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Orlando Maisonet

Other Philadelphia Murder Exonerations
In the early morning hours of August 15, 1982, several men entered Carlo’s Pizzeria on Lehigh Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and announced a robbery.

One robber jumped over the counter and demanded the cash register be opened. When an employee ran out the back door, another robber chased him, but quickly returned. Meanwhile, a customer ran up to the second floor to alert the owner, 50-year-old Ignacio Slafman, that a robbery was in progress. Slafman came down the steps, and when he confronted the man behind the counter, he was fatally shot.

The robbers fled as a store employee grabbed a gun from under the counter and fired four shots after them.

One employee of the pizza shop, 14-year-old Jose Rivera, told police he did not see the shooting because he was on the floor, hiding behind the counter when Slafman was shot. Other employees gave varying accounts, but could not identify the robbers.

Two weeks later, on August 29, 1982, Jorge Figueroa and 23-year-old Orlando Maisonet, two young men from the same neighborhood, were summoned to a house by Simon and Heriberto Pirela, who sold drugs from the neighborhood pool hall and who ruled the neighborhood with violence and terror. The Pirela brothers accused Maisonet and Figueroa of “snitching” about the pizza shop robbery. Figueroa was then beaten and stabbed to death in front of Maisonet.

Maisonet, fearing he would be killed as well, obeyed the Pirela brothers’ instructions and disposed of Figueroa’s body by dumping it in a nearby abandoned house.

A month later, on September 28, 1982, the police arrested 17-year-old Heriberto Colon and charged him with murder, robbery, and conspiracy for the pizza shop robbery, the Figueroa stabbing, and a third, unrelated homicide. Colon gave a statement saying he was the lookout at the pizza shop robbery, and the culprits were Simon Pirela, Maisonet, and an individual named Elvin Martinez. Colon also admitted he was present at the murder of Figueroa, and that both Pirela brothers stabbed and killed Figueroa. Colon unequivocally stated that Maisonet did not stab Figueroa.

In the ensuing months, the police arrested Simon and Heriberto Pirela and charged them with murder, robbery, conspiracy, and weapons charges for the pizza shop homicide and the Figueroa homicide. An arrest warrant was issued for Maisonet, but he fled to Puerto Rico out of fear of the Pirelas, and the police did not locate him until nearly 10 years later.

In trials in 1983 and 1984, the Pirela brothers were convicted in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas of murder, robbery, conspiracy, and weapons charges for the killings of both Jorge Figueroa and Ignacio Slafman.

At the Pirela brothers’ trial for the Slafman shooting, pizza shop employee Jose Rivera testified as a defense witness that he could not identify any of the suspects, including the Pirela brothers, because he was on the ground, behind the counter. Rivera said he did not see who fired the shot that killed Slafman.

Pursuant to a written plea agreement that was never provided to Maisonet’s counsel, Colon, after he testified at the Pirela brothers’ trial and after he testified against Maisonet years later, pled guilty to robbery and third-degree murder and was sentenced to 11½ to 23 months in prison for his involvement in three homicides.

In 1992, at Maisonet’s trial for the Slafman murder, Colon contradicted his earlier statement and testified that he was armed with a .357 caliber revolver and jumped the counter and told everyone to get on the floor. He said that Maisonet was carrying a rifle and fired the shot that killed Slafman. Colon testified that he turned the money from the robbery over to the Pirela brothers.

Jose Rivera also testified, and unlike his testimony at the Pirela brothers’ trial when he said he did not see the shooting, he told the jury that he saw Maisonet shoot Slafman. He claimed that his memory was “refreshed” after watching an America’s Most Wanted television episode about the crime that featured Maisonet.

The prosecution also called Maisonet’s brother, Gumersindo Maisonet, to testify about a statement police said he gave in which he said Orlando had admitted shooting Slafman. Gumersindo contended that police forced him to sign the statement by threatening to take away his three children. When he signed it, he said, he had been questioned for more than seven hours without food. He testified that the statement was false.

