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India Spellman

Other Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania exonerations
On August 18, 2010, 48-year-old Shirley Phillips was walking on Rugby Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when a young boy walking toward her tripped. Phillips later told police that a woman wearing “Muslim garb” then approached and pointed a gun at her. Phillips dropped her purse and ran away.

Phillips first told police the woman was 30 to 35 years old, dark-skinned, about 180 pounds and 5 feet 5 inches tall.

About an hour later and a half-mile away, 87-year-old George Greaves was fatally shot while standing in his driveway. A neighbor, Kathy Mathis, told police she heard gunshots and saw a young man and a young woman fleeing. She said the woman was wearing “Muslim” clothing with jeans underneath. Mathis said the two people she saw were 14 to 17 years old. She said the female was 15 to 18 years old and about 5 feet 6 inches tall.

Police obtained the usage information for Phillips’s cell phone, which had been in her purse, and located it in the possession of a man in West Philadelphia. The man said he found it on someone’s lawn while walking to a bus stop. The man was not considered a suspect because he did not match the descriptions in either the robbery or the murder.

A man who worked in a store near where Phillips was robbed reported to police that a young boy and a woman came into the store about the time of the robbery. He said the boy had a teardrop tattoo on his face.

The following day, police responded to the home of Shawn Combs, who was very upset and although she was unable to clearly state what was wrong, it appeared to involve her 14-year-old son, Von Combs, who was not home. The officer who responded knew the family and knew that Von had a teardrop tattoo on his face. The mother’s distress prompted the officer to take Shawn Combs to the police station. During the drive, Shawn said she couldn’t “believe he was with that young lady. She be in my house still.”

Questioned further, Shawn Combs said that the young woman was about the same age as Von. She said the young woman was sneaking into the house at night and stealing Shawn’s clothing, including her Khimars, the long scarves used by Muslim women to cover their heads.

Detective Henry Glenn later testified that he spoke to Shawn Combs and that she said her son had been hanging around with a girl named India.

The following day, August 20, 2010, detectives went to the Combs residence and waited until Von came home. They took him to the police station. Along the way, he pointed to the home where he said India lived. At the station, Von was interrogated by detectives James Pitts and Ohmarr Jenkins.

The detectives said that Combs admitted being involved in both crimes and said that India—who had been identified as 17-year-old India Spellman—pointed the gun during the robbery of Phillips and also shot Greaves when he refused her demand to “give it up.” Combs said Spellman was wearing a black Kanye West scarf. Combs said that Spellman had used Phillips’s cell phone to make some calls.

That same day, police went to Spellman’s house and drove her to the police station where Detectives Pitts and Glenn questioned her. They subsequently said she admitted being present during both crimes, but said Combs was the gunman.

Combs and Spellman were arrested for both crimes on charges of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, robbery, and firearms charges. The prosecution sought to prosecute Combs as an adult.

Prior to a preliminary hearing, attorneys for Combs and Spellman requested an in-person lineup be held. Mathis and Phillips viewed a lineup that included Combs, but were unable to make an identification. No lineup was held for Spellman because her attorney canceled his request.

A preliminary hearing was held on January 26, 2011. Phillips testified and identified Combs and Spellman in the courtroom. Combs’s case was transferred to family court where he would be prosecuted as a juvenile.

On September 11, 2011, after a motion to suppress his statement was denied, Combs was found guilty of second-degree murder, robbery, possession of an instrument of crime and conspiracy. He was adjudicated as delinquent and ordered committed to the George Junior Republic treatment facility for two years.

After Spellman’s attorney’s motion to suppress her statement was denied, she went to trial in the Philadelphia Court of Common Claims in February 2013. Spellman had rejected two offers from the prosecution to plead guilty to murder in return for a sentence of 20 to 40 years in prison.

Combs testified and identified Spellman as the person who shot Greaves and pointed the gun at Phillips.

Detective Glenn read into the evidence the statement taken from Spellman. He said that while Spellman was being questioned, her father, Bruce Stafford Jr., waited on a bench in the police station lobby. Glenn said that because Spellman was a juvenile, he asked Spellman’s father for his consent for police to question Spellman. Glenn said that Spellman’s father did not say he wanted to be present. Glenn testified the interview lasted a couple hours.

Glenn said that when he informed Stafford that India was being charged, Stafford left the station. Glenn denied that Stafford’s cell phone was confiscated. He also denied that Stafford ever asked to see her and denied that Stafford asked that she be given an opportunity to consult with a lawyer.

Phillips testified and identified Spellman. “That girl put her gun in my face,” Phillips testified. “I’ll never forget those eyes.” She admitted that her description at the time of the crime was that the woman had dark skin, was about 180 pounds, and was 25 or 30 years old.

The defense noted that Spellman was 17, light-skinned, and weighed about 125 pounds.

Mathis identified Spellman as the woman she saw fleeing from Greaves’s murder. She said that Spellman and a youth were about five or six feet from her when they ran past her house. Mathis said she saw Spellman’s face as the two ran toward Mathis’s house, and that when they were about five houses away, Spellman turned and looked back at Mathis.

