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Theophalis Wilson

Other Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania exonerations
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During a 10-hour stretch beginning at 11:30 p.m. on September 25, 1989, the bodies of three young men—22-year-old Otis Reynolds, 19-year-old Gavin Anderson, and his 17-year-old brother, Kevin Anderson—were found murdered in separate locations of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The bodies were within a two-mile radius of one another and all had been shot in the head.

Police said the three were drug dealers from Brooklyn, New York. Their murders brought the tally of drug-related killings in Philadelphia in 1989 to 106, a record total for a year and three more than all of 1988.

Nearly four years later, on August 6, 1993, a Philadelphia County jury convicted Christopher Williams and Theophalis Wilson of those murders. Williams was sentenced to death. Theophalis, who was 17 at the time of the killings, was sentenced to life in prison.

After more than a quarter of a century, the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit moved to vacate their convictions and dismissed the charges against both men.

A re-investigation by defense lawyers and the prosecution showed that not only had James White, the prosecution’s sole eyewitness to the murders, been discredited, but he had admitted his testimony implicating himself along with Williams and Wilson was false.

Moreover, a re-opening of the case by the Conviction Integrity Unit revealed a trove of police reports and information that pointed to other suspects and undermined other witnesses’ testimony in the prosecution’s case.

The newly disclosed information had been concealed the trial prosecutor, David Desiderio, who denied any misconduct in the case.

Patricia Cummings, head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, called the prosecution of Williams and Wilson a “perfect storm” of injustice that included prosecutorial misconduct, an inadequate legal defense, and perjured testimony by White, who said he pled guilty to six murders to escape the death penalty after he was promised the possibility of release in just 15 years.

White was 19 when he was arrested in December 1989 for the November 21, 1989 murder of 19-year-old Michael Haynesworth, who had dated White’s 13-year-old girlfriend.

Not long after, White was charged with the murder of 19-year-old Marron Genrette, who was gunned down on June 25, 1989. At the time, White’s attorney negotiated a deal with David Desiderio, the assistant district attorney handling the cases. The deal required White to plead guilty to the murders of Haynesworth and Genrette and identify anyone who participated in the crimes. In return, he was to receive two consecutive prison sentences of five to 10 years for a total sentence of 10 to 20 years.

After the deal was in place, White implicated Williams in the Haynesworth and Genrette murders. He also described a third murder—the fatal shooting in February 1989 of William Graham, a cab driver. Williams was arrested December 16, 1989.

Police believed that Williams, then 30 years old, was the head of a drug gang that robbed other drug dealers and eliminated anyone in their way by killing them. White would later admit that Williams was actually little more than a small-time drug dealer who sold $5 bags.

Desiderio also questioned White about the murders of the Anderson brothers and Reynolds, but White said he knew nothing about those killings.

Weeks later, Desiderio arranged for White to be brought to the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s office, where Desiderio said that a prison inmate claimed that White had admitted taking part in the murders of Reynolds and the Anderson brothers. White denied any knowledge of these murders. He would later testify that in response, Desiderio said his plea deal was being torn up and that he would be charged with all six murders. Desiderio said he would seek the death penalty against White.

According to White, Desiderio said he could plead guilty to all six murders in return for his testimony against Williams and any others whom White said were involved. White would receive a life sentence, but Desiderio would write a letter to the parole board so that he could be released after 15 years. White, however, said Desiderio instructed him not to reveal that part of the deal, which was not memorialized in any way in the plea agreement.

White then implicated Williams and Wilson. Police believed Wilson was a part of Williams’s gang and had previously questioned him, but he denied involvement in the murders of Anderson brothers and Reynolds. White also implicated Rick Bennett, another alleged member of Williams’s gang, in the murders of Reynolds and the Anderson brothers.

White also implicated Williams, then Bennett, and then a man named James McArthur in the February 1989 murder of cabdriver William Graham. White, who over time gave three separate and conflicting accounts of the shooting of Graham, said that he killed Graham after Williams said White had to commit a murder to gain entry to the gang. White asserted that when he expressed some nervousness about committing the murder, Williams said, “Take it easy, young buck. Soon death will be all around you.”

Williams went to trial for the Genrette murder in December 1991 and was acquitted. He went to trial in January 1992 for the Haynesworth murder. Based almost solely on White’s testimony, Williams was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. McArthur pled guilty to the murder of Graham and was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison.

In July 1993, Williams, Wilson (who had been arrested on March 4, 1992), and Bennett went to trial for the murders of Reynolds and the Anderson brothers. Williams and Bennett also were tried simultaneously for the murder of Graham, the taxi driver.

