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Christopher Goodwin

Other Philadelphia Exonerations
Just after midnight, on June 26, 2011, 48-year-old Dwayne “Shank” Isaacs was shot to death in a small circular park near the Wilson Park public-housing neighborhood in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene at 12:31 a.m. An autopsy later said that Isaacs had been shot at least five times.

Within hours of the shooting, detectives with the Philadelphia Police Department interviewed Yvette Morris, Isaacs’s long-time girlfriend, and asked her whether Isaacs had problems with anyone.

Morris mentioned a man named Leroy Brown and a feud between men in her neighborhood and another neighborhood about a mile north. Brown’s son, Lekkir Brown, had been shot during a home invasion two days earlier, and there were rumors that Isaac’s nephew, Rashul Isaacs, was involved.

Morris said that she had received a call from a friend, Tiara Young, just before her police interview and that the word on the street was that Brown shot Isaacs. Several other witnesses also told police that they believed Isaacs was shot in retaliation for the earlier incident involving Brown’s son.

The police department received numerous anonymous tips about the shooting, which led them to two potential witnesses, Andre Cunningham and Aaron Respes. Police brought Cunningham in for questioning on July 20, 2011. Respes was brought in on July 22, 2011.

On July 21, Cunningham gave a statement to police. He said that at the time of the shooting, he had just left a neighborhood speakeasy and was walking near the park. He said that he saw 20-year-old Christopher Godwin hop a fence, walk into the park, and ask Raheem Zachary and Aaron Respes if either man had any “Xannies,” presumably Xanax. Cunningham said he saw Isaacs on a pathway just before Goodwin shot him in the head.

After Isaacs fell, Cunningham said in the statement, Goodwin shot him about four more times. Cunningham ran away. He signed a photo of Goodwin and wrote “Shot Shank” on it.

Respes gave a statement on July 22. He said that he was walking past the park when he saw Goodwin shoot Isaacs. He took off running and heard more shots.

Police arrested Goodwin on August 2, 2011, charging him with first-degree murder and two weapons violations.

At a preliminary hearing on October 25, 2011, Respes initially identified Goodwin as the shooter. But on cross-examination, he testified that he wasn’t sure, because he was only able to see that the shooter, like Goodwin, had a beard. At that hearing, according to later testimony at trial, someone yelled out “Snitch” at Respes as he left the courtroom.

Goodwin’s jury trial in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas began in late May 2013. Judge Barbara McDermott presided.

Cunningham had recanted his statement to police in June 2012, telling an investigator hired by Goodwin’s attorney that a detective had choked him during his detainment at the police station.

At trial, Cunningham testified that he had visited Goodwin’s mother and sought to make “amends” for what he had done. He testified that he was about a block away from the park, heard shots, and ran. He said he did not see the shooting but saw Goodwin sitting on the steps of a nearby house with two women named Tika and Anara.

Cunningham also testified about his interview with the police. He said he was picked up at 6 p.m. on July 20 and held for 18 hours in a locked room. He said the police threatened to charge him with the murder unless he gave a statement against Goodwin. At one point, Cunningham said, a Black detective entered the room and asked him something about the case. Cunningham said that he told the detective he didn’t know, and the detective choked him. He said he was “high on Xanax” most of the time, and that he made the statement against Goodwin because he “wanted to get out of there.”

The interview session with Cunningham was not recorded, and Cunningham did not know the name of the Black detective, but prosecutors and the defense assumed it was Detective James Pitts, in part based on Cunningham’s description of a visible lump around the person’s neck. Prosecutors read Cunningham’s statement to the jury. They also introduced photos gathered from Cunningham’s Facebook page that showed him with Goodwin.

Respes again testified inconsistently. First, he testified that he heard a shot and saw Goodwin holding a gun. But he quickly reversed course, testifying that he could not see a gun. He said the shooter looked like Goodwin because he had a beard but that he could not be sure because the man was too far away. Respes testified that he identified Goodwin under pressure from police after they said he would be charged with conspiracy if he didn’t make the identification.

Prosecutors read Respes’s statement to the jury. Respes agreed that it was clear, but that it was the result of a flawed process. “I just know the pictures they showed me,” he said. “They said it was him and they said they needed me to say it was him,” Respes testified.

In addition, Respes testified that he was not a snitch and that he didn’t recall anyone yelling the epithet at him as he left the courtroom after the preliminary hearing. He said he had not received any threats about testifying. Under cross-examination, Respes said that his mother had received relocation assistance to leave the Wilson Park neighborhood and that he had also moved, but without state assistance.

