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Donte Rollins

Other Philadelphia Exonerations
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On the evening of January 28, 2006, a group of young men standing on a street corner in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania fired several shots at a car. Six-year-old Jabar Wright was struck once and left paralyzed from the neck down.

None of the other people in the car—Jabar’s grandfather, 40-year-old Benjamin Wright who was driving, Benjamin’s 40-year-old wife, LaRhonda or their 10-year-old daughter, Aneena—was injured.

The first call to 911 came in at 7:42 p.m. and less than an hour later, LaRhonda identified 18-year-old Donte Rollins as one of the four men on the street corner. Ultimately, Rollins and three other youths—Rollins’s cousin Raheem Collins, Chris Powell and Kevin Norris—were charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault, conspiracy to commit murder and unlawful use of a firearm.

Rollins and the other defendants went to trial in Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas in November 2007. The prosecution claimed that Benjamin was the target of the shooting because of previous conflicts with the gunmen. Rollins claimed he was miles away, shopping for clothing, at the time of the crime.

LaRhonda testified that when their car came to the corner of 29th and Westmont Streets, she gave a “quick glance” to her right and saw four men. She heard gunshots and shouted “They shooting at us.” When someone else in the car asked who was shooting, she responded, “Raheem and Donte.” LaRhonda testified she saw Collins reach down into his pants, but never saw a gun in the hands of any of the four.

LaRhonda testified that she had known Rollins for between 13 and 15 years at the time of the crime and had seen him about three times a week in the area of the shooting. She also testified that she told police that “Donte and Raheem had a gun,” but when shown a copy of her statement, she admitted the statement made no mention of a gun.

She told the jury that police drove her from the hospital to a street where she identified Rollins.

Benjamin Wright testified that he knew Rollins and the three others. He said he had “problems” with them in the past because they had threatened to kill his nephew. He also admitted that after the shooting started, LaRhonda told him she did not know who was shooting at the car.

Rollins’s mother, Ava Rollins, testified for the defense that she obtained security videotapes from two stores, both located miles away from the shooting. One of the videos, from the Gallery Mall, was played for the jury and showed a youth she identified as Rollins. She said that he was wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and a chain around his neck. That video showed Rollins in the store at 6:14 p.m. The second video, obtained from a second store called The Net, was not shown to the jury, although the defense presented four photographs made from this video.

Roslyn Jones, Rollins’s aunt, testified for the defense and identified Rollins in the four photographs. She said he was wearing a keychain around his neck and a gray hooded sweatshirt. She also identified him in the videotape from the mall.

Sheila Watkins, a family friend, identified Rollins in the photographs as wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt with a chain around his neck.

In rebuttal, the prosecution called Police Officer Andrew Jericho, who was assigned to the highway patrol on the night of the shooting. He testified that he received a radio message that one of the suspects in the shooting was named Donte Rollins and that he was wearing a dark gray hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans.

Jericho said he and his partner went to the Rollins family home where he saw a man fitting that description walking up the street sometime between 8:15 and 8:30 p.m. Jericho testified that once the youth walked up to the Rollins home and began to put a key in the door, he asked for his name. When the youth said he was Donte Rollins, Jericho said he escorted Rollins to the other side of the street while he radioed that he “possibly had somebody in custody being held for investigation.”

Not long after, LaRhonda Wright was driven to the scene where she identified Rollins as one of the men who fired the shots at the car, Jericho testified. He said that she identified Rollins at 8:30 p.m.

In closing arguments, Rollins’s defense attorney argued that Rollins was in the Gallery Mall and then went to The Net before going home.

The prosecution argued that the video from the Gallery Mall and the photographs from that video were inconclusive, telling the jury that if the prosecution had presented this evidence, “you’d be so mad at me, you’d be glaring at me, if I had this for identification.”

The prosecutor argued that it was impossible for Rollins to be in the video and photographs because there was not enough time for him to leave the Gallery Mall (where he was recorded at 6:18 p.m.), travel to the site of the shooting (which occurred around 7:40 p.m.), travel to The Net (where the defense said he was at 8 p.m.) and then get home to be seen by Officer Jericho at 8:15 p.m. The only way Rollins could have traveled that far, that fast was by jet plane, the prosecutor argued.

The jury began deliberating about 12:45 p.m. on Friday, November 30, 2007, and went home for the weekend after failing to reach a verdict that day. By day’s end on Monday, December 3, the jury reported it was deadlocked—unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The jury asked to see the video from The Net, but the court denied that request because that video was not in evidence.