White testified that the three victims were lured to Philadelphia under the promise of being sold two AK-47 assault rifles, but that he and the others actually intended to rob them.

White said that at Williams’s request, he stole a van to use in the robbery. On the afternoon of September 25, 1989, White said that Wilson picked up the victims and drove them to a home where Williams, White, Bennett, and a gang member named “Steve” were waiting. After the three handed over $2,400, Williams retrieved an AK-47 from a closet and pointed it at the victims. At that point, White said he, Wilson, and Bennett all drew weapons and forced the victims to get on the floor.

Williams demanded more money. After first denying they had any more, one of the victims agreed to take Williams to get more money. Williams, Bennett, and “Steve” left with one of the victims and returned about 30 minutes later with $24,000 in cash. The victim was not with them, White said.

Williams then demanded more money from the two other victims, White testified. When they said there was none, Williams, Bennett, White, and another unnamed gang member forced the two victims into the van. Wilson and “Steve” were ordered to accompany them in a separate vehicle, a Cadillac.

White said the van followed the Cadillac, driving around Philadelphia as Williams and Bennett interrogated the two remaining victims about money. White said the unnamed gang member was driving and that he was in the front passenger seat. When the victims repeatedly denied having any more money, Williams pulled out his nine-millimeter pistol and shot the smaller of the victims (Kevin Anderson) two or three times in the face while Anderson was “looking directly” at Williams.

White said that the victim “just slumped over in the van and the other…young man who was in the van got hysterical and he started trying to fight and he knocked the gun out of Christopher Williams’s hand and he tried to run to the front of the van where myself and the other guy was driving at.”

“Rick Bennett then grabbed the young man and restrained him and pushed him back to where Christopher was at and Christopher Williams started smacking him around,” White said. He said Williams asked the victim if he wanted to end up like his dead companion.

White said that Williams and Bennett then opened the back of the van, picked up the dead victim by his feet and hands and “fired him right out the back” onto the street.

White said, “We kept driving. Christopher Williams was asking him (the third victim), ‘Do you want to die?’”

“Christopher Williams then took out his gun and pointed at the [third] guy’s face. I turned around in my seat because I knew what was going to happen next,” White said. “I didn’t want to see it.”

White said he heard two gunshots. “And the back of the van opened up and I assume [Williams] threw the guy out of the van because he wasn’t there when I turned around.”

All of the victims were dead before 4 p.m. that day, he said.

A police officer testified that Reynolds was discovered on a cobblestone driveway in a residential neighborhood shortly around 11:30 p.m. on September 25. He had been shot twice in the side of the head. At 7:22 am on September 26, Kevin Anderson’s body was found a mile and a half away from Reynolds’s body. Kevin Anderson was face down on the sidewalk and had gunshot wounds in the back and on the left side of his head.

A couple of hours later, police found Gavin Anderson’s body, a half-mile from his brother. He was face down in a parking area more than 20 feet from the street. He had been shot three times—in the right cheek, the right temple, and the back of the neck.

Three different assistant medical examiners performed the autopsies on the victims. During cross-examination by Wilson’s defense attorney, Jack McMahon, Dr. Paul Hoyer, one of the medical examiners, established there were no scrapes or bruises on Reynolds or Gavin Anderson.

Dr. Hygow Park, another medical examiner, testified that there were no injuries other than gunshot wounds on Kevin Anderson. Dr. Hoyer testified that whether a person would sustain additional injuries, such as scrapes, bruises, abrasions, and contusions, from a fall after a shooting would depend on the surface upon which the person fell, the speed of travel, and whether the surface was wet or dry. The absence of such injuries in the victims, he said, meant only that the body “did not fall against a hard surface with a lot of force.”

Judge Paul Ribner repeatedly sustained prosecution objections to McMahon’s cross-examination and ridiculed McMahon’s attempts to pose hypothetical questions about unlikely circumstances in which someone could be shot and hurled from a van, but fail to sustain other injuries. At one point, the judge said, “Look, if someone is thrown from a moving van and lands on a pile of soft rags, that would have no effect. The doctor cannot answer a question based on his examination as to exactly what happened to a body after the shooting.”

McMahon gave up in frustration, saying, “Obviously, we are not going to be allowed to ask this. We have nothing further.”

In response, Judge Ribner stated, “I will ask the jury to disregard that rather silly remark by Mr. McMahon. This court has the duty of allowing all proper questions and not allowing a lot of nonsensical questions.”

Williams’s defense attorney asked no questions of the medical examiners.

