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Donald Outlaw

Other Philadelphia, Pennsylvania CIU exonerations
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In the early morning hours of September 4, 2000, 19-year-old Jamal Kelly, a drug dealer, was shot twice in the back while sitting on the steps of a residence in the 1800 block of Champlost Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Twelve days later, on September 16, 2000, Kelly died from his wounds.

Police and emergency personnel were summoned. As paramedics began attending to his wounds, Kelly said, variously, that “Shank” shot him, that “Shank” set him up, and that he did not see who shot him. One police officer who was present during those statements would later testify that he specifically heard Kelly say, “Shank did it.”

When Kelly was shot, he was sitting next to Shelby Green. Green said that Derrick Alston—whose nickname was Shank—may have been the shooter or an accomplice, and that Charles Paladino may have been a witness.

Alston was among the people in the crowd at the scene, and police quickly detained and questioned him. Alston said that he was with Paladino when the shots were fired, but that he did not know the identity of the gunman. He was then released.

Police went to Paladino’s home hours later. He said he did not see the gunman, but that he did notice a gold Honda or Hyundai drive away from the scene after the shooting.

The shooting was still unsolved in May 2001 when Paladino, who was then in prison on an unrelated charge, gave a statement to Philadelphia police detective Jeffrey Piree. Paladino said that in October 2000—a month after the shooting—Lamar Rodgers told Paladino that Donald Outlaw, who was 16 at the time of the murder, was the gunman.

In June 2001, Paladino gave another statement. For the first time, he said he saw Outlaw threaten Kelly during a dispute over money while they were outside a bar the night before the shooting. And for the first time, according to the statement, Paladino said that he actually saw Outlaw shoot Kelly.

The investigation was still underway in October 2001 when Paladino, who by then had been released from prison, gave another statement. In this account, Paladino said that recently, Outlaw had beaten him up and threatened him with further harm if he cooperated with police.

In March 2002, about six months later, detectives interviewed Lamar Rodgers. At the end of the interview, Rodgers signed a statement that detectives had typed. In the statement, Rodgers said that about a half hour after the shooting and while Kelly was still alive, he saw Outlaw in Paladino’s backyard. According to the statement, Rodgers overheard someone criticize Outlaw for “what you did.” According to the statement, Outlaw replied, “People get what they get. They get what they deserve. That boy is going to be all right. I didn’t kill him.”

The statement said that about six weeks later, Rodgers saw Outlaw and Alston (Shank) in Paladino’s yard. Alston said, “That’s [obscenity] what you did, killing that boy. I just got pulled in for that.” According to the statement, Outlaw replied, “Nobody was meant to get killed. That [obscenity] just happens.”

In July 2003, nearly three years after the shooting, police said that Alston gave a statement saying he saw Outlaw shoot Kelly—despite having given two prior statements to police denying that he knew the identity of the gunman.

Police said that a month later, in August 2003, they got a written statement from Eric Lee saying that he saw Outlaw shoot Kelly. Police said Lee viewed a photographic lineup and selected a photo of Outlaw as the gunman.

On September 4, 2003, the three-year anniversary of the shooting, Outlaw was arrested. He was charged under the name Robert Outlaw with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, possession of an instrument of a crime, intimidation of a witness, and conspiracy.

On December 16, 2004, Outlaw went to trial in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. All of the witnesses—Paladino, Alston, Rodgers and Lee—recanted their statements.

Alston said he never implicated Outlaw. He said he signed the statement that identified Outlaw as the gunman so police would stop picking him up and bringing him in for repeated interrogations.

Rodgers denied telling detectives that he overheard Outlaw say anything suggesting he killed Kelly. He said he signed the statement without reading it because he wanted to put an end to an eight-hour interrogation. Rodgers testified that he met with the prosecutor prior to the trial and said the statement was false.

