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Jacquez Brown

Other Pennsylvania Murder Exonerations
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On July 20, 2011, 15-year-old Jacquez Brown shot to death 19-year-old Anthony Wasilewski during a fight in York, Pennsylvania.

Witnesses said the fight began after Wasilewski confronted Brown and claimed Brown had stolen his cellphone. After a brief hostage situation, York police arrested Brown on the roof of a nearby apartment building. They also found Wasilewski’s phone on the roof. Two months later, police recovered the pistol used to shoot Wasilewski. It was at the same building, hidden under a desk in an apartment.

Brown was charged as an adult with first-degree murder. No charges were filed with regards to the alleged hostage-taking. Brown claimed self-defense. His trial in the York County Court of Common Pleas began on November 11, 2013.

Lori Altland testified that she saw Brown and Wasilewski fighting. “Tony had the kid in a headlock, and Tony was yelling, ‘Give me back my cell phone,’” she said. “When I heard the shot, Tony was on the ground and the kid was standing over him.”

Michael Altland, Lori’s husband, testified that he saw the shooting, which occurred while Brown and Wasilewski wrestled on the ground. “[Wasilewski] put his hand up after the first shot,” Michael Altland said. He said the second shot went through Wasilewski’s hand and into his neck.

According to an autopsy, Wasilewski was shot three times. The fatal shot had entered Wasilewski’s lower back and then moved upwards, severing his aorta and carotid artery. Wasilewski was also shot in the arm and the buttock. The medical examiner was unable to say in which order the shots were fired.

Brown, who had a previous juvenile conviction for a shooting involving a BB gun, did not testify. His attorney, Gary Kelley, presented no witnesses. During closing arguments, Kelley said that Brown acted in self-defense after being attacked by a man who outweighed him by more than 50 pounds.

Wasilewski “approached him from behind, grabbed him by the neck and threw him to the ground,” then put Brown in a headlock, Kelley said. “Who was truly the aggressor?”

Jurors had the option of convicting Brown of first-degree murder, third-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter. Kelley said that even if Brown was mistaken that his life was in danger, his actions didn’t rise to murder but were consistent with voluntary manslaughter. David Maisch, the chief deputy prosecutor for the York County District Attorney’s Office, urged the jury to reject Brown’s claim of self-defense. He said two of the shots entered Wasilewski from the back.

“Jacquez Brown never called the police,” Maisch said “What did he do? He ran. He ran to another house and hid on the roof,” Maisch said. “That's called consciousness of guilt, ladies and gentlemen. He's not the victim – he’s a murderer.”

The jury convicted Brown of first-degree murder on November 14, 2013. Because of his age at the time of the shooting, Brown could not be sentenced to life in prison. He later received a sentence of 50 years to life.

Brown appealed, arguing that there had been insufficient evidence to disprove his self-defense claim and that his sentence was excessive. A three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the conviction and the sentence on April 24, 2015.

Brown then filed a motion under Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) on April 22, 2016, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. He said that Kelley had failed to locate a witness whose testimony supported a self-defense claim.

That witness, Dominic Breeland, testified during an evidentiary hearing on September 27, 2016 about what he saw before and during the confrontation between Brown and Wasilewski.

Breeland testified that Wasilewski had wanted to buy some drugs from Brown earlier in the day. At the time of the shooting, Breeland said, he was five or six houses away but saw the fight. He said that Wasilewski had Brown in a chokehold just before any shots were fired. He testified that he did not see the actual shooting.

The police investigation on the shooting mentioned Breeland, initially referring to him simply as “Dom.” But another potential witness later identified Breeland by his full name, and the investigative records, which were given to Kelley, said that Breeland was likely in the county jail.

On October 3, 2016, Judge Richard Renn of the York County Court of Common Pleas vacated Brown’s conviction and ordered a new trial. He wrote that “The proffered testimony would have supported a self-defense claim by [Brown], and could have resulted in a verdict of a lesser degree of murder or manslaughter.”

The state appealed, arguing that Kelley’s failure to investigate Breeland’s claims and then present his testimony wouldn’t have made a difference. Because Breeland didn’t see the shooting, the state said his testimony was cumulative and didn’t contradict the trial witnesses. A three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania rejected the state’s appeal on December 21, 2017.

“It is true that Breeland testified he did not see that Brown had a gun and did not see him fire any shots,” the court wrote. “However, giving great deference to the factual findings of the PCRA court as we must, we conclude Breeland’s description of the fight and struggle between Brown and the victim is sufficiently different from the testimony of the Commonwealth’s witnesses and, if believed, could support a self-defense claim by Brown or a conviction for a less serious offense than first-degree murder.”

Brown remained in prison while he awaited a retrial, which began in February 2022 in the York County Court of Common Pleas.

Heather Reiner now represented Brown, and this time he took the witness stand in his own defense. Brown said that on the day of the shooting Wasilewski sold him his cellphone for $10 and some marijuana. Brown said Wasilewski returned about 20 minutes later and wanted the phone back, but he didn’t have the money or the drugs. Brown said he refused to return the phone, and Wasilewski threatened him. A few hours later, they ran into each other again.

Brown said Wasilewski started choking him. “I just felt fear for my life,” he testified. “I was trying to get him off of me.” Brown said he fired once, paused and then fired several more times because Wasilewski wouldn’t loosen his chokehold.

After five hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Brown of murder and manslaughter on February 3, 2022. He was released from prison that day.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 2/18/2022
Last Updated: 2/18/2022
State:Pennsylvania
County:York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2011
Convicted:2013
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:50 years to Life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:15
Contributing Factors:Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No