David Lee, Wilsons’s uncle and a federal informant, testified that he had been a straw purchaser of weapons for Williams. One of those weapons, he said, was a nine-millimeter pistol that police seized from Williams at the time of his arrest. Lee said that while he knew he had committed criminal acts by purchasing guns for other people, and was subject to possible prosecution for those acts, he was testifying without any agreement from law enforcement. He testified that he had absolutely no expectation of leniency and that in fact, he was very worried about potential prosecution for the gun purchases. He testified that the federal government was looking at him “very, very hard.” He testified that he was a simple “tree surgeon” who expected to be prosecuted because “if you do the crime, you got to do the time.”

He also testified that he was “squeaky clean” and that he never “even had a parking ticket.”

Chris Vaughn testified that while in prison, White told him he committed the three murders with “Chris” in Philadelphia. Vaughn was the inmate informant who spoke with Desiderio, leading to the withdrawal of White’s original plea agreement.

Marian Anderson, sister to the Anderson brothers, testified that they had no criminal backgrounds. Eric was a high school student and Gavin was an HVAC trainee, she said. In addition, she testified that during jury selection, Williams looked over at her and hung his head. She claimed she recognized him as having been at her home with her brothers 10 to 17 days before their deaths. She also said she told Desiderio and detectives at the beginning of trial, but no statement was ever disclosed.

On August 6, 1993, the jury convicted Williams and Wilson of first-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy, possession of an instrument of crime, and violating the state corrupt organization act. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on Bennett in the Graham murder and the court declared a mistrial on that charge. Bennett was acquitted of the other charges. Williams was acquitted of the murder of Graham. Williams was sentenced to death. Wilson was sentenced to life in prison.

Williams’s appeals were unsuccessful, although the corrupt organizations charge was dismissed because it was ruled unconstitutional in another case. In 2011, White filed a petition seeking to overturn his convictions. In an affidavit, he asserted that his testimony against Williams and Wilson was false.

In 2013, Williams was granted a new trial following an evidentiary hearing during which White testified that his trial testimony was all a lie—he knew nothing about the crime. He also said that he agreed to testify against Williams and Wilson only after Desiderio promised him he would try to get him released after 15 years. Desiderio denied that claim during the hearing.

Perhaps more significantly, Williams’s appeals attorney, assistant federal defender Victor Abreu, presented medical testimony that directly contradicted White’s testimony about how the victims were shot.

Robert Tressell, chief criminal investigator for the Cobb County, Georgia District Attorney’s Office and an expert in blood pattern and spatter analysis, testified that the location of Gavin’s Anderson’s body was inconsistent with being pushed from a moving van. The blood evidence also was inconsistent with White’s description of what happened. Blood had pooled in the creases of Anderson’s ear; had the body been thrown, there would have been evidence of blood projected away from the ear, he said.

Kevin Anderson’s clothing showed that blood had begun to soak in, and the blood flow patterns were consistent with being shot and falling right in the place where his body was found, Tressell said. None of the blood patterns was consistent with being thrown from a moving vehicle. In addition, Tressell noted that the bullet removed from Kevin Anderson’s body was not consistent with having been fired by the nine-millimeter gun seized from Williams.

Tressell also said that the crime scene evidence and blood evidence relating to Reynolds were not consistent with someone being shot and ejected from a vehicle.

He said that “all three of them received their injuries where they were found.”

Dr. Charles Wetli, former chief medical examiner for Suffolk County, New York, said that based on a review of the autopsy, the trial transcripts, and the crime scene reports, there was no evidence that any of the three victims were thrown from a moving vehicle. He also said there was no evidence that any of the victims were shot directly in the face as White claimed.

On December 30, 2013, Court of Common Pleas Judge William Manfredi granted Williams a new trial because his trial defense attorney had failed to retain a medical expert to confront the prosecution’s evidence. During the hearing, Williams’s trial defense attorney, Lee Mandell, admitted he had not consulted with any expert because he expected he would draw out the information through cross-examination of the medical examiners. Judge Manfredi noted, “Although his strategy was based on cross-examining the medical examiners, he made no effort to talk to them about their findings in this case before their testimony. Indeed, Mandell himself did not attempt even a single question of cross-examination” of the three medical examiners who testified for the prosecution.

Wilson, meanwhile, had been unsuccessfully battling to overturn his conviction. In 2017, his case was remanded back to the trial court for resentencing after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Miller v. Alabama that it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to mandatory life sentences.

The law firm of Greenberg Traurig, led by Kelly Dobbs Bunting, began representing Wilson pro bono and in 2018, teamed up with the law firm of Phillips Black, whose team was led by Jennifer Merrigan. At the same time, Williams’s case was back in the trial court, pending a retrial.