Lee testified that he did not make the accusations against Outlaw that were typed into his statement and that he only identified Outlaw in a photographic lineup as someone from the neighborhood, not that he was the gunman. Lee, who was barely literate, said he was under the influence of drugs when he signed the statement and that he did not read it before he signed it.

Lee also testified he met with the prosecutor prior to trial. “I was furious when I was in your [the prosecutor’s] office…when you read the statement out to me and I got a full understanding of it,” Lee testified. “I said that was wrong, that was false. I did not say nothing like that.”

Paladino also testified that the statements attributed to him were false. He said that detectives pulled his hair and slapped his face. He said the detectives threatened to charge him with the murder. He said he told the detectives what they wanted to hear because he wanted to get out of jail. Paladino said the only promise detectives had made was to arrange for him to be put in witness protection.

After each of the witnesses testified, the prosecutor impeached them by reading their statements to the jury.

There was no physical or forensic evidence that linked Outlaw to the shooting. No gun was ever recovered. The defense presented the evidence of Kelly’s statement that “Shank” had shot him.

On December 21, 2004, the jury convicted Outlaw of all the charges. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In March 2005, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld Outlaw’s convictions. The court did find that Alston’s testimony should not have been allowed because the prosecution failed to provide any facts showing that Alston had adopted the statement at the time police said it was made or that the statement “accurately memorialized Alston’s statements.” But the court said that because Alston’s testimony was cumulative to that of Rodgers, Paladino and Lee, the admission of his testimony was harmless and not sufficient to overturn the convictions.

In 2007, Outlaw, acting without a lawyer, filed a Post Conviction Review Act (PCRA) petition seeking a new trial. That petition was denied. In 2011, again acting without a lawyer, Outlaw filed a second PCRA. In 2012, his appointed lawyer, Norris Gelman, filed an amended PCRA, and then filed yet another amended PCRA in 2013. This petition included a sworn affidavit by Katima Jackson saying she saw Alston—whom she knew as Shank—kill Kelly. This petition also argued that Outlaw’s sentence was unconstitutional based on the ruling in Miller v. Alabama, a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision which barred the automatic imposition of sentences of life without parole for juvenile defendants.

In 2008, Outlaw’s sister asked Monique Solomon, a paralegal, for help on Outlaw’s case. Solomon eventually developed a relationship with Outlaw and they married. As part of Solomon’s efforts, she posted flyers in several neighborhoods asking for anyone with information about the case to come forward. In 2013, Jackson was at her grandmother’s house when she noticed a flyer with Outlaw’s face on it. Jackson had seen Shank shoot Kelly and for the first time, according to her affidavit, she realized that someone else had been convicted for the crime.

In 2015, despite this affidavit, the petition was denied. The judge did not specify a reason, and then retired. In 2017, the Pennsylvania Superior Court remanded the case for a new evidentiary hearing and for possible resentencing pursuant to the ruling in Miller. Bob Fiebach and Leigh Ann Benson at the law firm of Cozen O'Connor were appointed to represent Outlaw on the resentencing if the case were to proceed in that manner.

Attorney Edward J. Foster then began representing Outlaw on the innocence claim. He amended Outlaw’s PCRA petition in 2018 after Paladino, during interviews, said that he saw Alston fleeing the scene of the shooting while carrying a gun. In addition, Paladino said that he expected not just witness protection, but also leniency on his pending cases, in exchange for his cooperation.

During the PCRA proceedings, the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s PCRA Unit turned over the homicide file in the case. In November 2018, a two-day hearing was held on the petition.

During that hearing, Foster presented evidence showing that the prosecution had failed to disclose to Outlaw’s trial defense attorney that detectives had developed evidence of an alternative suspect named Jerome Grant. The detectives’ handwritten notes showed they had received an anonymous tip that Grant, “who always carried a firearm—bragged about the murder at the Dew Drop Inn.” Grant, according to the notes, was Kelly’s drug supplier and may have possessed a gold Honda, the type of car that Paladino and other witnesses said they saw leaving the scene of the shooting.