Tobi Downing, the state’s Witness Relocation Coordinator, testified about her interactions with Respes after the preliminary hearing. On cross-examination, Goodwin’s attorney, Fred Harrison, asked Downing about the referral memo that her office received from prosecutors after that hearing. Judge McDermott told Downing that Harrison was asking for “the specific allegations that he said in the way in which he was intimidated.” Downing began to read from the memo, saying, “The defendant had multiple friends in the courtroom today, all of whom were clearly there to intimidate any witnesses. They were so menacingly staring at the witness and the detectives.” Judge McDermott cut off Downing, who then clarified that the words in the memo were from the prosecutor, not Respes.

Detective Gaul testified that Cunningham and Respes recanted their police statements not because they had been coerced, but because they were afraid of Goodwin and his supporters in court. Gaul testified, without elaboration, that state’s witnesses in criminal cases are sometimes killed.

He said that Isaacs’s murder was “never, like, a question as to whodunit. It was just a matter of [Cunningham] having the courage to help us and put his information on paper and sign it, which is, in a lot of cases, is the problem.” He testified that Cunningham was never threatened or told he could not leave until he gave a statement.

During cross-examination, Harrison asked Gaul about other suspects, including Leroy Brown. Gaul testified incorrectly that no one had told police about Brown’s potential involvement. Gaul testified that Pitts had contact with Cunningham because he was working that day. But he said that Pitts wouldn’t have choked Cunningham.

“I know Detective Pitts. Detective Pitts is a well-respected detective within our squad.”

Similarly, Gaul testified that detectives did not threaten Respes with charges if he failed to make an identification. He said that although Cunningham and Respes were each held and interrogated for more than 12 hours, that wasn’t unusual, because “sometimes it takes a significant amount of time, and that’s what happened in this case.”

During redirect, Gaul testified about police activity sheets that contained statements from two witnesses, Zachary and a 12-year-old boy known as T.M. The sheets were admitted into evidence, although neither Zachary nor T.M. testified. Zachary’s statement said that he was in the park when Isaacs was shot and although he didn’t see the shooting, he had heard that Goodwin was the shooter. T.M. told the police that he had seen Goodwin pull out a gun during an argument in the hours before the shooting. According to the sheets, T.M.’s mother and Zachary expressed fear of retaliation.

Detective John Verrecchio, the lead investigator on the case, also testified that police did not act improperly in their interrogations of Cunningham and Respes. He testified that he tried to interview Leroy Brown, but that Brown refused to cooperate.

Lisa Hall, Isaacs’s sister, testified that Isaacs and Brown “had words” the night before Isaacs was shot. Isaacs had asked Brown how his son was doing, Hall said, and Brown responded that the question was disrespectful, because Isaacs’s nephew, Rashul, had been involved in that incident. Hall testified that her brother told her that Brown warned Isaacs that he needed to “watch his back.” Two hours before the shooting, according to Hall’s testimony, Isaacs told her that he was “kind of leery about going out to the project because of what Leroy had said to him and the young guys that was out there.” She did not specifically mention Goodwin as one of the “young guys.”

The prosecutor also asked Hall how many people in the courtroom were there to support Goodwin. She answered, “Just about every last one of them.”

Goodwin did not testify, but Anara Brown, Leroy Brown’s niece, testified that Goodwin was “sitting right next to me” on the front steps of a house near the park at the time of the shooting. She said she didn’t tell the police this information, but told Goodwin’s mother and an investigator working with Harrison.

During closing arguments, the prosecutor told the jury that Goodwin’s supporters had packed the courtroom each day in a strategy to intimidate the state’s witnesses. She said that the statements made by Cunningham and Respes were more credible than their courtroom testimony.

She also criticized Anara Brown’s testimony on behalf of Goodwin, citing her inability to recall the names of other people she saw around the time of the shooting. “[W]here is Natika if she was really out there?” the prosecutor asked. “Where is this Dooler if he was really out there? Where is this [person named] Black? Everybody knows each other. You can get these people in. They’re not here because it’s not true.”

The jury convicted Goodwin of first-degree murder and two weapons violations on May 28, 2013. Judge McDermott sentenced him to life without parole.

Goodwin’s direct appeal, based on insufficient evidence, was denied by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania on July 14, 2014. A year later, on June 15, 2015, Goodwin filed a pro se petition for a new trial under Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act. The petition made numerous claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, including his trial attorney’s failure to object to the state’s closing argument, where the prosecutor appeared to shift the burden of proof to the defense and implied that Goodwin was guilty because he hadn’t presented sufficient testimony from alibi witnesses.

