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Curtis Crosland

Other Philadelphia, Pennsylvania CIU exonerations
Shortly after 8:15 p.m. on December 5, 1984, a lone gunman wearing a scarf around the lower part of his face entered the H & B Food Market in South Philadelphia and demanded money. One employee fled and another fell to the floor. A shot was fired and the owner, 46-year-old Il Man Heo, collapsed behind the counter, shot once in the face.

The gunman fled empty-handed. Heo was taken to a hospital, where he died a few days later.

A $2,000 cash reward was offered for information. One witness said the gunman was about 5 feet 5 inches tall; another said he was 5 feet 6 inches to 5 feet 7 inches tall.

The crime remained unsolved for three years. In March 1987, Rodney Everett, who had prior convictions for manslaughter and robbery, was facing a parole violation and new criminal charges. In an attempt to avoid going to prison, Everett told a parole officer that Curtis Crosland admitted that he had been the gunman who shot Heo. Everett, who had a child with Crosland’s sister, claimed that Crosland made the admission several months earlier and that Crosland said that another man, Michael Ransome, was there as well.

On December 10, 1987, police arrested Crosland, who was 23 at the time of the crime and was 5 feet 5 inches tall. He was charged with murder, robbery, and possession of an instrument of a crime.

At a preliminary hearing, Everett testified that Crosland admitted the crime to him, saying that he shot Heo because he flinched.

In December 1988, Crosland went to trial in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. Everett did not testify. He refused, invoking his 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination. The prosecutor told the judge that Everett was afraid that he would expose himself to a perjury prosecution. As a result, the judge allowed the prosecution to present Everett’s testimony from the preliminary hearing.

Three weeks prior to the trial, the prosecution gave Crosland’s defense attorney seven pages of transcript of Delores Tilghman’s testimony before a grand jury. Tilghman had previously been in a relationship with Michael Turner, a cousin of Crosland. The prosecutor informed the court and the defense attorney that those seven pages contained the whole of Tilghman’s relevant testimony.

At the trial, Tilghman told the jury she had heard Crosland, during a conversation with his two cousins, Michael and Lester Turner, say that someone was worried about his cousin, Brenda, coming forward with information on the crime to collect the reward.

Asked whether Crosland was expressing fear for himself or someone else, Tilghman replied, “At the time, Curtis’ friend Mike Ransome was in jail. Curtis stated that he was afraid because there was a reward out that Brenda would come forward and tell.”

During cross-examination, Tilghman admitted that she couldn’t really remember the conversation and that she didn’t know exactly who was saying what.

No forensic or physical evidence connected Crosland to the crime.

On December 16, 1988, the jury convicted Crosland of second-degree murder, robbery, and possession of an instrument of a crime. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In September 1990, the Pennsylvania Superior Court set aside the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court ruled that the judge should not have allowed the prosecution to present Everett’s preliminary hearing testimony without having informed the jury of the basis of his unavailability. The court instructed the prosecutor at the retrial either to grant immunity to Everett and make him available for cross-examination, or to tell the jury that he was invoking his 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

Crosland went to trial a second time in January 1991. Tilghman could not be located and her testimony from the first trial was read to the jury. Everett took the witness stand after he was granted immunity. He recanted his claim that Crosland had admitted committing the crime and denied any memory of having ever incriminated Crosland. The prosecution then impeached Everett with his initial statement to police and his preliminary hearing testimony. Both were introduced as substantive evidence.

On January 29, 1991, Crosland was convicted a second time of second-degree murder, robbery, and possession of an instrument of a crime. He was again sentenced to life in prison without parole.

For nearly three decades, sometimes represented by a lawyer and sometimes representing himself, Crosland sought to overturn his conviction in state and federal courts. He filed pleadings saying he had hired an investigator. The investigator located witnesses to the shooting who gave a description that excluded Crosland as the gunman. He filed two affidavits from Everett—one from 1989 and the other from 1996—recanting his implication of Crosland and saying that he learned the details from newspapers.

The witnesses that the investigator found included Pearlie Mae Scott and her daughter, Paulette Phillips. They said they saw the crime from the window of their home. Phillips said she was looking out the window after sending her nephew to the store when she saw two black men, who she recognized from the neighborhood, walk into the store with guns. She called her mother to the window and then they heard a gunshot. Phillips said she saw one of the men hand his gun to the second man and then run down the street. Phillips and Scott had known Mr. Crosland for over 20 years, and both said he was not one of the gunmen.

Although Phillips and Scott were afraid to name in their affidavits the men they saw, Crosland’s investigator reported that the women had identified Michael Ransome and Rodney Everett as the two men who entered the store with guns.

In addition, another witness, who said he was inside the grocery store at the time of the shooting, provided an affidavit saying that he recognized the shooter’s face and voice as that of Michael Ransome.