The jury returned the following day, December 4, and convicted Rollins of attempted murder and aggravated assault of Jabar, attempted aggravated assault of Benjamin, LaRhonda and Aneena, conspiracy to kill Benjamin, and carrying a firearm without a license. Rollins’ cousin, Raheem Collins, and Chris Powell also were convicted. Kevin Norris was acquitted.

Rollins was sentenced to 62½ to 125 years in prison. The Pennsylvania Superior Court denied his appeal in 2010 and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to review the case in 2011.

In 2013, attorney Michael Wiseman and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project filed a post-conviction petition seeking a new trial. The petition claimed that Rollins’s trial defense attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to call alibi witnesses and present other documentary evidence, including the video from The Net as well as receipts for purchases at both the Gallery Mall and The Net.

The petition asserted that Howard Porter could have been called to testify that he and Rollins were in the video from The Net. In addition, Paris Grant and Shelton Fortune could have testified that they also were with Rollins at the time of the shooting. The trial defense attorney had receipts that showed Grant made a purchase at about 8:09 p.m. at The Net, but never introduced them at the trial.

The defense also failed to present a receipt for a purchase by Rollins at the Gallery Mall at 6:18 p.m. While that was before the shooting, it supported Rollins’s claim that he had been there and that there was not enough time for him to physically travel from the mall to the scene of the shooting and then back to The Net.

In addition, the security video from The Net showed Rollins using his cell phone, and his cell phone records showed that Rollins was on the phone at 8:01 and 8:02 p.m. Those records were in the defense lawyer’s file, but were never introduced at the trial.

The petition further noted that the defense could have rebutted Officer Jericho’s timeline with a transcript of the police radio transmissions, which showed that Jericho didn’t call in his initial contact with Rollins until 8:36—not 8:15 as Jericho testified. The defense could also have called Zahir Johnson, who would have testified that he spoke on his cell phone to Rollins at 8:35 p.m.—before Rollins was stopped by Jericho. In addition, Thomas Myricks, a neighbor, could have testified that he saw Rollins walk nonchalantly past the police waiting on the street outside the Rollins home—evidence strongly suggesting that Rollins was unaware of any reason police were seeking him.

“In sum, (trial defense) counsel had the tools available to significantly bolster the alibi that was presented,” the petition said. “He had Howard Porter, the phone records showing that (Rollins) was on the phone while pictured in the video with Porter. He could have called Fortune and Grant. He had the receipts. He also had the tools available to conclusively rebuff the prosecution’s attempt to discredit the alibi.”

The evidence showing the 21-minute difference between Jericho’s claim of 8:15 p.m. and evidence that the encounter did not occur until 8:36 p.m. was of “critical importance” because it “contradicted the core argument made by the prosecution that it could not have been (Rollins) pictured in The Net video” because Rollins could not have traveled the 4.5 miles between The Net and his home in the six minutes that elapsed between Grant’s purchase at 8:09 p.m. and Jericho’s time of 8:15 p.m.

After the petition was filed, the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s conviction integrity unit re-investigated the case. In April 2016, the prosecution agreed that Rollins’s convictions should be vacated. However, in November, Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford Means denied the petition.

Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, asked Means for his reasons, but the judge declined to respond and left the courtroom.

Rollins filed an appeal, joined by the prosecution, with the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

On December 20, 2016, the Superior Court vacated Rollins’s convictions and ordered him released.

The court harshly criticized Judge Means for “inexplicably” ordering hearings and calling for testimony from the original trial prosecutor, the detective, and Rollins’s trial defense attorney–even though the prosecution said it would not oppose the petition for a new trial.

After calling for a hearing, Means “thereafter entered multiple continuances,” despite objections from the defense and the prosecution’s statement that it would forego all proceedings in favor of a new trial.

Means went ahead with a hearing in October 2016 during which the original trial prosecutor and the detective testified and “offered no relevant information,” the appeals court said.

There was “no justification” for Means’s “multiple delays in the proceedings, arbitrary demand for testimony unrelated to (Rollins’s)…claims, or unexplained denial of the agreed upon relief requested,” the appeals court said.

Rollins was immediately released and on December 21, 2016, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/6/2017
State:Pennsylvania
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Gun Possession or Sale, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:2006
Convicted:2007
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:62 1/2 to 125 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No