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Bruce Murray

Other Exonerations from Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania
Bruce Murray and Gregory Holden each served more than 40 years in prison for a murder in Philadelphia in 1980. Murray was exonerated in 2023, and Holden was exonerated in 2024, based on undisclosed evidence that undermined the testimony of key witnesses and cast serious doubt on the state’s theory of the crime.

At 5:45 p.m. on December 16, 1980, police in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, received a call about a shooting at 2414 Montrose Street, about two miles southwest of downtown.

George Young, who reported the shooting, met an officer at the door. The officer went inside and found 21-year-old Eric DeLegal, known as “Kaboobie,” lying on his side in a pool of blood. DeLegal was taken to Graduate Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:40 p.m. A .25-caliber bullet was removed from DeLegal’s body, and an autopsy would later say show that he was shot six times, once with a shotgun and five times with a handgun.

Officers found a small amount of marijuana in an envelope in one of DeLegal’s pockets. In the house, they found 3.5 pounds of marijuana in an upstairs bedroom and several baggies of marijuana in and around a bureau. Near where DeLegal’s body was found on the main floor, police also recovered the bolt from a 20-gauge shotgun, a spent 20-gauge shell, and shotgun shell wadding.

Young gave a statement to police and said that he had been walking west on Montrose when he heard “one very loud shot.” He then saw two young Black men running from the house. According to the police statement, Young described one man as “approx. 18yrs., 5’3” to 5’6, 130 to 150 lbs., wearing a brown ski cap, brown pants, light brown jacket,” and the other as “approx. 19yrs., 5’11” to 6’1, 185 to 200 lbs., wearing a blue ski cap, brown pants.” He would later that day tweak his description of the shorter man, describing him as approximately 5’6” and 16 years old.

On December 22, 1980, police received a lead through a former assistant district attorney. The former prosecutor said that a man named Elliot Burton had told him that 16-year-old Gregory Strickland was inside DeLegal’s house at the time of the shooting. A week or so later, detectives received a tip from a man who said he saw Burton running from DeLegal’s house with a shotgun. The police were unable to interview this tipster.

Detectives interviewed Strickland on January 6, 1981. He said that he was a frequent visitor at DeLegal’s house and was there on December 16, 1980, playing an electronic football game with DeLegal in the basement. He heard the doorbell ring, and DeLegal went upstairs. A short while later, he heard “a real boom and then like 5–6 smaller sounding shots.” He heard DeLegal “yell like he was hurt.”

Strickland said he did not know how many people were upstairs, but it sounded like more than one. He said the person or persons ran out, and he waited in the basement for about 12 minutes before going upstairs and finding DeLegal on the floor, bleeding from his stomach. By then, he said, Young was already in the house trying to care for DeLegal. Strickland said that Young asked him to call an ambulance, which Strickland said he did from his house.

Strickland also said that Burton approached him a few days after the shooting and told him that he knew Strickland was in the basement and he should talk to the police. Burton reiterated this a few days later, and said that if Strickland didn’t go voluntarily, Burton would tell the police about Strickland’s presence.

The police sought to give Strickland a polygraph test, but his father refused to have him participate.

On February 25, police obtained a search warrant for the home of 19-year-old Gregory Holden, based on information from two confidential informants. Earlier that month, according to the search-warrant application, one of the informants had spoken with Holden, who allegedly said he was in possession of the shotgun used in the murder, which was committed by “Bruce,” Douglas Haughton, and a third man. (There is no record of the police finding any guns during the search.) Police believed Bruce to be 20-year-old Bruce Murray. According to the application, the informant said that Holden said that the men had tried to rob DeLegal, but he pulled out a gun and shot “Bruce” in the arm.

At some point during the next few weeks, police used Burton as an informant to milk Holden for what he knew about the shooting. Holden was largely unresponsive, according to a transcript of the call between the two men that was not disclosed to Murray’s trial attorney. Holden never placed himself at the crime scene. He asked Burton who was shot. Burton responded with a question: “Bruce one of them?” Holden said: “I’m not sure. I don’t know. They ain’t never tell me [inaudible]. I ain’t never know one of them got shot.”

On March 11, 1981, police interviewed a man named Edward Randolph about an unrelated homicide. Randolph implicated Larry Thorpe in that case and later said that Thorpe was also “supposed to be the mastermind” in the robbery that ended with DeLegal’s death.

