Yesterday evening, a man named Shaurn Thomas was released from prison in Frackville, Pennsylvania. Mr. Thomas had spent 24 years in the Frackville State Correctional Institution, having been sent there in 1993 after being convicted of the November 1990 murder of Domingo Martinez. Only problem was, Mr. Thomas was innocent … he wasn’t even in the area when Mr. Martinez was shot and killed, yet through a series of judicial bungles, he was convicted. He was 19 when he entered prison, and he is 43 now … the prime years of this man’s life were spent behind bars for no reason.
Martinez, 78, was a prominent businessman who owned three North Philadelphia travel agencies and was active with civic groups in the Latino community. On the morning of November 13th, 1990, he had gone to a Mellon Bank branch in Center City about 9 a.m. and withdrawn $25,000 in cash. After he drove away from the bank, his car was struck by another car, and someone in the other car got out, fatally shot Martinez and took the money.
The night before the murder, on November 12, 1990, at about 11:30 p.m., Shaurn Thomas was arrested in Philadelphia for attempted theft of a motorcycle. Shaurn was held in police custody until sometime around dawn November 13, 1990, when his mother came to the station and signed for his release. Shaurn and his mother then went straight to the Youth Study Center on the Parkway for an intake interview at 9:00 a.m. After the interview, Shaurn signed a subpoena and was released. His sister had to come get him, and they both arrived home sometime in the afternoon of November 13, 1990.
The bungles are many, but in the interest of brevity, I will list only the most egregious.
At least four witnesses described the car that struck Martinez’ car and from which the murderer(s) emerged as white with a red top. Police impounded a blue 1977 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, claiming it was the car used in the murder. None of the four eye witnesses testified at trial.
A man named John Stallworth confessed to his participation in the murder, naming his brother, Mr. Thomas, and three other individuals. The confession was quickly proven false, as one of the men he named was in prison at the time of the murder, yet police continued to rely on the confession. Ultimately, Stallworth testified against Mr. Thomas in exchange for a lighter sentence for himself.
The subpoena that Mr. Thomas signed at the Youth Study Center, along with all records of he and his mother being there that morning, mysteriously disappeared and could not be presented in court. Mr. Thomas’ mother and sister were not allowed to testify, nor was the court administrator who had met with Shaurn that day.
Enter the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and James Figorski. Mr. Figorski spent more than two decades working narcotics for the Philadelphia police force, while at the same time earning his law degree. When he retired, Figorski joined the big Philadelphia law firm Dechert, and he also offered his services to the Innocence Project. In 2009, shortly after the Pennsylvania Innocence Project was formed, Shaurn Thomas sent them a letter proclaiming his innocence and asking for help. Mr. Figorski happened to be the one to open Shaurn’s letter and has spent the last eight years working pro-bono to help prove Mr. Thomas’ innocence. He interviewed witnesses who had been interviewed by police, but never asked to testify at trial. An associate interviewed Stallworth’s brother in prison, who admitted that he had lied about seeing Mr. Thomas at the murder scene. Convinced of Mr. Thomas’ innocence, Mr. Figorski finally met with a prosecutor from the district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit in November 2016. Members of the unit began reviewing the case and found 36 pages of witness statements that had not been turned over to the defense during Thomas’s trial.
Innocence Project legal director Marissa Bluestine, who worked closely with Mr. Figorski on the case says, “At every level, Shaurn was failed. By his lawyers, by the prosecutors, by the courts. Ironically, it took a former police officer to dig in and prove he’s an innocent man.”
“It happened because he had no money or power,” Figorski said. “They had a cold case they wanted to solve. And they had somebody willing to say [Shaurn] did it.”
All’s well that ends well, right? But what about 24 years of a man’s life? What about the botched investigation and trial? Shaurn Thomas is only one of many who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit and spent years of their lives in prison. Granted, no system of justice can be perfect, but in so many of these cases we see blatant discrepancies, witnesses ignored, coerced or intimidated, evidence altered or ignored … all in order to close a case. Although Mr. Thomas received a sentence of life in prison, some who are innocent are sitting on death row today.
After spending more than half his life in prison, Mr. Thomas says he is not bitter:
“Life’s too short for that. I just move on forward. It’s a tragedy that happened to me, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.”
But he may not find it so easy to “just move on forward”.
“Deprived for years of family and friends and the ability to establish oneself professionally, the nightmare does not end upon release. With no money, housing, transportation, health services or insurance, and a criminal record that is rarely cleared despite innocence, the punishment lingers long after innocence has been proven. Despite their proven innocence, the difficulty of reentering society is profound for the wrongfully convicted; the failure to compensate them adds insult to injury. Society has an obligation to promptly provide compassionate assistance to the wrongfully convicted.” – The Innocence Project
The federal government, the District of Columbia, and 32 states do have compensation statutes of some form. Pennsylvania does not, so Mr. Thomas will receive no compensation or assistance from the state and is left right about where he left off 24 years ago at the age of nineteen. My hat is off to this gentleman who is not bitter, for I believe I would be. Would you? Think about it.