Last week, after 28 years of imprisonment for a murder committed by another man, Kenneth Granger walked out of the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia to freedom. In March of 1981, Mr. Granger was arrested in his home for the shooting death of Edward Harris. After three eyewitnesses testified for the Commonwealth at his trial, he was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. While in prison, Granger maintained his innocence. In 2008, Mr. Granger’s daughters persuaded Karl Schwartz, then an attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, to take on the case. What Mr. Schwartz saw was a shaky conviction, where 2 of the witnesses failed to positively identify Mr. Granter, and a 3rd, who told police she could identify the killer, did not testify at his trial.
What happened next was unprecedented. Mr. Granger asked the assigned judge, Earl Trent of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, to force the homicide unit of the Philadelphia Police Department to turn over their investigative file. And Judge Trent said yes. Inside the file, Mr. Schwartz, now joined by fellw Defender Ellen McBennett and Pennsylvania Innocence Project founder David Rudovsky, found evidence that could have been used to support Granger’s defense. One witness who identified Mr. Granger at trial had originally been unable to identify him in a photo spread. The witness who told police she could identify the killer? She did—she identified someone else. That information had never been given to the defense, and had never been presented at his trial.
Faced with this evidence, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office made Mr. Granger an offer he couldn’t refuse: plead no contest to a lesser charge of 3rd degree murder and get out of prison with no additional time to serve. Protesting his innocence, and explaining that he only accepted the deal to be with his family, Mr. Granger walked out of prison on July 14, 2010.
This demonstrates, in the starkest way possible, the need for open file discovery in Pennsylvania. While many states—Florida, New Jersey, Texas, and dozens of others—and the federal government allow defendants to review police files after conviction, Pennsylvania does not. Nor does our “Right to Know Law” provide for the disclosure of the contents of criminal investigations—even including crime scene photos.
The need for reform could not be clearer. Unless police or prosecutors know that a file will be made available, there is no incentive to ensure that a witness statement or alternative identification will be turned over to defense or the court, as is required under our Constitution. The only way to prevent tragedies to our system such as what happened with Mr. Granger, where the true killer will never be caught, is to allow defendants access to the information gathered during a criminal investigation. Had that happened here, perhaps a killer would have been found, and an innocent man would not have lost 28 years of his life to a cold, degrading, prison sentence.