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Chester Hollman III

Other Philadelphia CIU Exonerations
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Shortly before 1 a.m. on August 20, 1991, 24-year-old Tae Jung Ho, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, was robbed and shot to death as he walked with a friend near 22nd and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Ho’s friend, Junko Nihei, told police that two black men approached and pushed Ho to the pavement. One man, wearing red shorts, held his legs and searched his pockets. The other man, wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt, put a handgun to Ho’s chest and pulled the trigger. Ho was four days away from returning to his home in South Korea. Nihei said neither man wore glasses or a hat.

John Henderson, a taxi driver, told police he saw the flash of a pistol and a man wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt get into a white vehicle on Chestnut Street. He said he saw four people in the car and after following it for seven blocks, he lost sight of it. Henderson told police the vehicle’s license plate contained the letters YZA, but he did not get the numbers.

At 1:01 a.m., police broadcast the description of the vehicle. Four minutes later and six blocks from the crime, police pulled over a white Chevrolet Blazer which had a license plate with the letters YZA. The driver, 21-year-old Chester Hollman III, and his passenger, Deirdre Jones, were the only occupants. Police searched the vehicle, but found no weapon or anything related to the crime.

Hollman, who was wearing green pants, glasses and a hat, said the SUV had been rented from Alamo Rent-A-Car by his roommate, Shawn Boyce, who was in New York City that night and gave Hollman permission to use it. Hollman said he asked Jones, his neighbor, to go out with him. He said no others had been in the vehicle that night and he knew nothing about the crime.

Police brought Hollman to the scene of the crime. Andre Dawkins, a homeless crack addict with a history of schizophrenia and alcohol abuse, identified Hollman as the man who held Ho’s legs and searched his pockets.

Hollman and Jones were taken to the police station and interrogated separately. Hollman denied involvement in the crime. He said he had a steady job working for an armored car company.

Detectives falsely told Jones that Hollman had confessed to taking part in the crime and that she would not be charged if she implicated him. Ultimately, Jones gave a statement saying that there had been two others in the car—a man and a woman—although she did not know their names. Jones’s statement said that the other woman got behind the wheel while Hollman and the other man committed the crime. She said that she heard a shot and saw the victim fall—which was untrue because Ho’s friend said he was lying on the pavement when he was shot. Hollman and the other man got back in the vehicle and they drove off. The unknown couple then got out at some location prior to police pulling over the vehicle.

Police located several witnesses who said they saw two people in a car from which the two men fled after robbing and killing Ho. Three of them said the vehicle was a white Chevrolet Blazer with a woman behind the wheel.

Dawkins was brought to the police station and gave a statement that he was working at a nearby gas station sweeping the parking lot when he saw a white Chevrolet Blazer parked with its engine running. He said he was speaking to the driver, a woman, when the shooting occurred. He initially said he only heard the shots.

But he later made several statements that were false. He said the Blazer made a warning sound when it backed up (a fact later disproved at trial) and that one of the two men tried to take Nihei’s purse before shooting Ho, although Nihei said that never happened. He said the shooting occurred a few feet away from him and that if it occurred on Chestnut Street, he wouldn’t have been able to get a good look at the two men. In fact, the shooting did occur on Chestnut Street and Dawkins was nearly 170 feet away.

Nonetheless, Hollman was charged with second-degree murder and robbery. In April 1993, he went to trial in Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. Dawkins identified him, although he admitted during cross-examination that police showed him a photographic array and he identified a woman named Denise Combs as the woman behind the wheel of the Blazer. He also said his criminal record was limited to non-traffic citations and a burglary arrest.

Deirdre Jones testified consistently with her statement and Henderson, the taxi driver, testified about noting the partial license plate number. A detective testified that when Hollman was confronted with Jones’s statement, he blurted out, “I told that bitch to keep her mouth shut.”

Police recovered a 38-caliber revolver during a search of Hollman’s residence. Although it was acknowledged that the gun was not the murder weapon, police said it was the same kind of gun that was used to kill Ho.

Hollman’s defense attorney presented records showing that Denise Combs had rented a white Chevrolet Blazer with the letters YZA and that she returned the vehicle just hours after the shooting.

On May 4, 1993, the jury convicted Hollman of second-degree murder and robbery. After the trial and before sentencing, Hollman learned that the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Roger King, had not provided the defense with a full and accurate report of Dawkins’s criminal history. This error was discovered when Dawkins was arrested for robbery. It turned out that Dawkins had accidently been given two different identification numbers in the police computer system. The record King provided to Hollman’s trial lawyer contained a recent arrest for burglary, a prior arrest under the alias John Johnson, and several open bench warrants. However, it did not contain significant aspects of Dawkins's criminal history including robbery and conspiracy convictions, and a prior conviction for filing a false report of incriminating evidence with the authorities.