The defense asked for a mistrial arguing that Mathis’s identification was a shock. The trial was suspended while a hearing was conducted on a motion to suppress the identification. Judge Jeffrey Minehart held that while the identification was impermissibly suggestive—Spellman was right in front of Mathis—the identification was admissible.

“I saw the witness’s demeanor,” Judge Minehart said. “I listened to her. I saw her on the witness stand, and I saw her here [during the suppression hearing] and I found her to be credible.”

During cross-examination, she was asked about the police report that said she saw the male’s face when he turned after the two ran past her house. She responded that both looked back and she saw both of their faces. She said the information in the police report was wrong and was the result of an error made by police when her statement was written.

Evidence was presented that search warrants had been executed at Combs’s and Spellman’s homes. No weapons were found, nor were any of Phillips’s possessions or any Muslim clothing. A black and gold scarf was found in Spellman’s home, but it was not connected to the crime.

The defense called five witnesses. Three testified to Spellman’s good character. She was described as a well-liked student who was a point guard on the school basketball team and worked at a Dunkin Donuts outside of school. Spellman was a poor student. She had a learning disability and had little reading comprehension ability.

Spellman’s father, Bruce, said the family were Episcopalian, not Muslim. He testified that he called Spellman’s mother, Morkea, to let her know that he was outside of the homicide division and that India was being held. He said that the police then confiscated his cell phone. Stafford said he asked to see India and to allow her to consult with a lawyer, but that police denied his requests.

Morkea testified that after Stafford called her on his cell phone from the station, she came to the front desk of the station. She was told someone would come to get her, but no one ever came.

On February 20, 2013, the jury convicted Spellman of second-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy, and two firearms charges. She was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

The time period to file an appeal expired, and no appeal of the conviction was filed. Subsequently, she filed a petition under the Post Conviction Relief Act (PRCA), and her appeal rights were reinstated. She argued on appeal that her confession should have been suppressed and that the motion for mistrial based on the identification by Mathis should have been granted. Her appeal was denied by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in January 2017.

Spellman’s new lawyer, Todd Mosser, subsequently filed a PCRA petition stating that Spellman’s trial defense lawyer, Harry Seay, had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to call Spellman’s grandfather, Bruce Stafford Sr., a retired Philadelphia police officer, as a witness. The petition said Stafford would have testified that on the day of the crimes, he came home, and both Spellman and Combs were there. He would have testified that he saw Combs leave. Spellman remained at home, and made several phone calls on both the house phone and her cell phone and also spent time on a computer accessing Facebook. The petition noted that Spellman’s father could have testified about Spellman’s presence at home when he was called as a witness at the trial, but Seay never asked him.

The PCRA said Seay failed to introduce phone records which would have shown Spellman was at home at the time of the crimes. Seay had shown the family copies of the phone records, but inexplicably never introduced them at the trial. The records, which Mosser had substantiated based on records obtained from the prosecution, showed that Spellman made 23 calls from her cell between 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. on the day of the crimes. The 911 call reporting the Phillips robbery was made at 2:33 p.m. The call reporting the shooting of Greaves came in at 3:48 p.m.

Private investigator Ronald Felder investigated the cell phone records. He saw that one of Spellman’s calls was from 3:33 p.m. to 3:58 p.m. to a friend, Shoshana Christmas. The crimes occurred during this call. Felder interviewed Christmas, who later confirmed in an affidavit that it was Spellman’s practice to call her from home.

Seay also had shown the family a letter Combs wrote to Spellman apologizing for falsely implicating her. Seay had made no attempt to present that letter. Seay died in 2014, and his file in the case could not be located.

In addition, the petition noted the “public revelation of Detective Pitts’[s] routine habit, pattern and practice of illegally coercing false statements from witnesses and suspects, which, in this case, includes his physical assault on Spellman and the Homicide Unit’s strategic refusal of Spellman’s access to her legal guardians during her interrogation.” Spellman said that Pitts had hit her in the mouth during the interrogation—a claim that Detective Glenn had denied at the suppression hearing. She said that she was given the statement and told that if she signed it, she could go home.

The petition also said that Spellman’s interrogation did not begin until after detectives Glenn and Jenkins escorted both her father and mother outside of the police station. At that time, Spellman’s mother, Morkea, was given a form to sign giving her consent for the detectives to interview Spellman without a parent. When she refused to sign it, the detectives told her that Spellman had already confessed. In fact, her interrogation had not yet begun.

After Pitts hit her in the mouth and screamed at her, he left the interrogation room and returned with a statement which Spellman signed, the petition said. Spellman asked to have it read to her, but the detectives refused. The statement was virtually the same as the statement Combs had signed, except that in this version, Spellman admitted she used the gun to rob Phillips, but that Combs shot Greaves, the petition said.

In March 2019, the murder conviction of Dwayne Thorpe was vacated and dismissed based on evidence that Pitts had coerced false statements from witnesses to implicate Thorpe. One witness had been punched in the face and abdomen by Pitts.

