MAY 15, 2018: Today, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office moved to withdraw all charges against Dontia Patterson – after he served over a decade in prison for a crime he did not commit. As the District Attorney said in a pleading, “The Commonwealth will not re-try a case against a man who is probably innocent and whose case is so lacking in integrity.” A copy of that motion is available here.
On April 26, 2007, 17-year-old Dontia Patterson was arrested and charged with a murder committed by other men. Antwine Jackson was shot on the street outside a corner grocery store on January 11, 2007. The man who pulled the trigger had been inside the store moments before confronting Mr. Jackson, pulling a weapon, and taking his life. The only evidence presented at Mr. Patterson’s trial to tie him to the murder – other than his presence at the scene minutes after the shooting – were two people who witnessed the shooting for mere seconds from over 100 feet away. After a first jury could not agree on his guilt, the DA’s Office retried him – this time with help from an additional “eyewitness” who testified that a stop-motion video of the perpetrator from inside the corner store reminded her of Dontia. When the jury convicted Mr. Patterson of murder, the judge sentenced him to die in prison with a mandatory life sentence.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project’s investigation showed both that Dontia’s trial attorney failed him, and that police had the identity of the two men at the time of Mr. Jackson’s murder, yet – for reasons we cannot fully explain – chose to pursue Mr. Patterson. Based upon our own investigation, and joined by an extraordinary pro bono team from Cozen O’Connor, we filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act petition (available here) explaining in crystal-clear detail Dontia’s innocence and the multiple ways the criminal justice system utterly failed to protect him. Those errors included:
- Trial counsel’s failure to investigate or meaningfully challenge the identifications by any of the witnesses;
- Trial counsel’s inexplicable failure to photograph the crime scene to show the jury what the eyewitnesses could, or more significantly could not, have seen;
- Counsel did not consult an expert to assess the quality of the surveillance footage, or determine whether it was even possible to identify Dontia;
- Other than having a private investigator speak to Mr. Patterson’s sister about his alibi (more than a year after Jackson’s shooting and just over a month before Patterson’s trial began), no investigation at all was done – missing witnesses willing to testify for Patterson who would have undercut the eyewitnesses’ version of events and the video “identification” of Mr. Patterson:
- Store owner Gregorio Mercado who knew Dontia and unequivocally told police he did not recognize the shooter in the surveillance footage (but might if he saw him again).
- Character witnesses, who would attest to Mr. Jackson’s friendship with Mr. Patterson;
- Witnesses who could have testified about Mr. Patterson’s epileptic seizures, which would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to have carried out this crime.
- Police had the names of two men multiple witnesses said were involved in the shooting – men who, unlike Dontia, had a motive to commit the crime – yet failed to meaningfully investigate their involvement.
After investigating the matter, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office agreed Dontia Patterson’s trial was flawed and that his conviction should be vacated. Indeed, the chief of homicide, Anthony Voci, Jr., went much further than that saying: “We have reviewed this matter and believe that the defendant may be innocent, but we’re not there yet in terms of completing our investigation, which is why we are not dropping the charges,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. That representation was enough for the judge to allow Mr. Patterson to be released from prison on house arrest, pending the DA’s decision whether to retry him or not.
Today, the DA made good on the assertion that Dontia is, in fact, innocent. In a scathing motion, the DA asked the Court to allow them to withdraw all charges against Dontia – called a motion for nolle prosecqui (literally, “unwilling to pursue”). A copy of that motion is available here.
Dontia has been released from house arrest, and will be able to do the one thing he has wanted to do: work to help his family. After 11 years being imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, and where his only involvement was acting to comfort his dying friend, Dontia Patterson is ready to move on.
“I’m just so grateful that finally – after all these years – someone listened to me. Since I was 17 I’ve been saying I’m innocent, and every day since my arrest. I didn’t kill my friend; I had nothing to do with what happened to him. I’m sorry for his family to have to relive his loss, but I’m so grateful justice has finally been done.”