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Willie Stokes

Other Philadelphia County, PA, Exonerations Involving Official Misconduct
On October 1, 1980, 32-year-old Leslie Campbell was fatally shot during a dice game near the intersection of 30th Street and Girard Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Another participant, Francis Dinkins, was wounded.

The case remained unsolved until March 29, 1984, when police arrested 23-year-old Willie Stokes. At a preliminary hearing on May 30, 1984, Franklin Lee testified that around Christmas in 1982, he was in his basement with Stokes and other men when Stokes admitted that he killed Campbell.

“We was in my basement, drinking beer, smoking marijuana, getting high,” Lee testified. “Willie Stokes just got to bragging, telling us how he killed Leslie Campbell….[H]e was saying that everybody don’t get caught, you know, when they kill somebody.”

Lee testified that Stokes recounted how he had lost money at the dice game for two consecutive days. When Stokes asked Campbell to advance him money, Campbell refused. “So, Willie told us that he told him, ‘Don’t be there,’ when he comes back.” Lee said that Stokes said that when he returned, Campbell took a swing at him. “Willie Stokes said he fired on him…emptied his gun,” Lee testified.

In August 1984, Stokes went to trial in Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.

Daniel McPeak testified that he was standing outside of a bar, one block away, when he heard about five or six gunshots. He said he saw a man standing at the scene of the crime with a gun in his hand. McPeak said he could not positively identify that person, but he described him as a Black man, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighing 130 pounds and about 18 or 19 years old.

Detective Ernest Gilbert testified that he arrested Stokes, who was Black, 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighed 123 pounds, and was 20 years old at the time of the shooting.

Darryl Hargrove testified that he was a participant in the dice game and when he heard the sound of firecrackers, he fled into a nearby building. He first testified that when he came out of the building five to 10 minutes later, he saw Stokes standing on the street holding a gun. After a recess and a conference with the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney John DiDonato, Hargrove testified that it was five to 10 seconds, not five to 10 minutes.

When Lee was called to testify, he immediately recanted his preliminary hearing testimony.

After settling into the witness chair, DiDonato reminded him to keep his voice up.

“You know Willie Stokes?” he asked.

“Yes, I know him,” Lee said.

“How long have you known Willie Stokes,” DiDonato asked.

“Well, really, the police made me make this statement, man,” Lee replied.

“I am sorry?” DiDonato said.

“The police made me make this statement,” Lee repeated.

“Did you know Leslie Campbell?” DiDonato asked.

“I said the police made me make the statement,” Lee replied.

Judge Edwin Malmed interrupted. “Just answer the question. You have a chance to tell the rest of the story later.”

DiDonato asked Lee if he and Stokes had been in Lee’s basement around Christmas time of 1982—as Lee had testified at the preliminary hearing.

“No,” Lee declared.

“Judge,” DiDonato said. “Obviously at this point I would plead surprise and ask to be able to cross-examine this [witness], based on his statement and prior testimony.”

“Go ahead,” Judge Malmed said.

Over the next several minutes, Lee described how he had been arrested for a rape and an unrelated murder and came to falsely implicate Stokes. He said Detectives Gilbert and Lawrence Gerrard began asking about the Campbell murder. When Lee said he knew nothing about it, the detectives told him that another man also facing a murder charge, Anthony Singleton, had given a statement saying he was in Lee’s basement with Stokes, Lee, Archie Scott, and Gary Hart when Stokes admitted killing Campbell.

Lee said that the detectives wanted Stokes and “they would make deals” to get him. And they told him that if he did not cooperate, they would take him before a judge “and hang me.” Lee said that after the detectives showed him Singleton’s statement implicating Stokes, he decided to make a similar statement.

“How did they get you to sign that statement when you knew it was a lie?” DiDonato asked.

“Because I went along with it,” Lee said. “I wanted to make a deal to get out of jail.” Lee said that he agreed to plead guilty to the unrelated murder for a reduced sentence.

At one point, DiDonato brandished the agreement that Lee had signed as he questioned Lee. Ultimately DiDonato recited all of Lee’s testimony at the preliminary hearing. Lee said that none of it was true.

“Don’t you know, Mr. Lee, as far as we are concerned now, this agreement is null and void?” DiDonato declared. “It doesn’t mean anything now.”

And with that, DiDonato tore the agreement in half.

During his closing argument, DiDonato told the jury that Lee’s recantation was false, and that the truth was Lee’s preliminary hearing testimony.

On August 21, 1984, the jury convicted Stokes of first-degree murder and possession of an instrument of a crime. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

For the next 37 years, Stokes sought to overturn the conviction. He filed petitions under the Post-Conviction Relief Act. He filed petitions for a federal writ of habeas corpus. He worked with a lawyer and without a lawyer. A recitation of his legal battle—the procedural history—takes up thousands of pages and spans decades of failure.

But over those years, ever so slowly, the truth began to ooze out.

On December 30, 2021, U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage accepted the recommendation of U.S. Magistrate Carol Sandra Moore Wells, who had presided over an evidentiary hearing in November 2021. Judge Savage vacated Stokes’s convictions and ordered a new trial.