Randolph said he had spoken with Holden the day after DeLegal died. He said Holden told him that Thorpe had devised a plan to rob DeLegal that involved Holden and Thorpe serving as lookouts and “Bruce” and “Scottie” going to rob him under the pretense of buying marijuana. DeLegal reached for a gun and was shot, first by “Scotty” and later by “Bruce.”

Randolph said that Strickland had told him he saw Haughton run down the steps after the shooting.

Police returned to Strickland on March 13, 1981, and now his father agreed to a polygraph test. The examiner would note that the test indicated deception when Strickland answered that he did not know who shot DeLegal and when he answered that Burton had told him that Bruce and Scott committed the shooting.

The test was paused to allow detectives to interview Strickland about Randolph’s statements. Strickland denied telling Randolph that he saw Haughton run out of DeLegal’s house. The police showed him a photo array. He was able to identify Haughton but not Murray. He told police he had never heard of Murray and said they should not rely on hearsay that implicated Murray.

Based on Randolph’s statement, police arrested Holden for murder on March 20, 1981. He gave a statement denying any knowledge of the killing and of knowing Haughton, Murray, or DeLegal. His charges were dismissed on May 13, 1981, after Randolph refused to testify at a preliminary hearing.

The investigation stalled. On February 24, 1982, Haughton was arrested in connection with a bank robbery and interviewed by FBI agents and Detective Larry Gerrard of the Philadelphia Police Department. The officers told him they had photographs and other information connecting him to the bank robbery and that they also knew of his involvement in DeLegal’s death.

On March 4, 1982, Haughton gave a statement to Gerrard and another detective that said he, Murray, Holden and “Scott” were involved in the planning and execution of the robbery at DeLegal’s house. “I stayed in the school yard while Scott and Bruce approached his house and knocked on his door,” DeLegal said. “Scott had a bag with a shotgun in it sawed off. Bruce had a .32 on his hip. Scott knocked twice on the door. Kaboobie answered the door and let him in. They went in and I heard a blast of a shotgun and I heard the sound of a gun 3 times and I heard two more gunshots [and] the door flew open and I began to walk away toward 25th St.”

Haughton said Strickland called out to him, “‘Doug. Kaboobie just got shot to death.’ I ignored him and kept walking.’” Haughton described Strickland as the “boy who was in the cellar” and said Scott had told him the location of Strickland, known as “Dap.”

Haughton was arrested on April 1, 1982, and charged with murder in DeLegal’s death. That day he gave another statement, identifying Tyrone Wesson as “Scott.” Wesson and Murray were cousins.

Haughton pled guilty to the federal bank robbery charge on April 21, 1982. On September 8, 1982, he entered into an agreement to plead guilty to third-degree murder in DeLegal’s death, contingent on his testimony against Murray, Holden, and Wesson.

Police arrested Wesson on September 9. During his interrogation, Wesson said he had been shot in the left forearm during the incident. He said he was treated at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and used Murray’s name when admitted.

Murray was arrested on September 11, 1982. He gave a statement and denied knowing DeLegal or having any involvement in his death.

At a preliminary hearing on November 4, 1982, Haughton testified as the state’s sole witness. He had difficulty describing how the four men planned the robbery. He testified that the weapons used in the robbery came from Holden’s house. This contradicted his police statement that Murray supplied the weapons. At one point in the hearing, he testified that he didn’t know Strickland. Later, he said he did.

The police had obtained an arrest warrant for Holden in September 1982, but he wasn’t arrested until January 6, 1983. Police found him inside the piano at the home of his girlfriend’s mother. At Holden’s preliminary hearing, Haughton said that Murray didn’t have a gun, contradicting his testimony at the previous preliminary hearing.

Prior to trial in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, Murray, Wesson, and Holden each filed severance motions to be tried separatelymoved to sever their trials. Because Wesson’s statement to police mentioned Murray and Holden, they argued that it would violate their rights to a fair trial if Wesson’s statement was introduced and he did not testify. The state said it would use a redacted version of the statement, and the severance motions were withdrawn.

Separately, Wesson also moved to suppress his statement. Judge David Savitt denied the request.

At trial, Haughton testified about the robbery. He said the four men smoked marijuana at Holden’s house, and it was Holden’s idea to rob DeLegal. Holden gave Wesson a sawed-off shotgun, and Murray had a .32-caliber handgun. Haughton said he and Holden served as lookouts, and Wesson and Murray went to DeLegal’s door. Haughton testified that he heard the gunfire and later saw Wesson bleeding from his arm. He asked Wesson what happened. Wesson said that when he walked into the house, he and DeLegal “had a tussle, and at the same time they had the tussle, [Wesson] had pulled out the shotgun, and Kaboobie had pushed it away, and as Scottie was pulling it back towards Kaboobie, [Wesson] had shot [Kaboobie].”

