At 2:30 a.m. on August 31, 1995, 52-year-old Thomas Keal was fatally shot during a robbery outside his seafood restaurant in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Keal’s 29-year-old daughter, Tonya, told police she was up taking her daughter to the bathroom just before the shooting and saw a man wearing a red bandana pacing the sidewalk. She turned away from the window and heard gunshots. When she peered through another window—through the blades of a motionless fan—she saw the man with the bandana holding a sawed-off shotgun and her father face down on the sidewalk. Another man shot her father in the back of the head with a pistol at point-blank range. Both men then fled.
Keal was found with one pocket pulled out, but more than $2,000 in cash was in his wallet. The gun he usually carried when he locked up after business hours was missing. Keal suffered a shotgun wound to his left leg and three gunshots to his head.
A crowd quickly gathered. Keal was a popular figure in the neighborhood and operated a bar in addition to the restaurant. Police questioned youths who had been standing around a Chinese restaurant at the end of the block prior to the shooting, but no one said they knew who committed the crime. One of those questioned was 16-year-old Eugene Gilyard
, who said he did not see the shooting.
Police showed Tonya Keal numerous mug shots, but she was unable to identify anyone as either of the two men she fleetingly saw.
The case went cold until late 1997 when it was assigned to the Special Investigations Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department. Detectives began re-interviewing people who were listed in the original police reports and assembled a photographic lineup that included Gilyard, who by then had been arrested on drug and robbery charges. Tonya Keal viewed the lineup and identified Gilyard as one of the gunmen.
Detectives also showed the photographic lineup to Keith Williams, one of the youths who was on the sidewalk by the Chinese restaurant that night. Williams did not identify Gilyard, but he picked out the photograph of another neighborhood youth, Lance Felder, who, like Gilyard, was 16 at the time of the murder. Keal viewed a live lineup that contained Felder, but did not identify him.
Felder and Gilyard were arrested in January 1998 and both were charged with first-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy and commission of a crime with a gun.
They went on trial in Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas in November 1998. Tonya Keal identified Gilyard as the man with the red bandana carrying the sawed off shotgun. Despite having been unable to identify Felder in photographic and live lineups, Keal identified Felder as the man with the pistol who shot her father in the back of the head. Williams identified Felder as one of the two gunmen, as well, but was unable to identify the other assailant.
On December 10, 1998, the jury convicted Felder of first-degree murder and Gilyard of second-degree murder. Both were also convicted of robbery, conspiracy and commission of a crime with a gun. Both were sentenced to life in prison.
In 2010, Gilyard’s mother received a letter from Felder and another prison inmate named Sheldon Odom. Odom said that he had been locked up with another convicted felon named Ricky Welborn and that Welborn had admitted that he committed the crime, and that Gilyard and Felder were not involved.
Gilyard’s family hired a private investigator who interviewed Welborn in February 2011. Welborn admitted to the investigator that he had committed the crime and he wanted to come forward and testify.
Gilyard then wrote to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, who sent lawyers and an investigator to interview Welborn. He gave a sworn statement admitting taking part in the killing with an unnamed accomplice who he said was not Gilyard. As the Innocence Project investigated, they found a man who said he was with Gilyard on the night of the shooting and Gilyard was not involved. They also identified a man who said that while he was in prison in the late 1990’s, a man he knew only as “Tizz” confessed that he was involved in the crime as well.
In August 2011, Innocence Project lawyers sent a letter to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office asking the prosecution to re-investigate the case. When nothing was done, the Innocence Project filed a petition for a new trial outlining the newly discovered evidence. The prosecution responded by contending the petition was filed too late and should be dismissed.
In October 2013, following a hearing, Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Mastasi vacated the convictions of both men and ordered a new trial. On November 7, 2013, the prosecution agreed to release Gilyard and Felder on house arrest. On June 18, 2014, the prosecution dismissed the charges against both men.
– Maurice Possley