In addition, the homicide file contained a letter from Paladino expressing frustration that he remained incarcerated with a pending drug charge. He demanded immunity for his testimony. “When I Ask [sic] for Witness Protection, I Didn’t mean Being kept in Prison...” the letter said in part. He promised to “not bring up the matter of you owing me Anything [sic].”

He also wrote, “I put together a little speech for the up coming [sic] trial and I’m sure you’re going to be happy with it as well as I am. I’ve learned a lot about being a witness, so please, help me to help you.” He also referenced an earlier letter that he sent, but that letter was not in the file.

Jackson testified at the hearing that she saw Alston approach Kelly with a gun and point it at him. She said she then heard shots fired. Jackson said that as she stood near Kelly waiting for the ambulance to arrive, she heard him repeatedly say that “Shank” shot him. Jackson testified that she did not see Outlaw on the night of the shooting.

Jackson said she did not tell anyone what she saw because she heard that Alston had been arrested the day after the shooting. Not long after, she moved away from the neighborhood and never saw Alston again.

Lamar Rodgers testified that Jackson was present at the scene. He said he never told police that she was there because they did not ask him.

Paladino testified that after hearing gunshots the night of the crime, he saw Alston run into Paladino’s yard with a gun in his hand. He said Outlaw was not present at the shooting that night. He said he had not implicated Alston because Alston had a reputation as a violent person and Paladino was afraid of him.

Paladino also said that the statement saying that Outlaw had beat him up to keep him from testifying was false. Paladino said that he told Detective Howard Peterman that he had been jumped in retaliation for stealing someone’s car and that Outlaw was not involved. According to Paladino, Peterman told him to lie and say it was Outlaw who beat him. When Paladino said he preferred not to do so, Peterman offered him $50 to sign such a statement. Paladino said that Peterman later produced a completed statement and Paladino signed it. Paladino also testified that detectives in fact had promised him leniency on his pending charges.

In January 2019, a post-hearing memorandum of law, which noted that Outlaw was represented by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project as consulting counsel in addition to Foster, outlined the evidence adduced at the hearing and said that Outlaw deserved a new trial.

The memorandum also noted that one of the detectives on the case, Jeffrey Piree, had been found to have conducted a suggestive lineup in another murder case leading to a reversal of that conviction and had withheld exculpatory evidence prompting a reversal of another murder case. In both cases, the defendants pled guilty to reduced charges after the reversals.

“Mr. Outlaw is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit,” Foster said. “His actual innocence entitles him to relief.”

The petition was granted and Outlaw’s convictions were vacated. On July 31, 2019, he was released on bond pending a retrial.

In December 2020, Patricia Cummings, the head of the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), moved to dismiss the charges. The motion said that during a re-investigation of the case, a witness, Shelby Green, said, “Jamal, the guy who was shot. He said that Shank (Alston) set him up. That’s what he repeatedly said to me.”

The motion noted that although Alston was dead, “the CIU has been unable to find any evidence that links Mr. Outlaw to Shank.” Instead, “the CIU actually uncovered additional evidence that Shank committed the crime.”

The motion noted that Paladino had been a cooperating witness for the prosecution in at least three other homicide cases. That information had not been disclosed to Outlaw’s trial defense attorney. In addition, the CIU located a witness who confirmed that Paladino had been beaten for stealing a car, corroborating Paladino’s later statement.

During a virtual hearing on December 29, 2020, Common Pleas Court Judge J. Scott O’Keefe granted the motion to dismiss the charges.

In March 2021, Outlaw filed a federal civil rights suit against the city of Philadelphia and detectives Peterman and Piree seeking damages for his wrongful conviction.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/23/2021
Last Updated: 3/18/2021
State:Pennsylvania
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Other Violent Felony, Gun Possession or Sale, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:2000
Convicted:2004
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:16
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No