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Does Philadelphia Harbor a “Cluster of Wrongful Convictions”?

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There is, by now, no question that innocent people confess to crimes they did not commit. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, approximately 23% of people convicted of murders they were not involved in “confessed” to police. Yet those “confessions” turned out to be wholly false – from being inconsistent with other evidence developed, or creating cohorts who weren’t there, these statements nevertheless had a profound impact on the juries who convicted these innocent people.

Philadelphia is hardly immune from this phenomenon: indeed, our police department has a documented history of innocent people confessing to crimes committed by others.

In 1978, current Philadelphia Inquirer editor Bill Marrimow won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in journalism form his coverage of 80 homicide cases over a three-year period where local judges ruled that the police acted illegally during interrogations – predominantly in homicide cases. The Inquirer described some police torture methods that were documented in court records: “…beating [a suspect’s] feet and ankles; twisting or kicking his testicles and pummeling his back, ribs and kidneys.” “Suspects have been beaten with lead pipes, blackjacks, brass knuckles, handcuffs, chairs and table legs. And some of it lead to false confessions — see Robert “Reds” Wilkinson.

Sadly, allegations of abuse did not end there. In a well-sourced article from The Atlantic magazine, former public defender Marc Bookman, now Director of the Atlantic Center on Capital Representation – reviewed a case where two men – Felix Rodriguez and Russell Weinberger – each “confessed” to the murder of a local optometrist and were convicted. (Weinberger recanted his statement and went to trial, where Rodgriguez testified against him.) Two decades later, another man confessed to the doctor’s murder as well as several other homicides with similar circumstances. Weinberger and Rodriguez were released from prison, but only after being forced to plead no contest to the crime in exchange for a reduced sentence. Mr. Sylvanus and his co-conspirator – who remains at large to this day – were never prosecuted for the crime.

Other cases bring similar allegations: Walter Ogrod, Anthony Wright, and many others have alleged that Philadelphia homicide detectives threatened or psychologically coerced them into signing statements falsely implicating them in crimes. Now, NBC10 in Philadelphia has done an extraordinary series on these cases. Starting with Pa. Innocence Project client Willie Veasy, the investigative team traced similar allegations through multiple cases to ask the horrific question: are men imprisoned for no reason?

At a time when the city homicide rate was around 500 people murdered each year, as crack cocaine devastated the city , did police take short cuts in investigating these cases with forced witness testimony, and false confessions to close cases? And, if so, did the practice ever stop?