Next month, we will present final arguments to a Philadelphia judge urging her to grant our client Eugene Gilyard’s petition for a new trial. We thought this a good time to explain how we investigated Eugene’s claims of innocence, found evidence that supports him, and what barriers we faced in getting him in to court. It’s a long story, and will take several posts to tell. But for those who support our work and believe in justice, understanding the arduous journey that innocent people face in winning their freedom cannot be more important.
Thomas Keal’s Murder and Eugene’s Conviction
The picture of Eugene’s conviction has always been hazy. Thomas Keal was murdered as he closed his store around 2 am on August 31, 1995. Mr. Keal’s daughter lived across the street, on the 2nd floor. Woken by her father’s voice outside, Ms. Keal got to the window in time to see her father engage with 2 men wearing bandanas and brandishing guns. The men shot her father then turned and ran away. She saw this from her 2nd floor window, looking down on the scene through a box fan in her window. Of course, it was dark of night.
Two years after her father’s murder, police showed Ms. Keal a photo array. This array also included Eugene’s picture, but the photo used in the array was of Eugene as he appeared then at age 18, not as he looked 2 years earlier as a 16-year-old boy. Ms. Keal hesitantly identified Eugene as having been involved.
At trial, the only evidence presented to convict Eugene was the testimony of Ms. Keal. A witness who told police she saw two other men – “Rolex” and “Tizz” – running away from the murder was not called by the defense. On December 10, 1998, at age 18, Eugene was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.
Eugene Appeals, but is Turned Away
Eugene appealed his conviction, but the Superior Court refused him. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania denied his request for review in 2003. In 2004, Eugene filed an appeal under the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), challenging the stewardship of his trial by defense counsel. Among other claims, Eugene tried to argue that he was innocent and had nothing to do with the murder of which he was convicted. Again, his appeals were denied. Having exhausted his allowed appeals and without any resources to hire lawyers or investigators, Eugene had nowhere to turn.
Pennsylvania Denies Counsel After Convictions are Affirmed
Under Pennsylvania law, inmates have a right to file 2 appeals after conviction. The first, referred to as a “direct appeal,” can challenge any legal or procedural errors that occurred during the trial. Issues such as whether a court improperly denied a motion to suppress evidence due to constitutional violations or whether a court improperly instructed a jury are common claims on direct appeal. The second level of appeal, called a “collateral appeal”, is allowed so inmates can challenge the effectiveness of their trial counsel, and where counsel was deficient, have a new trial ordered. Once those appeals have been filed, there are no other avenues for inmates to appeal their sentences. Courts provide access to counsel for these 2 levels of appeal, but nothing afterward. Inmates without money or resources to hire a lawyer or, even more importantly, an investigator, are on their own.
The law in our state in terms of the limits on appeals is both strict and virtually unyielding. There are only 3 exceptions to this limitation: if the Supreme Court of the United States declares a new criminal rule, if the government “interfered” with the ability to bring an appeal earlier, or if the inmate comes across “new facts” which he didn’t know about at trial and could not have known about even if he acted diligently. On top of those requirements, inmates in Pennsylvania have only 60 days to file a petition raising one of these exceptions from the time “the claim could have been brought.” That is one of the strictest timeframes in our nation. Sixty days. And because the courts have interpreted that to mean that they do not have the power (properly called “jurisdiction”) to hear a claim unless it was filed within 60 days of the time the claim could have been brought, inmates who have no resources often find themselves unable to have their claims heard at all.
After his appeals were denied, Eugene had nowhere to turn. He had no money. His family, who staunchly believed in his innocence, had no money. He knew he had nothing to do with Mr. Keal’s murder but he had no way to prove it to a skeptical court that had already branded him “murderer.” In 2009, when the Pennsylvania Innocence Project opened, he finally got what he’d lost when he was convicted: hope.