In May 2018, the Conviction Integrity Unit began a comprehensive review of Wilson’s case. At the same time, it began a review of Williams’s case. Subsequently, the Conviction Integrity Unit turned over to the defense a copy of the prosecution file—more than 40,000 pages of documents.

This included reports showing there were multiple possible other suspects, including a powerful Jamaican drug dealer, as well as members of the Jamaican Shower Posse and the Junior Black Mafia. The reports indicated that the three victims were caught in an ongoing dispute between these two “extremely violent gangs, either of which may have been responsible for their deaths.”

Other information that had originally been withheld included:

--A report of a 911 call made at 12:41 a.m. on the morning of September 26, 1989, one block from where Kevin Anderson’s body was found. In that call, a gas station employee reported that someone had just knocked on the window of the gas station and asked him to call police because a man had been shot at 32nd & Berks Street. There was no mention of a man being thrown out of a van. This lead was never investigated.

--A statement from the father of the Anderson brothers that his daughter got a call from one of the brothers at 6 p.m.—after the time that White said the murders had occurred. In addition, the father said that Reynolds had an argument with someone named Kevin who was looking for him claiming that Reynolds had robbed him.

--A statement of a witness who said that at 11 p.m. on September 25, 1989, she heard four shots a block from where one of the victims was found. This also was several hours after White said the murders occurred.

--Homicide activity reports that said that the Anderson brothers were involved in drug running, selling drugs, and robbing drug dealers, which could have been used to impeach the testimony of Marian Anderson that her brothers had no criminal backgrounds.

--Reports showing that David Lee, who said he sold guns to Williams, had previously provided prosecution testimony in two murders, one of which he had a role in and had not been prosecuted. This cast doubt on Lee’s claims that he was “squeaky clean” and feared possible prison time for buying guns for Williams. One of those prior prosecutions was handled by Desiderio and the other by McMahon, Wilson’s trial defense lawyer who had formerly been a prosecutor. Williams’s lawyer said that Desiderio hid all information regarding Lee's involvement in those cases from defense counsel at the time of the original trial, preventing Williams’s trial defense lawyer from impeaching Lee's credibility.

--Multiple reports and notes of correspondence between Desiderio and White, and Desiderio and White's mother, suggesting that the prosecutor would help White get released early.

--A statement from a witness who said he saw Gavin Anderson struggling with someone just before he was shot and later identified that person by name as someone who was frequently seen in the neighborhood where the shooting occurred.

On December 18, 2019, Cummings filed a motion to vacate Williams’s convictions, saying that the prosecution believed that White testified falsely and that the physical evidence demonstrated the falsity of his account of the murders. The motion was granted and the charges were dismissed. Williams, however, remained in prison because of his conviction for the murder of Haynesworth. A request that the Conviction Integrity Unit review that conviction because it was largely based on White’s testimony was under review.

On January 21, 2020, based on a similar motion filed by the Conviction Integrity Unit, Wilson’s convictions were vacated, the charges were dismissed, and he was released.

The motion said that evidence withheld by the prosecution included reports that prior to their murders, Reynolds and the Anderson brothers had been running a drug operation in Philadelphia that had been wrested from their control by a drug kingpin named Noel Grierson, also known as “Steplight.” In fact, Grierson had physically assaulted the three and robbed them of a large amount of narcotics. In response, Reynolds and the Anderson brothers robbed one of Steplight’s drug houses in Philadelphia. Three weeks later, Reynolds and the brothers were murdered. An undisclosed homicide activity sheet revealed that police identified Grierson as “the prime suspect” in the triple homicide.

The undisclosed reports showed an extensive police investigation of Grierson (who was never charged), including searches of the state department of motor vehicles records, property record searches, criminal history searches, and a memo detailing the locations of several businesses. Other reports said that a member of the Junior Black Mafia street gang claimed responsibility for killing Reynolds and the Andersons because they had started providing protection for a Jamaican narcotics operation located in territory controlled by the Junior Black Mafia.

The motion also noted that some of the undisclosed material had been requested by Williams’s attorney in preparation for Williams’s retrial, but that assistant district attorneys Bridget Kirns and Alisa Shver contended there was nothing in the file to be disclosed.

During the hearing when Wilson’s charges were dismissed, Cummings said, “It is time for Mr. Wilson to be allowed to go home—that he go home a free man, and that he go home with an apology. No words can express what we put these people through—what we put Mr. Wilson through; what we put his family through.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/3/2020
State:Pennsylvania
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Gun Possession or Sale, Conspiracy, Other Nonviolent Felony
Reported Crime Date:1989
Convicted:1993
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No