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Shaurn Thomas

Other Philadelphia CIU Exonerations
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On November 13, 1990, 78-year-old Domingo Martinez withdrew $25,000 in cash from his bank and set off in his car for one of his three travel agencies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Along the way, according to eyewitnesses, his car was cut off by another car. When Martinez stopped, two men emerged from the other car and one of them shot Martinez through the windshield.

The two men dragged Martinez from the car and left him in the street to die. The two men then drove off in Martinez’s car with the $25,000. A third man—still behind the wheel of the car that cut off Martinez’s car—followed.

Martinez was beloved in Philadelphia’s Latino community. In 1942, he and his wife, Esther, opened a grocery store two years after arriving from their native Puerto Rico. By 1990, he owned three travel agencies and was known for his philanthropy.

Nearly two years later, in October of 1992, police arrested Nathaniel Stallworth on an unrelated charge. Stallworth said there were six people involved in Martinez’s murder, driving in two cars. He named his cousins, John and William Stallworth, as well Clayton “Mustafa” Thomas and his brother, Shaurn Thomas, who was 16 at the time of crime.

Police soon arrested John Stallworth on an unrelated charge. During questioning, police said he implicated Clayton and Shaurn Thomas, as well as his brother, William Stallworth, and a man named Louis Gay. When police determined that Gay was in prison on the day of the crime, Stallworth was allowed to amend his confession to implicate a man whose identity Stallworth said he did not know.

John Stallworth pled guilty to third-degree murder and agreed to testify for the prosecution. In 1993, police arrested William Stallworth as well as Clayton and Shaurn Thomas. They were charged with murder, robbery, conspiracy, and illegal use of a weapon.

William Stallworth also pled guilty and testified for the prosecution at the trial of Clayton and Shaurn Thomas in Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas in December 1994.

William Stallworth testified that he was with Shaurn Thomas in a car that was following one driven by Clayton Thomas. According to William Stallworth, Clayton Thomas rammed into Martinez’s car, got out, and shot him through the windshield. Thomas then smashed the driver’s side window, reached in to open the car door, grabbed Martinez, and dragged him into the street.

Shaurn Thomas’s defense attorney presented an alibi defense, contending that Shaurn was checking into a court for juvenile offenders. The defense lawyer presented a copy of a subpoena that he said Shaurn had signed. The defense lawyer, however, failed to call Shaurn’s mother or sister, who could have testified that Shaurn was in court waiting for his initial appearance when Martinez was murdered.

On December 19, 1994, the jury convicted Shaurn and Clayton Thomas of second-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy, and illegal use of a weapon. Both were sentenced to life in prison without parole. Prior to the trial, Shaurn had rejected an offer to plead guilty in return for a sentence of five to 10 years in prison.

Their appeals were rejected. But in 2009, James Figorski, a retired Philadelphia police officer who had become a lawyer at the law firm of Dechert LLP, began volunteering to review cases at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. One of the first cases he examined was Shaurn Thomas’s, and Figorski quickly came to believe that Shaurn’s alibi was truthful and that he was innocent.

In 2011, William Stallworth recanted his testimony, saying that he had testified falsely to obtain favorable treatment from the prosecution for his brother. Stallworth denied even being at the scene of the murder. A handwriting expert examined the subpoena and concluded that the signature was Thomas's.

A petition seeking to vacate Shaurn’s conviction was filed, but a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge rejected the petition. In 2016, while that decision was being appealed, the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office conviction integrity unit agreed to re-investigate Shaurn’s case.

During that investigation, the prosecution requested the police homicide file in the case. Although defense attorneys had been told the file could not be located, police eventually found it and delivered it to the prosecutors. The file contained statements that indicated that police had stopped three men in a car three days after the murder, and all were considered possible suspects in Martinez’s murder. The file also contained a statement from a witness that only one car was involved—contradicting William Stallworth’s trial testimony that he and Shaurn were in a second car and confirming multiple eyewitness accounts. That file had never been disclosed to the defense.

During the re-investigation, Stallworth repeated his recantation to the prosecution. In addition, the prosecution concluded it was “more likely” Shaurn was in court than committing the murder.. On May 23, 2017, the prosecution acquiesced to the post-conviction request to vacate Shaurn's convictions. On June 13, 2017, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

Shaurn’s brother, Clayton, who had no alibi for his whereabouts on the day of the crime, remains in prison.

The detectives who investigated the Martinez murder also were responsible for the investigations of murders that resulted in the convictions of Anthony Wright and James Dennis. Wright was convicted of murder in 1993 and sentenced to life without parole. He was granted a new trial after DNA tests excluded him from the crime, and he was acquitted at a retrial in 2016. In 2013, Dennis, who was sentenced to death for a 1991 murder he said he did not commit, was granted a new trial. In 2016, Dennis pled no contest to third-degree murder and was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/20/2017
State:Pennsylvania
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Illegal Use of a Weapon, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1990
Convicted:1994
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:16
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No