Michael Mobaly, who was Everett’s cellmate at the time Everett testified at Crosland’s preliminary hearing, provided an affidavit saying that Everett told him that he planned to frame Crosland to get out of jail. Mobaly said Everett told him he had read about a robbery where someone got killed and no one was ever arrested, and that he intended to use what he read and saw on television to point the finger at Crosland.

Despite this new evidence, Crosland’s attempts to reopen his case were rejected every time.

In March 2020, the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) agreed to examine the case. A review turned up a trove of documents, including grand jury transcripts and police reports. These documents undermined the credibility of Tilghman and Everett and pointed to Michael Ransome, who was 5 feet 6 inches tall, as the real perpetrator. The documents had never been previously disclosed to Crosland and his defense lawyers.

The documents included:

--On February 4 and February 26, 1988, Tilghman testified at a grand jury hearing in connection with the 1983 murder of Joseph Wilkerson. Tilghman initially testified on February 4 that Michael Turner was responsible for the murder, but admitted on February 26 that she was lying and had only implicated Mr. Turner because she was angry with him. She also testified that she made a subsequent statement implicating both Michael and Frank Turner, and that she made that statement while she was hospitalized after a suicide attempt, only in response to police coercion and threats that she would go to jail for refusing to cooperate.

--A grand jury transcript from May 5, 1988 showed that prosecutors attempted to charge Tilghman with false reporting to law enforcement, based on her admissions.

--Shortly after the murder took place in 1984, the police department received several anonymous reports that Ransome was the perpetrator of the crime. In fact, Crosland’s homicide file contained five separate documents mentioning Ransome’s potential involvement.

--Several documents in the homicide file undermined Everett’s credibility. When questioned about Heo’s murder, Louise Woods, Everett’s girlfriend, told police that Everett told her the shooter was Frank Turner.

--At the time of trial, Crosland’s defense lawyer received two statements the police obtained from Everett on April 15 and April 21, 1987. The prosecution did not disclose that after the April 21 statement, Everett was given a polygraph test that indicated he was not telling the truth.

--Everett said that Crosland admitted to him that he and Frank Turner killed a man named John Lamb. However, at Frank Turner’s trial for the murder of Lamb, Everett admitted that statement was a lie, as was his preliminary hearing testimony in the Lamb case. That preliminary hearing was held the same day as the preliminary hearing for Crosland in the Heo murder case. Everett said he falsely testified because he feared he was going to be charged with murder.

--In an undated letter to a detective, Everett requested assistance from the detective and the District Attorney’s Office in exchange for his work providing information against Crosland and Frank Turner.

In January 2021, Crosland’s attorneys, assistant federal defender Claudia Flores and Arianna Freeman, managing attorney of the Non-Capital Habeas Unit, sought permission from the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to file a successive petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus.

The petition took note of Crosland’s dogged pursuit of a new trial. “Despite his three decades of incarceration, he was able to engage an investigator to uncover new exculpatory eyewitness evidence in 1996 – which pointed to Michael Ransome as the perpetrator – and was able to obtain critical evidence impeaching Delores Tilghman’s credibility from Michael Turner’s attorney’s office in 2015,” the petition said.

The petition said that new interviews had been conducted with Everett and Tilghman, and that both said their testimony was false. Everett admitted he lied to try to stay out of prison. Tilghman said police threatened her with jail if she didn’t implicate Crosland. The investigation was conducted by investigator Brian O’Leary of the Non-Capital Habeas Unit.

The petition declared, “Mr. Crosland’s habeas petition is based on newly-discovered evidence that proves he is not only actually innocent of the murder and related charges, but that he was prevented from presenting a defense at trial because the trial prosecutor withheld material exculpatory and impeachment evidence.”

The Third Circuit authorized Crosland to file the successive petition outlining the evidence pointing to his innocence and the case was subsequently transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

On May 28, 2021, Banafsheh Amirzadeh, an assistant district attorney in the CIU, and Patricia Cummings, CIU Supervisor, filed a response agreeing that Crosland’s conviction should be vacated. The response said that the evidence “not only undercuts the credibility of the Commonwealth’s key witnesses, Tilghman and Everett, but also incriminates others, including Michael Ransome, who was the prime suspect in the original homicide investigation in 1984. Following careful review and investigation of this matter, the Commonwealth now acknowledges both factually and legally that it violated Crosland’s right to due process by not disclosing this evidence to him prior to trial, resulting in his wrongful conviction.”

On June 22, 2021, U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody granted the writ and vacated Crosland’s convictions. “The CIU’s thorough investigation and the Commonwealth’s subsequent admission is a fulfillment of the prosecutor’s enduring duty to seek truth and a prime example of doing justice,” the judge wrote in a three-page ruling. “I accept the Commonwealth’s concession and will grant Crosland’s petition.”

On June 24, 2021, the charges were dismissed and Crosland was released—more than 33 years from the day of his arrest in 1987.

In June 2022, Crosland filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia and several officers involved in his wrongful conviction.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/8/2021
Last Updated: 9/8/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1984
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No