Haughton’s testimony was riddled with inconsistencies. He had testified at a preliminary hearing that he had a gun at the time of the incident, but testified at trial that he didn’t. He testified that the shotgun came from Holden’s house, as opposed to his police statement that the weapon was at Murray’s house. He attempted to reconcile the statements by saying the weapon was a “corner gun,” meaning it was “available to a certain group of people that stand on the corner.”

Holden presented three alibi witnesses, including his mother and his girlfriend, Janine El, who all said that Holden was out shopping at the time of the murder. They also testified that Haughton had a reputation for dishonesty.

At the time of the trial, El had pending charges related to concealing Holden in the piano, and the prosecutor and Holden’s attorney had reached an agreement on the limits of the state’s cross-examination, so as not to trigger El’s invocation of her Fifth Amendment rights. The prosecutor breached that agreement, and El invoked her rights. Holden’s attorney moved for a mistrial, which Judge Savitt denied.

Holden also testified that he had no involvement with DeLegal’s death. He said he hid in the piano because his prior arrest for the same crime in 1981 had made him afraid of being arrested without an attorney.

Murray also presented three alibi witnesses, including his then-girlfriend, Robin Johnson. She testified that she clearly remembered the events of December 16, 1980, even though it was more than two years earlier, because it was a friend’s 18th birthday. She said that she and Murray spent the afternoon at a park, taking care of his nieces and nephews, then ended up at a Richard Pryor movie that evening. At the park, Johnson said, they ran into a friend, who had just returned to Philadelphia from North Carolina. (The friend also testified consistent with Johnson’s testimony.)

Murray testified and said he had no involvement with DeLegal’s death.

Murray said he and Haughton knew each other, although they were not friends. Haughton would occasionally visit Murray’s home, where his sisters or Johnson might fix him something to eat. A few weeks before DeLegal’s death, Murray said, Haughton robbed the women in his house at gunpoint. Murray was not home, he testified, and no one called the police.

Not long after the robbery, Murray said, he and his stepbrother ran into Haughton on the street. “I asked him could I talk to him,” Murray said. “So we walked to Annin Street, and from there I asked him what happened. He told me he didn’t want to replace nothing that he took, so I just took it up into my own fashion.” Murray said he beat Haughton with a thick stick for five minutes.

Later, a detective read Wesson’s redacted statement to the jury, which used the phrases “guys” or “other guys” in place of the actual names.

Gerrard then testified about Wesson’s statement regarding his injury and how Wesson used Murray’s name when he sought treatment at the hospital.

After Gerrard testified, the state said that Wesson’s attorneys had stipulated that the “records reflect that on December 16, 1980, at approximately 8:32 p.m., that an individual by the name of Bruce Murray, or using the name Bruce Murray, came into the hospital.”

On June 24, 1983, after three days of deliberation, the jury convicted Murray of second-degree murder, criminal conspiracy, robbery, and possessing an instrument of crime. Holden and Wesson were also convicted of similar crimes. Four days later, Haughton was sentenced to five years in prison, with the sentence to run concurrently with his federal conviction. He was paroled in 1989.

On April 24, 1984, Murray, Holden, and Wesson were all sentenced to life in prison without parole. Both Murray and Holden said they were innocent. Holden said, “When I got arrested for this crime, I was not guilty then and I’m still not guilty now.” In his allocution, Wesson said, “I know I had a right to take the stand or not take the stand and I really felt that if I would have, I could have exonerated [them] and made things much clearer and it wouldn’t have took (sic) too much time,” he said. “I would have cleared the other two defendants if possible.”

Haughton recanted his testimony on April 11, 1985. In two affidavits, Haughton said that Murray and Holden had nothing to do with DeLegal’s death. Haughton said he and Wesson had gone to DeLegal’s house to buy marijuana, in part because DeLegal owed Haughton $150. During an altercation, DeLegal went for a shotgun, but the gun fell and then went off as DeLegal and Wesson struggled over the weapon. He said federal agents punched and slapped him and threatened him with life in prison if he didn’t cooperate. “They bullied and insisted that I sign statements naming Bruce Murray and Gregory Holden in this murder, as well as Tyrone ‘Scotty’ Wesson,” Haughton said. “I was frightened and I believed that they would not stop and that things would not get better until I signed the statements that they wanted and agreed to testify at trial.”