In May 2019, Hassan Bennett was acquitted at a retrial of his murder case. Bennett had been granted a new trial based on evidence that witnesses had been coerced by Pitts.

That same year, the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) began conducting an independent review of Spellman’s case.

In August 2020, the CIU notified Mosser of the discovery of notes in the prosecution file that related to conversations with or messages from Mathis. One note was written on a “While You Were Out” pad. Mathis was reporting that she had gotten the letter—believed to be the notification to show up for the lineup. The note said, “never saw faces. Didn’t see the face. Did not see a picture.” The note was dated September 13, 2010, four days after a motion to conduct the lineups was granted.

The note, which would have been valuable information to impeach Mathis’s identification in court, had not been disclosed to the defense at the time.

After learning of the note, Felder interviewed Mathis, who said that on the day she was called to testify at the trial, she told the prosecutor in the hallway outside the courtroom that she had only seen the female from her nose to her forehead. Mathis said that the prosecutor told her that the suspect was “sitting right there with her attorney.” Mathis said that was the basis for her identification of Spellman at the trial. She also said that when she saw Spellman in the courtroom, “her skin was radiant and she was much lighter than the female I saw on the day Mr. Greaves was killed.”

The CIU also disclosed that prior to Spellman’s trial, the police department’s Internal Affairs division had concluded that Pitts had abused his authority during an interrogation of a witness and had fabricated evidence to cover up an assault on his wife. A third finding involved the three-day detention of the witness and occurred after Spellman’s trial and before her direct appeal had been decided.

The CIU was unable to complete its investigation of Spellman’s case because Combs could not be found for an interview. In 2022, however, Combs was located and agreed to be interviewed.

On March 3, 2022, Pitts, who was no longer on the police force, was arrested and charged with two counts of perjury and three counts of obstruction of justice related to his testimony and work in the case of Obina Onyiah, whose murder conviction had been vacated and dismissed in May 2021.

On April 14, 2022, Combs recanted his confession during an interview with the head of the CIU, assistant district attorney Michael Garmisa. Combs admitted that he falsely implicated Spellman. He said the detectives told him he wouldn’t go home for 20 years and that whoever gave the detectives the story first would go home.

Combs said that the detectives fed him the facts of the murder while they were interrogating him and kept telling him, falsely, that Spellman was blaming him for the crime.

In June 2022, Garmisa and Mosser filed a joint stipulation of agreed facts saying that Spellman was entitled to a new trial based on the failure of the prosecution to turn over evidence, Combs’s recantation, and the evidence of Pitts’s misconduct. “The Commonwealth does not have confidence in this verdict.”

The prosecution also filed an answer to the PCRA in which it detailed how an expert on eyewitness identification had reviewed the case. Dr. Jennifer Dysart from John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded that the identifications were not reliable because the witnesses had never picked Spellman out of photo lineup or live lineup. Dr. Dysart said she had never before seen a case involving eyewitnesses who were strangers, had not made any out of court identifications, and then made in-court identifications.

The prosecution also noted that it was “troubled” by evidence showing that Combs’s mother, Shawn, “more closely matches the initial descriptions that Phillips and Mathis provided.” The prosecution noted that she was 42 years old at the time, was 5’ 3” tall, had dark skin, and a heavy stature.

Common Pleas Judge Scott DiClaudio raised questions about the case, including whether the scarf that had been seized by police from Spellman’s home had ever been tested for gunshot residue. In a supplemental response filed in October 2022, the prosecution reported that the scarf as well as a t-shirt and denim shorts seized from Combs’s home had been sent for forensic examination. The scarf was examined and no apparent brown stains were seen. No brown stains were seen on Combs’s shirt. A visual examination detected brown stains on the shorts. No further testing, including for gunshot residue, was performed. The prosecution noted that the evidence had been destroyed, “intentionally and in bad faith,” following a destruction order issued in January 2022.

In November 2022, at a hearing, Combs testified that his statement was false and based on information fed to him by Pitts and other detectives. He confirmed that two days after he was arrested, he wrote a letter to Spellman apologizing for his false statement.

On February 3, 2023, Mosser filed a post-hearing brief urging the court to vacate Spellman’s conviction. “Over twelve years after her incarceration, what is known now should shock the conscience of this court,” Mosser declared. The facts pointing to Spellman’s innocence were “immutable and thus uncontested.”

On February 9, Judge DiClaudio vacated Spellman’s conviction. He found that the trial had been unconstitutional based on the failure of the prosecution to disclose the note relating to Mathis having not seen faces as well as the history of Pitts’s misconduct.

The prosecution then dismissed the case, and Spellman was released. Afterward, Spellman said, “I’m just happy to be home with my family, and I thank God…I’ve been telling them for years that I was innocent.”

On August 28, 2023, Spellman filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia and several officers involved in her wrongful conviction.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/17/2023
Last Updated: 9/7/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Weapon Possession or Sale, Illegal Use of a Weapon, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:2010
Sentence:30 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No