Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Gerald Howell

Other Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania exonerations
Shortly after 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve in 1982, 44-year-old Herbert Allen was fatally shot on the street as he stood next to his car near the intersection of 11th and Huntingdon Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

On January 12, 1983, police arrested 18-year-old Gerald Howell after 17-year-old Kenneth Parnell told police that he saw Howell commit the crime. The court appointed a defense attorney—a recent law school graduate who had been admitted to the bar in October 1981. This would be his first homicide case.

A preliminary hearing was held on January 27, 1983. The prosecution’s only witness was Parnell, who testified that Howell went up to Allen and was “scuffling” with him. Howell pulled out a gun and shot Allen in the chest, then fled after taking Allen’s watch and wallet. The judge ruled there was sufficient evidence to send the case to trial.

Two weeks later, Howell was arraigned on charges of first-degree murder, robbery, and possession of an instrument of a crime. The prosecution filed a notice that it would seek the death penalty.

On October 6, 1983, attorney Hugh Clark entered his appearance after Howell’s family retained him. He asked for a continuance of a hearing scheduled for that day and a continuance of the October 17 trial date. The judge refused.

On October 12, and again on October 14, Clark again requested a continuance of the trial date. He reported that Howell’s family had retained him because they were concerned that the court-appointed attorney was too inexperienced. The family had needed several months to secure funds to hire an attorney and had completed payment to Clark on October 6.

Clark said, “It has been impossible to do all that is demanded in a capital case in [an] 11-day time frame.” He said that he had already had to “cut corners” and eliminate critical components of normal trial preparation. Clark listed nine different categories of preparation he had been unable to complete, including reviewing the prosecution file, researching and briefing challenges to the death penalty, inspecting physical evidence, retaining a private investigator, attempting to interview prosecution witnesses, reviewing witness statements, preparing a defense—including securing alibi witnesses—and preparing for a possible penalty hearing.

The motion to delay the trial was denied.

On October 19, 1983, Howell went on trial in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. The prosecution presented testimony from five teenagers. Parnell was not called as a witness.

Eighteen-year-old Karla Hearst testified that she heard a gunshot, ran to the corner, and saw a man with a gun running away from Allen’s body. She identified Howell as the gunman and described his clothing, which matched a jacket police had seized from Howell at the time of his arrest.

Clark attempted to cross-examine Hearst about whether she saw Parnell at the scene and whether she was trying to protect him. She did not answer after the judge sustained prosecution objections to the questions.

Darryl Workman was 18 years old when he testified. At the time, he was facing a criminal charge in an unrelated case. He testified that on Christmas Eve, he was with Parnell and Howell. He said Howell approached Allen and started wrestling with him. Then, Workman said, he heard a shot, and saw Allen clutch his chest and fall to the ground. Workman said Howell rifled through Allen’s pockets and ran away. During cross-examination, Workman admitted he first told police he was alone and did not know who the shooter was. Workman said he later changed his statement during questioning by police and implicated Howell.

Arlene Williams, who was 17 at the time of the crime, testified that on Christmas morning, Howell came to her house and volunteered that he “had shot some man on Huntingdon Street.” She said Howell showed her the gun he had used, and that he told her he took a Masonic ring from the victim, although she could not describe the ring’s color or design.

There was no physical evidence linking Howell to the crime. When Howell was arrested, police seized his jacket and sneakers. The jacket tested negative for gunshot residue, and the sneakers were negative for the presence of blood.

Allen’s father testified that his son had a ring with a Masonic symbol on it.

Howell’s sister, Beverly, testified that she needed diapers for her child, so on Christmas Eve, she and Howell took public transportation to a Toys “R” Us across town. While they were in the store, Howell bought a Christmas present for his niece. She said they left the store after 8 p.m. when the doors closed. They walked to a nearby diner, spent 30-40 minutes eating, then took the bus and the subway home, arriving between 10:15 and 10:30 p.m.

Howell testified that after he and Beverly returned home, he went to a party. There, he saw Parnell, whom he had met just a few days earlier. Howell said Parnell told him about a better party elsewhere. They went there together and after the party, Howell returned home.

Howell denied he was with Parnell and Workman at 11th and Huntingdon that evening, denied carrying a gun, denied shooting anyone, and denied Williams’s Christmas morning account.

Cheryl Jones, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, testified in rebuttal for the prosecution that she was with Hearst on the night of the shooting. She said that she heard a gunshot and saw a man running away holding a gun. She corroborated Hearst’s description of the gunman’s jacket.