Detectives testified, however, that Gumersindo Maisonet gave the statement without coercion or threats, and that he signed it within an hour of being brought to the police station.

On May 15, 1992, a jury convicted Orlando Maisonet of first-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy, possession of an instrument of a crime, and illegal possession of a firearm. Because the jury could not agree on the sentence—death penalty or life without parole—Maisonet was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

After back-to-back capital trials, on June 11, 1992, Maisonet was also convicted of the murder of Figueroa, largely on the testimony of Colon, who for the first time said that Maisonet stabbed Figueroa one time. In all statements and testimony, both before and after his on-the-stand revelation, Colon denied that Maisonet stabbed Figueroa.

Assistant District Attorney Roger King, who prosecuted both cases, made the pizza shop robbery a centerpiece of the Figueroa murder trial. As a result, pizza shop employee Jose Rivera was called to testify again and his testimony was consistent with his previous testimony that Maisonet was the one who shot Slafman.

Maisonet was convicted of Figueroa’s murder and ultimately was sentenced to death.

King achieved a measure of fame as the prosecutor who sent more men to death row in Pennsylvania than any other under the administration of Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who was known as “America’s Deadliest DA.” He also had several convictions reversed, including the convictions of Chester Hollman III and William Nieves.

In 1997, Maisonet was granted a new trial in the Slafman case because his trial counsel never obtained a copy of the transcript of Jose Rivera’s testimony from the Pirela brothers’ trial, during which Rivera said he could not see who shot Slafman.

Maisonet went to trial a second time for the Slafman murder in January 2005, again prosecuted by King.

Maisonet’s attorney at the second trial forced Colon to admit that he had given at least three different accounts of the robbery. In one version, Colon said he was the person who jumped over the counter. In another, he said Heriberto Pirela jumped the counter. In a third version, he said Maisonet leaped over the counter.

Rivera also testified against Maisonet at the retrial and again identified him as the gunman. However, he was compelled to admit under cross-examination that he had testified at the Pirela brothers’ trial that he didn’t see the gunman.

On January 10, 2005, the jury acquitted Maisonet. The charges were expunged by court order on October 4, 2013. Maisonet nevertheless remained in prison under a death sentence for the murder of Jorge Figueroa.

In November 2016, Maisonet’s attorney, Daniel Silverman, filed a post-conviction petition of more than 500 pages seeking a new trial. The petition linked the Pirela brothers to at least four other murders. One of those murders—that of Heidi Ruiz in 1981—resulted in the conviction of Wilfredo Carbonell, who ultimately died in prison protesting his innocence. The petition claimed that King had failed to disclose evidence, including Colon’s written plea agreement, and allowed a witness to testify falsely.

In February 2019, the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office conceded that Maisonet’s trial counsel was ineffective for failing to present Rivera’s testimony from the Pirela brother’s trial, as well as Colon’s various inconsistent statements, and for failing to object to the prosecutor showing the America’s Most Wanted show to the jury.

Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Judge J. Scott O’Keefe further ruled that King committed prosecutorial misconduct. Judge O’Keefe granted Maisonet a new trial in the Figueroa case.

In May 2019, pursuant to a plea agreement, Maisonet entered an Alford plea, under which he did not admit guilt but only that the prosecution had evidence that could result in convictions for third-degree murder, conspiracy, and possession of an instrument of crime. Maisonet was sentenced to 14 to 28 years, and because he had served over 28 years, he was released immediately. Outside the courthouse Maisonet was embraced by Figueroa’s sister, Gloria, who supported the new sentence and release.

In the courtroom, Gloria Figueroa had urged Judge O’Keefe to approve the plea agreement. “I believe he had nothing to do with it, your honor,” she said. “In my heart I feel that. And I believe everyone deserves a second chance at life.”

Maisonet, acting without a lawyer, filed a federal civil rights suit seeking damages from the city of Philadelphia. The lawsuit was dismissed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/1/2019
Last Updated: 12/27/2019
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Gun Possession or Sale, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1982
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No