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Only in Philadelphia? Why is Donte Rollins Still in Prison?

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Donte Rollins was convicted of participating in a shooting in 2006 which left a 6 year-old child paralyzed. The boy was in the backseat of his grandfather’s car when 4 men, wearing all black, fired upon the car; while aiming for the grandfather, the child was shot. The boy’s grandmother identified several of the shooters, one specifically as “Donte.” Within two hours, Donte was arrested by police as he came home, carrying a shopping bag and dressed in a grey hooded sweatshirt and jeans. Police were waiting for Donte outside his home. Donte approached the house, passed the officers and put his key in the door when police grabbed him and asked his name. When he said “Donte Rollins,” police held him across the street until the victim’s grandmother was brought to the scene to identify him. Minutes later, police brought the distraught woman to Donte. She identified him as one of the shooters, and police arrested Donte on the spot.

The next day, while her son was in police custody, Donte’s mother went to work finding the objective evidence that would show her son could not have been involved in the shooting. She spoke with the four young men who were with Donte from early in the evening until moments before his arrest. She found a sales receipt in Donte’s shopping bag, and contacted the store for additional records. She reviewed surveillance tapes in three different stores, and found videos of Donte and his friends making purchases, entering, and leaving the stores. She printed out records for his cell phone, which showed him on the phone throughout the entire time he was with his friends. And all of that evidence she gave to the attorney she paid thousands and thousands of dollars to represent her son.

But the jury saw very little of that evidence, and heard from none of the witnesses.

At trial, Donte’s attorney presented some evidence indicating Donte was not at the scene of the shooting in the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia, but shopping with friends miles away on South Street. The jury saw a grainy video, showing a man in a gray hoody leaving a store, the lanyard Donte wore the night he was arrested, and heard from a relative of Donte’s who said he was the man in the picture. The video, time stamped minutes after the shooting, was only a few seconds long. It didn’t take long for the jury to convict Donte, and he was sentenced to prison for 62.5- 125 years.

What the jury did not see, but what Donte’s lawyer had available to him, were the cell phone records, video from another store (showing him wearing the same grey sweatshirt and jeans), or any of the sales receipts. Even more importantly, the jury didn’t hear from even one of the young men who were with Donte that night, even though all four were available and would have testified to what they knew.

After his conviction, Donte and his mother hired a new lawyer to pursue his case, and try to prove his innocence. That lawyer asked the Pennsylvania Innocence Project to get involved, and we did. Of the four young men, we found three – one has since passed away. We obtained the video from news cameras showing Donte being arrested wearing the same grey hooded sweatshirt. And we took the case to the District Attorney and asked them to review the evidence themselves.

Unfortunately, the DA did not immediately agree with us that Donte’s attorney had failed him in not presenting the information regarding where he really was to the jury. In hearings before Judge Rayford Means of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, we presented all the evidence to Donte’s trial judge. The witnesses testified, we presented the other video, the cell phone records, the sales receipts. Donte’s lawyer even testified. When asked why he did not present the evidence, he had no real answer; certainly no strategy to explain his actions.

In early April, 2016 – three years after Donte filed his petition asking for a new trial – the District Attorney’s office agreed Donte’s trial attorney had failed his constitutional obligations to his client. The DA agreed he was entitled to a new trial, and that he should be returned to his pre-trial status of house arrest. On April 29, 2016, all parties went to court fully expecting the court to grant the petition and release Donte from prison.

We are still waiting.

Rather than act on a petition both sides agreed should be granted, the judge insisted on calling additional witnesses — the trial prosecutor and the detective who investigated. Even though both sides told the judge those witnesses had no relevance on whether Donte’s lawyer provided constitutionally ineffective guidance the judge insisted. He continued the case for 60 days – just to get the witnesses’ availability. Sixty days later, in late June, with one of the witnesses in the courtroom and the other two on call, Judge Means continued the case again – first to August, then to September to take the testimony. Donte’s incarceration continued.

Counsel tried to address the matter with the administrative judges but were told there was nothing to do. So as Donte’s lawyers, we did the only thing we could think of: we asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to intervene. We filed a Writ of Prohibition with the Court asking them to prevent Judge Means from calling any additional witnesses. The Court initially took no action. Then, in August Judge Means called one of the witnesses he wanted to hear from, the investigator who worked for Donte’s trial lawyer. Although the investigator testified exactly as both the District Attorney and we said he would — that he did no work on the case — Judge Means continued the case again, until September, to hear from the trial prosecutor and investigating detective. Again, we asked the judge to rule on the now-unopposed petition. Again, he refused.

The day following the hearing, the Supreme Court denied our Writ “WITHOUT PREJUDICE to Petitioner to pursue similar relief in this Court following the impending hearings before the common pleas court.” So we waited. And Donte’s incarceration continued.

When the appointed September hearing date came, we again went to court with the witnesses at the ready. But Judge Means was not sitting on the bench; he had taken vacation. We asked to have the case listed the day he was to return, which was three days later.  On that date, with the witnesses again ready to testify, we went to court only to learn the judge had extended his vacation “because of the rain.” We again asked for the date when he would return, but were told he specifically said to list Donte’s case on October 24 – four weeks later.

That day, we filed our second Writ of Prohibition with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The lawyers defending Judge Means filed a one sentence response: “This is to advise you that we will not file a response in the above-captioned matter.” When we filed the Writ, Donte had been in prison for over 150 days since the Commonwealth agreed he should be released.

Why is this man still in prison? And how long must he wait for the court to act on an unopposed petition?