At the evidentiary hearing, Lee repeated what he had been saying since Stokes’s trial in 1984—that Stokes never admitted killing Campbell. “I’d like to, if I can for the record, apologize to Mr. Stokes and the family for the problem I caused,” Lee said at the hearing.

After Lee testified, Judge Wells asked if Stokes would like to respond. Stokes’s lawyer, Michael Diamondstein, who had fought for Stokes for years, advised Stokes not to speak. Judge Wells declared, “Let the record reflect he’s crying. I’m going to take his tears to indicate he’s accepting the apology.” The evidence showed that nine days after Stokes was convicted, Lee was prosecuted for perjury based on an affidavit sworn out by DiDonato’s co-prosecutor Robert Marano. That Lee was charged with perjury was not itself particularly notable, except that Lee was not accused of lying under oath for his recantation at Stokes’s trial. Instead, Lee was charged with falsely testifying at Stokes’s preliminary hearing when Lee said that Stokes admitted killing Campbell.

Lee ultimately pled guilty to the perjury charge and was sentenced to 3½ years to 7 years in prison. Because he reneged on his cooperation agreement, Lee was sentenced to 35 years in prison for the unrelated murder. He was released on parole in 2019.

Judge Wells concluded that the District Attorney’s office had failed to disclose the prosecution of Lee to Stokes in violation of Stokes’s constitutional rights.

District Attorney Larry Krasner declared, “Mr. Stokes’[s] ordeal over nearly four decades of filing relief petition after relief petition, only to be rejected on procedural bases and without all of the evidence the Constitution says he was owed by the Commonwealth, underscores the urgency of the criminal legal system seeking justice over finality.”

“Judge Wells further finds that there is a reasonable probability that Stokes would have been acquitted without Lee’s testimony and that the trial verdict is therefore unreliable,” Krasner said. “Judge Wells recommends that Stokes be granted habeas relief on his claim, and the Commonwealth agrees.”

On January 4, 2022, Stokes was released from prison. On January 27, 2022, at the request of the District Attorney’s Federal Habeas Unit, the charges were dismissed. That same day, Stokes filed a lawsuit against DiDonato and co-prosecutor Robert Marano, as well as the estates of Detectives Gerrard and Gilbert, both of whom were deceased.

The failure to disclose the prosecution of Lee was perhaps the most egregious of the prosecutorial misconduct, if not the most salacious. Over the years, Lee had come forward to admit that the detectives arranged for him to have sex with his girlfriend and with a sex worker, as well as to have access to drugs.

In August 2021, the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper exposed how Gerrard and Gilbert took jailhouse informants to the Police Administration Building at 8th and Race Streets. The building, known as the “Roundhouse,” became notorious as the location where prisoners who gave statements implicating others in murders and other crimes were allowed to have sex and take drugs in interrogation rooms.

The article, “Sex for Lies,” detailed numerous instances of the practice, including Lee’s admission that he had sex first with his girlfriend and later with a sex worker after his girlfriend balked. The detectives, Lee said, “gave me condoms.”

Stokes’s was the oldest of nearly two-dozen homicide convictions that had unraveled in the few years since Krasner was elected district attorney in 2017. By the time of his release, the case was a testament to the procedural and other difficulties that wrongfully convicted defendants face.

Over the years, the revelations, none of which resulted in his exoneration, included:

--Francis Dinkins, the man who was wounded during the same shooting that killed Campbell, did not testify at Stokes’s trial. He said that he falsely implicated Stokes after the detectives physically assaulted him. When he told them he did not want to testify, the detectives told him to stay away from the trial, Dinkins said.

--Lee not only recanted at Stokes’s trial, but years later, he revealed his sexual trysts arranged by Gerrard and Gilbert.

--Singleton, whose initial false statement implicating Stokes was used to coerce Lee to give his false statement, recanted his accusation as well. Because he recanted his statement implicating Stokes, Singleton was sentenced to 40 to 80 years in prison on his pending murder charge, where he died. Singleton also was allowed to have sex in an interrogation room.

--Gary Hart, who Singleton and Lee initially said was in the basement when Stokes admitted shooting Campbell, testified that he was not in the basement at all.

--Darryl Hargrove, who changed his testimony that he saw Stokes with a gun from five to 10 minutes after the shooting to five to 10 seconds, recanted his testimony. He said in an affidavit: “I only testified to what the detectives told me to say. I never saw Stokes with a gun at no times.”

At the time of his release, Stokes had spent 37 years, four months, and 15 days in custody since the date of his conviction—the longest of any exonerated defendant in Pennsylvania history.

Asked by the media for his reaction on the day the charges were finally dismissed, Stokes, who was convicted at age 24 and was 61 when released, replied, “I’m not bitter. I’m just excited to move forward.” Stokes subsequently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit agaiinst the city of Philadelphia. The lawsuit was settled in 2023 for $9.62 million.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/11/2022
Last Updated: 5/30/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1980
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No