Warren Wright also testified in rebuttal. He said that after the shooting, he saw Howell at a party around 10:45 p.m. He said Howell told him, “I just got a dead body.” Wright gave inconsistent statements about whether he was at the shooting at the time it occurred.

On October 24, 1983, the jury convicted Howell of second-degree murder, robbery, and possession of an instrument of a crime. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the convictions in 1985. Howell filed multiple post-conviction petitions. His third cited a confession by Kenneth Parnell that he had shot Allen. In 1999, Parnell not only provided a sworn affidavit admitting to the crime, he wrote letters making the admission to both the trial judge and the prosecution. He said he had recanted to police prior to Howell’s trial.

In a letter to Bradley Bridge, a lawyer in the Philadelphia County Public Defender’s Office, Parnell wrote:

“I made a mistake and shot and killed a man on Christmas Eve of 1982. His name was Mr. Herbert Allen. I went to Mr. Allen to collect some money for a man I used to work for… Mr. Allen was drunk, me and my best friend at the time was high and things got ugly. To make things worst [sic] I was arrested the next day for another shooting. Because the guy I shot was telling everybody about what I did to Mr. Allen…I told the police that a guy name Gerald Howell did it. I made up a story and had a couple of friends verify it and agreed to testify on Gerald in exchange for a break on the shooting case.”

His petition was denied. In 2005, Howell filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. That petition was denied as untimely. In 2014, Howell’s attorney, Norris Gelman, filed a petition for relief from judgment arguing that Howell was able to overcome the statute of limitations by showing actual innocence. That petition was denied.

In 2018, Gelman filed a renewed motion asserting actual innocence. In addition to attaching Parnell’s confession, the petition contained affidavits from Karla Hearst, Cheryl Jones, and Arlene Williams. They all recanted their trial testimony, saying it was false. Williams had recanted in 2009, saying that the police threatened to charge Parnell—the father of her child—unless she testified and implicated Howell.

Jones said that she did see the gunman, but it was Parnell, not Howell. She said she was afraid to say it was Parnell. She came to court only after the police threatened to arrest her if she did not testify.

Hearst’s affidavit said, “I lied when I gave the police a statement about Gerald Howell, and I lied at his trial….Gerald was never in front of my house with a gun. [Kenneth Parnell] was the person in front of my house.” She said she was afraid of Parnell and his family and came to court after the police “said if I did not show [up] for court they would lock me up.”

The judge ruled that the recantations were categorically unreliable and denied the motion. In June 2020, the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed that ruling.

“Although recantations are generally looked upon with suspicion, they are not subject to a categorical rejection, and, indeed, the recantations in this case cast significant doubt on Howell’s conviction, particularly when considered together with Parnell’s confession,” the appeals court held. The court remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing.

A hearing was held on January 13, 2022 and April 28, 2022. On October 21, 2022, attorney Susan Lin filed an amended federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition cited the testimony of the recanting witnesses at the hearings. It argued that Howell had been denied his right to a fair trial when the trial judge refused to continue the trial to allow his defense lawyer time to adequately prepare.

The petition also cited the testimony from the January hearing of Herbert Allen’s brother, O’Neill Allen. O’Neill testified that on the night his brother was murdered, he went to the scene. He said people were still standing around. One person approached him and told him that Parnell was the gunman. That person, who said he did not want to get involved, said he had seen the shooting.

Allen said he gave this information to two detectives. He said that the next time he saw the detectives was at the preliminary hearing. Before the hearing started, the detectives took him out of the courtroom, and when he returned, the prosecution had finished presenting its case. O’Neill said he believed this was done so he would not find out that Parnell was the sole witness for the prosecution at the preliminary hearing.

O’Neill testified at the evidentiary hearing that “It always bothered me.”

O’Neill’s statement to police at the scene was never disclosed to Howell’s trial defense attorney. In fact, it was not disclosed until 2021.

“Howell has demonstrated his actual innocence,” the petition declared. “His conviction should be vacated.”

On April 20, 2023, Chief U.S. District Judge Juan Sanchez granted the writ and ordered that Howell’s convictions be vacated. Judge Sanchez ruled that the failure to grant a continuance to Howell’s defense attorney was so egregious that it required reversal. The judge did not address the other defense claims.

On July 19, 2023, the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges and Howell was released that same day. He had spent more than 39 years in prison after his conviction.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 11/13/2023
Last Updated: 11/13/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1982
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No