The Court set hearings for Eugene and his co-defendant, Lance Felder, for the week of July 15. The weeks before, our summer interns were all involved in trying to make sure everything would be ready: legal arguments were honed, documents marked and copied, every witness statement was reviewed and reviewed again.
From the Start, Witnesses Said it was Rolex and Tizz
On the first day of hearings, the judge asked the Commonwealth whether they would argue that Eugene had not been diligent (and should therefore be denied relief) even if the evidence showed he did not commit the murder. The DA responded they will have to “see where it goes.” And so the tone was set.
During the next few days, we presented multiple witnesses who testified to the same thing: they were outside the evening Mr. Keal was murdered, hanging around a store on Venango Street. Eugene and Lance, both teenagers at the time, were there too. Some of them, including Eugene and Lance, were selling drugs. It was where they always sold drugs, directed by Lance’s older brother Rob. Rolex and Tizz were known as Rob’s “enforcers” – the men who would go after anyone who threatened the drug operation.
At some point, Rolex and Tizz came up and talked about robbing the bar on the corner. The people outside objected, saying it would “draw” police to the area. The two men left, saying they would go up the street. Eugene and Lance stayed right where they were.
The witnesses heard gun shots, then saw Rolex and Tizz running away from the scene. Some saw them get into a car driven by Rob Felder. The three men drove off. When police came to the scene, only one witness was willing to say she saw anything. She told police it was Rolex and Tizz. There was no other information given to police. Everyone else had scattered or would not talk.
And, finally, through our staff investigator, we heard Rolex’ confession. His chilling admission to not only Mr. Keal’s murder but to other assaults and robberies committed with the same gun, brought everyone in the courtroom to silence. Some highlights:
In August of 1995 I robbed and shot a man on 17th Street in between Erie and Venango. Around 2 or 3 p.m. the day of the shooting I shot a man named Anthony Stokes around 58th and Christian with the same gun I used to shoot the man on 17th Street. After I shot Mr. Stokes I went to N. Philly with a friend. My friend knew a man named “Rob” who lived in N. Philly.
We were hanging out with Rob and his friends at the Chinese store on 17th in between Venango and Tioga. Sometime between midnight and 2 a.m. my friend and I approached the man as he left a bar and was crossing the street. I approached the man from the front (he was on the sidewalk) and my friend approached him from the back.
I had a double-barrel sawed-off shotgun. My friend had a .22 revolver, silver with tape around the handle.
My friend held the .22 to the back of the man’s head. The man had a chrome revolver with a black grip-it was a chrome .357. The man pulled out his gun and said “I ain’t giving you shit.” I shot the man in the leg and he fell.
My friend stood over him and shot him in the head. I think my friend fired 3-4 shots.
I took the man’s gun – I had to pry it out of his hands.
After my friend shot the man on 17th Street I said “What the fuck did you do that for?” He said, “Man, you shoot everybody, I want to shoot somebody too.”
No one has promised me or given me anything to get me to make this statement. No one has threatened me. Eugene Gilyard had nothing to do with the murder of the man on 17th Street.
Never would Rolex name his “friend,” protecting him even in coming clean himself. Nor did he want “Rob” (Rob Felder) to be identified in the statement. And, of course, the words came through our investigator, not Rolex. But as they were to be considered for their truth – that is that Rolex did, in fact, kill Thomas Keal – Eugene hoped it would be strong enough.
Did Eugene and Lance Act Diligently?
A recurring theme in the questions the District Attorney asked the witnesses was whether Eugene or Lance could have gotten the information about Rolex and Tizz earlier. These questions were asked because, as the DA said, “They have to do everything in their power to pursue their cases.” Sadly, this is simply untrue. The law does not require a convicted innocent person to do “everything in his power” to prove his innocence; he only has to show he acted with “due diligence” – in other words, that he did what would reasonably be expected.
What became clear from the witnesses was that all of those involved knew that Eugene and Lance were innocent, and that Rolex, Tizz, and Rob were the ones responsible. But, as Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Joe Slobodzian pointed out in an article about the hearings, Rob had made it clear no-one should talk to police about the murder; even if it meant his own brother went to prison for something he didn’t do. The “code of the streets” protected Rolex and Tizz, but sent Eugene and Lance to prison as teenagers. Eugene’s freedom depended upon getting Rolex, Tizz, or Rob to finally come forward and credibly admit the truth. Only once Rolex did that could Eugene hope to gain his freedom.
Another Twist: Follow the Money?
On what was supposed to be the final day of the hearing, the District Attorneys had a surprise: they had subpoenaed Rolex’ financial records from prison. In 2011, after he met with the investigator Eugene’s family hired to speak with him, there was a $500 deposit on his books made by a woman. The deposit appeared to be larger than ones regularly made by the same person, but it appeared only one time. The prosecutors wanted time to get all of Rolex’ phone calls that he made while in prison (all inmate calls are recorded going into and coming out of the prison) and all of his financial records.
Although she remarked that “$500 isn’t a lot of money to admit to a murder,” the judge allowed the prosecutors time to gather their evidence. But not much. What was uncovered during the next few weeks could show either an interrupted promise of payment for confessing, or a confessed murderer’s weak and failed attempt to get himself out of a murder arrest.