Goodwin also said Harrison had failed to present evidence of past misconduct by Pitts, where witnesses in two separate murder cases said that Pitts had choked them. (Prosecutors dismissed one case; the defendant was acquitted in the other.) Judge McDermott denied Goodwin’s petition on October 24, 2016. Goodwin appealed, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the ruling on June 28, 2018.

Goodwin filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on December 6, 2018. He was later appointed an attorney through the federal public defender’s office. In an amended petition filed on May 30, 2019, Goodwin reasserted many of the claims regarding ineffective assistance of counsel from his unsuccessful motion for a new trial in state court.

The motion said the state’s case was based on two witnesses who recanted at trial. “The Commonwealth made a decision to supplement its otherwise weak case with other inadmissible material, and trial defense counsel, W. Fred Harrison, Esq., provided ineffective assistance of counsel when he failed to lodge objections to any of that inadmissible evidence or argument,” the motion said.

The motion said Harrison failed to correct Gaul when he said nobody had identified Leroy Brown as a suspect. He failed to object to the admission of the police activity sheets, to Hall’s hearsay testimony about Isaacs’s state of mind on the night he was killed, and to testimony about Goodwin’s purported strategy of witness intimidation.

In its response on February 2, 2021, the state urged the court to deny Goodwin relief. It said Harrison provided reasonable representation and that the prosecutorial errors that Goodwin said Harrison failed to object to weren’t errors at all.

On May 13, 2021, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article and related material about allegations of misconduct by Pitts in his interrogation of suspects and witnesses. Two of the men mentioned in the article, Hassan Bennett and Obina Onyiah, had been exonerated in 2019. A database assembled by the newspaper and included with the article listed 37 cases between 2001 and 2013 in which individuals complained of misconduct by Pitts.

Goodwin’s attorneys requested additional documents regarding Pitts. The state turned over these documents on December 7, 2021, along with a letter saying that Pitts had been transferred to the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center pending the completion of an internal investigation. In an amended petition and supplement filed that same day, Goodwin said the state had failed to disclose documented evidence of misconduct by Pitts, which could have been used to corroborate Cunningham’s testimony about the abuse he said took place and to impeach Gaul’s testimony that Pitts was well-respected in the department.

The documents turned over by the state included three reports by the police department’s Internal Affairs Division, where investigators sustained allegations against Pitts. In a 2002 incident, he misled investigators about the details of a fight with his wife, who was also a police officer. In 2012, he detained an 84-year-old man for six hours. In the third, which took place a few months after Goodwin’s conviction, he and another officer detained a woman for 47 hours, giving her nothing more than a pretzel and soda.

On February 28, 2022, a grand jury indicted Pitts on two counts of perjury and three counts of obstruction related to his actions in interrogating Onyiah and testifying against him at trial. Police arrested Pitts on March 3, 2022.

On May 4, 2022, the state conceded that it had failed to turn over potential impeachment evidence in Goodwin’s case. “Had counsel known of Detective Pitts’s [Internal Affairs] file, he could have impeached Detective Gaul’s assessment of Detective Pitts’s character during cross-examination,” the state wrote. “Had the jury known that there were other credible allegations of misconduct against Detective Pitts, there is a reasonable probability that the jury would have disbelieved Detective Gaul’s testimony that Detective Pitts was a trustworthy detective and believed Mr. Cunningham’s testimony of Detective Pitts’s physical abuse.”

On June 15, 2022, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne Sitarski recommended granting Goodwin’s habeas petition, writing that there was “no question” that the state suppressed evidence of Pitts’s misconduct. That evidence would have helped Goodwin in several ways, she said. First, it would have supported his claim that the police coerced his statement. “It may also have been more likely to credit Mr. Cunningham’s testimony confirming Petitioner’s alibi, that he was sitting with Ms. Brown on the steps of a home in the neighborhood at the time of the shooting,” she wrote.

Judge Timothy Savage approved the recommendation on July 14, 2022.

Following Savage’s ruling, Goodwin remained in prison, while the state conducted an extensive review to determine whether there was sufficient evidence remaining to retry Goodwin.

On February 16, 2023, the state dismissed the charges. Goodwin was released from prison. He told the Inquirer that although he was grateful to be released and reunited with his family, the experience underscored the problems with the criminal-justice system.

“It shows that there's no accountability,” he said. “It took me all these years to fight these issues, and [this evidence] was in their face the whole time.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 3/20/2023
Last Updated: 3/20/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Weapon Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:2011
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No