“Anthony Wright was, is and always will be guilty for the murder of Louise Talley,” he said.
It seems that the office has even wavered on accusing Wright of actually committing the murder. On Monday, the Inquirer reported that the district attorney office’s current theory is that “Wright didn't act alone. But he was in the home when Byrd assaulted Talley, and when she was stabbed 10 times.”
Nothing—nothing— about the district attorney's new theory makes sense. Williams’ office is now arguing that Wright's confession was real, but just not true. After all, Wright's supposed confession to the police explicitly included that he was alone and that he raped and murdered Talley. Their conclusion brings rise to more questions than answers. The DA's office wants a jury to believe he went as far as to offer details about his sexual performance, but sex never even happened? Now, the district attorney is saying that he just made up those parts of the confession he so willingly gave?
Not to mention that if Wright and Byrd had been working together, he would have had a lot of bargaining power that he inexplicably has refused to take advantage of for more than 20 years. From Rolling Stone:
After he was arrested for Talley's murder, both his trial lawyer and his lawyer from juvenile court tried to get him to take a plea deal. From Rolling Stone:
"But I got nowhere fast," says [juvenile court lawyer] Brad Bridge, "which struck me as odd for someone facing a needle." If Tony had slain Talley or simply burgled her house while Ronnie Byrd raped and killed her, he'd have had a huge card to play before trial: the name of his accomplice on which to trade. Instead, he sat in a cell for two years, determined to have his day in court. On what planet would someone keep silent and risk death to protect the neighborhood crackhead — a homeless man who was twice his age and whom he's never met, even in passing?
Remember all the evidence Abraham said she had, evidence that demonstrated that Wright couldn't get a DNA test because he couldn't possibly be guilty? The bloody clothes, the witnesses, the confession. But what does the prosecutor’s office have now?
There's no trace of Wright's DNA on the wrong-size bloody clothes. There was another man's sperm found in the victim. Two of the witnesses are dead and two recanted their testimony. They never found a single fingerprint of Wright's in the victim's house. He had an alibi. The police officers have a long history of lying, cheating, and misconduct.
Technically, right now he’s presumed innocent. And yet, Wright is still in jail. He's been there since 1991—he wasn't released after his conviction was overturned, since he was immediately charged again with murder and is being held without bond.
The new trial was supposed to begin this week but Tuesday the Inquirer reported that it is now delayed another five months, after prosecutors claim they found new evidence, stating that "police recently found a hair in the interior of an armpit of the black Chicago Bulls sweatshirt believed to have been worn by Talley." That's the same sweatshirt they claimed belonged to him years ago even though they found none of his DNA anywhere on the clothes.
Philadelphia has a long history of prosecutorial and police misconduct. After he was elected in 2010, there was a time when District Attorney Williams seemed like he would be a different kind of prosecutor, maybe even progressive. There was a time when people thought that, as a black man, he might be particularly interested in reforming the tradition of racist over-incarceration and police impunity that has plagued the city. (Just one example of mass incarceration in the city: In Philadelphia, the number of people serving life without parole that were convicted as juveniles is higher than any other jurisdiction in the country.)
But time has proven him to be a different kind of person—concerned about convictions over justice, and perpetuating his office's historical litany of tragedies instead of moving criminal justice in a new direction.
In December, I wrote about Williams and his depraved mishandling of the Terry Williams case. I mentioned how he immediately appealed the Pennsylvania governor's death penalty moratorium after it was instated in February 2015, calling it a "lawless act" despite the fact that, as Mother Jones reports, "Pennsylvania governors had been granting reprieves for hundreds of years and no court had ever struck one down." Tara Murtha put it best when she wrote in The New Republic, "It is fascinating and sad that the first black district attorney from Philadelphia is suing a wealthy white man from central Pennsylvania to re-instate a death penalty system that has been repeatedly found to discriminate, specifically, against poor black men from Philadelphia."
Williams ethos is one of winning, racking up convictions, and victory. It is not one of justice. It is not one of pragmatism. It is not an ideology that prioritizes protection for his citizens (for many of his citizens are at the receiving end of his prosecutorial brutality) nor is it one that holds dear the constitutional rights of the defendant. He ignores the misconduct in his own office and he fights for the preservation of a system that has proven not to work.
It's been 18 months since Wright's conviction was overturned. Wright "wiped tears from his eyes" when the judge announced that his conviction had officially been vacated in 2014. The Inquirer reports:
Wright did not speak at the hearing, but some of about a dozen relatives gasped as he was led into court by sheriff's deputies.
Some of Wright's relatives said they had not seen him for decades and, after the hearing, deputies took the unusual step of letting the family walk by Wright as he sat three feet away at the defense table.
No physical contact was allowed, but some blew kisses or called words of encouragement.
Wright has been in prison almost 25 years now. His mother is dead. His son, four years old when he went in, is now almost 30.
He continues to proclaim his innocence. He continues to sit in prison.