On March 18, 1983, a masked man armed with a pistol entered Kelly’s Deli in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, and forced the owner, her daughter and two customers into a walk-in cooler. When three more customers came in, the gunman herded them to a rear storeroom. A fourth customer, 71-year-old Charles Johnston, then entered the deli. The gunman fatally shot him and fled with cash taken from the register.
None of the surviving witnesses saw the gunman’s face, but most said the man was wearing a dark knit hat, a red hooded sweatshirt and a bandana that covered his face, except for his eyes.
About an hour later, a police officer saw 18-year-old Terence McCracken standing on a street not far from the crime. McCracken was wearing a red hooded sweatshirt and a hat with a brim. He was questioned and said that earlier he had been working on a car with a friend. McCracken, who had no criminal record, agreed to go to a police station so police could take samples from his hands to test for gunshot residue.
Police questioned people on the street near the deli and one, Michael Aldridge, a high school classmate of McCracken, said he had seen someone enter and leave the deli, but could not identify him.
Three days later, after extensive police questioning, Aldridge said he recognized McCracken as the gunman. A search of McCracken’s home turned up a dark knit cap resembling the cap described by deli customers. On March 21, 1983, McCracken was arrested and charged with murder and robbery.
On April 7, 1983, about three weeks after the shooting, police arrested John Turcotte, Jr., and William Verdekal in nearby Clifton Heights as they fled an armed robbery. A handgun was confiscated from Turcotte and ballistics tests showed the gun had fired the bullet that killed Johnston.
The Delaware County District Attorney’s office then charged McCracken, Turcotte and Verdekal with murder, robbery and conspiracy. Turcotte and Verdekal were also charged with several other armed robberies in Delaware County.
McCracken went on trial alone in October 1983. The prosecution’s key evidence was the testimony of Aldridge, who had given several statements that over time solidified his identification of McCracken. At trial, Aldridge said that he was close enough to the deli that when he saw McCracken, they exchanged a greeting before McCracken went inside.
A state crime lab analyst testified unequivocally that he found gunshot residue on McCracken.
Several of the customers testified to the clothing that the gunman wore—although some said there was white piping on the sleeves of his sweatshirt, and others said there was no piping. Police testified that when first questioned, McCracken was wearing a red sweatshirt with white piping.
Witnesses testified for McCracken that he was fixing a car with a friend at the time of the shooting. The defense argued that Turcotte was the gunman and had no connection to McCracken.
On October 25, 1983, the jury convicted McCracken of second degree murder, robbery, and conspiracy, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
The prosecution then dismissed the murder charges against Turcotte and Verdekal. Both men subsequently pled guilty to armed robbery charges stemming from robberies in Clifton Heights.
In 1986, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a series of articles about the case that raised questions about McCracken’s guilt (the articles were later awarded a Pulitzer Prize). The newspaper consulted gunshot residue experts and all agreed that the testimony of the crime lab analyst was wrong. At most, the experts agreed, the prosecution analyst had produced one finding that was negative and another that had characteristics similar to gunshot residue. In fact, the experts said the residue was just as likely to have come from McCracken’s work on the car.
The Inquirer also interviewed Verdekal, who said that Turcotte was the gunman.
At the same time, Turcotte and Verdekal began making statements suggesting that Turcotte was in fact the gunman. In January 1987, the trial judge vacated McCracken’s conviction and ordered a new trial after McCracken’s attorney testified to interviews he conducted with Turcotte in which Turcotte admitted he was the shooter. McCracken was released on bond.
In one interview, according to attorney John G. McDougall, Turcotte said he was high on alcohol and drugs when he went into the deli and that he only intended to commit a robbery. McDougall quoted Turcotte as saying, “I remember the whole thing. It was like a dream. I was so stoned, but I can’t remember the man’s face. The gun went off accidentally.”
In March 1988, however, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed the new trial order, ruling that Turcotte’s statements were cumulative to the defense at McCracken’s trial and would not have convinced the jury to acquit him.
McDougall then brought another motion seeking a new trial based on statements from Aldridge that he had been pressured by police to identify McCracken. He said he did not know who the gunman was and that during his questioning, police brought in his probation officer who terminated his probation on the spot as an inducement to identify McCracken. Aldridge said detectives repeated McCracken’s name and suggested that he was the gunman so often that he truly began to believe he had seen McCracken, though in fact he did not know who the gunman was.
The trial judge again granted McCracken a new trial and the state again appealed. In January 1993, the Superior Court again reversed the ruling and reinstated McCracken’s conviction, ruling that Aldridge’s recantation was not worthy of belief.
But in May 1995, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court and vacated McCracken’s conviction, finding that the statements of Turcotte and the recantation of Aldridge were sufficient to undermine the conviction.
In October 1995, McCracken went on a trial a second time before Delaware County Court Judge Frank Hazel, who heard the trial without a jury.
Aldridge testified that he had falsely identified McCracken and Verdekal testified that Turcotte committed the murder. Turcotte testified for the prosecution and denied killing Johnston.
The defense also presented testimony that the substance the prosecution called gunshot residue more likely came from McCracken working on a car on the day of the crime.
On October 16, 1995, Judge Hazel acquitted McCracken.
– Maurice Possley