Hollman filed a motion for a new trial arguing that the prosecution's failure to turn over this impeachment evidence was a violation of the prosecution’s duty to disclose exculpatory evidence. Hollman claimed the information could have been used to further impeach Dawkins’s credibility.

Following a post-trial hearing, the motion was denied and Hollman was sentenced to life in prison without parole. His appeals in state court were denied.

In 1997, Hollman filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus based on King’s failure to disclose Dawkins’s full record. The petition was denied and the denial was upheld in 1999 by the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The appeals court noted that King said the failure to disclose the records was a clerical error resulting from Dawkins having two police identification numbers.

“Without some record evidence that it was something more than a mistake, we cannot conclude that the government withheld information that was readily available to it or constructively in its possession,” the court ruled. Moreover, the appeals court said that Dawkins was impeached significantly at trial, including by his admission that he had previously been hospitalized for seven months because he didn’t know who he was. The additional information about his criminal background would not have changed the outcome of the trial, the appeals court held.

In 2001, Dawkins recanted under oath on video while being questioned by Hollman’s lawyer and an investigator. Dawkins said he never saw Hollman at the scene and that he was too high on drugs to recall what he saw. He said the police threatened him with jail unless he identified Hollman and that his testimony was one of the biggest regrets of his life. Dawkins also said that in the months prior to Hollman’s trial, the lead detective on the case visited him several times and gave him cash, which he used to support himself and to buy drugs.

Hollman filed a petition seeking a new trial based on the recantation and the evidence that the prosecution had failed to reveal the cash payments to Dawkins. That petition was denied and the denial was upheld on appeal.

In 2005, Jones met with Hollman’s defense investigator and signed an affidavit recanting her trial testimony. She said her statement and testimony were false. She said she caved in after police threatened to charge her with the crime, refused her requests for a lawyer, told her that Hollman was a member of a street gang called the Junior Black Mafia, and that he had confessed to the crime.

Jones submitted to a polygraph examination and the examiner concluded that her recantation was truthful. She testified at a hearing on the motion for new trial, but the motion was denied.

In February 2018, Hollman’s lawyers, Alan Tauber and Marissa Bluestine, executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, asked the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit to review Hollman’s conviction. Patricia Cummings, head of the CIU, then provided the police and prosecution files on the case, which revealed that substantial evidence had been withheld from the defense by King and the police.

This included proof that King was aware of Dawkins’s full criminal record before Dawkins testified at the trial and knew that Dawkins lied about his record.

The files also showed that police had investigated Denise Combs and her return of the white Blazer to Alamo at 5 a.m., about four hours after the shooting. The files contained Alamo records showing that Jeffrey Green was listed as an additional driver. Green had a prior record of violent crimes, including arrests for robbery in the months before Ho was killed.

In addition, Denise Combs had a brother, Jack Combs, who was convicted of two separate third-degree murders. One of those was the roadside murder of Anthony Wilson on January 1, 1990, committed in a vehicle rented by Denise Combs from Hertz Rental Car and returned the day after Wilson was killed. Combs was convicted of committing another murder along with Kevin Bowman.

The files also showed that within 24 hours of Ho’s murder, an anonymous caller told police that a woman and a man who lived at 2114 Natrona Street were involved in the crime. At that time, Denise Combs lived there. Police had gone to that address and interviewed Combs. The police investigation, however, apparently ended there.

In July 2018, Bluestine and Tauber filed a petition seeking a new trial for Hollman. The petition recited the evidence that had not been disclosed to the defense. The petition also argued that the police failure to further investigate Denise Combs was “either gross incompetence or was otherwise motivated by the detectives’ understanding that were these individuals identified (as being the true perpetrators), it would undermine the case against Mr. Hollman and expose the fact that they procured a false confession from Deirdre Jones through duress.”

The petition said that the defense had interviewed Denise Combs and she admitted that years ago she had to get rid of a .38-caliber revolver—the type of weapon used to kill Ho—because it had a “body on it.”

Following a re-investigation by the CIU, Cummings joined with Hollman’s lawyers to petition to vacate his convictions. On July 15, Common Pleas Court Judge Gwendolyn N. Bright granted the petition and Hollman was released after nearly 28 years in prison.

Cumming said, “It was pretty clear to us," she said, “that unfortunately the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office actually had evidence in their possession back at the time of trial (that), had they disclosed it to the defense (as) they’re constitutionally and ethically required to do ... Mr. Hollman might not have ever even stood trial.”

On July 30, the charges against Hollman were dismissed. At the hearing, Cummings said, “I apologize to Chester Hollman. I apologize because he was failed, and in failing him, we failed the victim, and we failed the community of the city of Philadelphia.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/1/2019
State:Pennsylvania
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1991
Convicted:1993
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No