This past Thursday, a federal court ordered the release 82-year-old Louis Mickens-Thomas, who has served over forty years for a crime that many believe he did not commit. Centurion Ministries, a group that works toward reversing wrongful convictions, worked with Mickens-Thomas for nearly twenty years to try to exonerate him. David Rudovsky, co-founder and Vice President of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, also served as his lawyer.
Mickens-Thomas was convicted of the 1964 murder of 12-year-old Edith Connor based on trace evidence – fibers and paint chips that looked similar to those in his apartment and the shoe shop in which he worked were found on the body of the victim. However, Agnes Mallatratt, the crime lab worker who testified in this case and whose testimony was the deciding factor, was later found to be a ninth-grade dropout who had repeatedly committed perjury by falsifying her scientific credentials. A second trial five years later brought up a number of further inconsistencies in her testimony, but the verdict was upheld.
In the 1990s, as DNA testing technology became available, Centurion Ministries’ James McCloskey attempted to have evidence from the crime scene tested, but it had been destroyed just three weeks previously. Pennsylvania is one of a few states that have no laws regulating the preservation of crime scene evidence.
Louis Mickens-Thomas had his sentence commuted in 1995, but the state parole board refused to release him from prison until 2004. He then returned after violating parole by making hostile comments to a counselor leading a course for sex-offenders, which Mickens-Thomas was required to take even as he maintained that he was innocent. He will be released once his lawyers demonstrate that he is able to find suitable housing, and plans to live with a nephew in the Poconos.
Had the evidence from this case been available, DNA testing would have settled the question of Mickens-Thomas’ innocence years ago. To this day, he cannot be exonerated because the evidence that could do so no longer exists. Our Legal Director, Marissa Boyers Bluestine, recently published an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer discussing the need for policy change in evidence preservation in PA. The Innocence Project in New York also has an interactive map that shows what preservation laws exist, if any, in other states.
Philadelphia Inquirer: Philly man wins release from prison after more than four decades
Philadelphia Inquirer: Court in Philadelphia Weighs Freedom for Convicted Killer, 82
Philadelphia Inquirer: Preventing Wrongful Convictions
The Innocence Project – Preservation of Evidence
The Innocence Project – Evidence Preservation Reforms by State
Centurion Ministries Website