After Houghton recanted, Murray moved for post-conviction relief in December 1986, based on the recantations of Wesson and Haughton. He also asserted that the prosecutor had violated his right to a fair trial by illegally using race as a reason to strike Black people from the jury, and that his first appellate attorney had been ineffective for failing to raise that issue on appeal. (Available records don’t precisely state the racial composition of the jury that heard the case, but one attorney involved in the case would recall there was one Black juror and one Black alternate.)

The court dismissed Murray’s claim regarding the jury’s composition, but held an evidentiary hearing on other matters in his appeal on July 25, 1991. Both Wesson and Haughton testified that Murray and Holden were not involved or present at the time DeLegal was shot.

Judge Savitt denied the petition on February 6, 1996. He said the recantations and new statements by Wesson and Haughton lacked credibility. He also said Murray had not been unduly prejudiced by Wesson’s redacted statement at trial, because it corroborated Houghton’s testimony.

Holden, separately, had moved for post-conviction relief in 1985, asserting his trial attorney was ineffective for agreeing to withdraw her motion to sever the trials of the co-defendants. Judge Savitt denied his petition in 1996.

During the next 20 years, both Murray and Holden would pursue their claims of innocence in both state and federal courts, filing pro se petitions under Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act that were quickly denied.

In one of those motions, filed in 2006, Murray included a 2000 letter Strickland wrote to Centurion Ministries, an innocence organization, that said the police and prosecutors tried to get him to say Murray was one of the people who killed DeLegal. “But I didn’t because he was not one of the killers,” Strickland said. The only person he had seen was Haughton, and the police told him that Wesson confessed and placed Murray at the scene. Strickland said the police brought him in to view a lineup that included Murray, but first wanted him to look at photos. He said he didn’t know Murray and couldn’t identify him, and the lineup was canceled.

Separately, in 1998, Murray filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, raising many of the same issues from his state petitions. A judge denied the habeas petition and then denied Murray’s repeated requests to reopen the petition, rejecting his motions as untimely and disqualified on procedural grounds. Holden experienced similar defeats in federal court.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that proof of actual innocence may allow a defendant seeking a writ of habeas corpus to pursue their case regardless of any procedural bar. A ruling four years later from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which includes Pennsylvania, provided federal courts more guidance in considering these requests.

On June 1, 2017, Holden moved, pro se, to reopen his federal habeas petition, arguing that the appellate rulings gave courts wider leeway in allowing otherwise untimely petitions. Judge Curtis Joyner of U.S. District Court denied Holden’s petition on July 11, 2017.

Murray filed a similar petition, also pro se, on January 23, 2018. Unlike Holden, he made a more expansive argument, asserting that the reopening of his habeas petition was allowed when there was a “credible claim of actual innocence.”

Murray’s motion included a 2011 affidavit from an inmate who said he had talked to both Haughton and Strickland about the shooting, each asserting Murray’s innocence, and a 2011 affidavit from Strickland that elaborated on his letter from years earlier.

“I, as you know, was with my friend and childhood mentor Eric DeLegal when he was killed and all I’m trying to do is be a voice for him! I was there, I know who was inside his home the night he was killed, he told me he let Douglas Horton [aka Haughton] and another guy in when they came to get the weed from the cellar for them. Plus after the shots I ran upstairs as Douglas Horton and the other guy was leaving … I knew Douglas all my life so I called out to him saying why did you have to kill him?

On December 20, 2020, Judge Anita Brody of U.S. District Court granted Murray a chance to reopen his habeas case. She appointed Michael Engle, now with the Stradley Ronon law firm in Philadelphia, to represent Murray. Engle and Ryan Smith, another attorney at the firm and now with the public defender’s office in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, handled the case pro bono.

Nearly two years later, on November 16, 2022, the attorneys moved to vacate the court’s denial of Murray’s habeas petition. The motion pulled together the issues Murray and his attorneys had cited in his earlier filings, but also included new evidence that supported his claim of innocence.

For example, in an unsworn affidavit dated August 17, 2019, Bruce Murray’s sister, Brenda, said that she had taken Wesson to the hospital on December 16, 1980, after he was shot. “He told me someone attempted to rob him and because he was underage I took him and used Bruce’s medical information,” Brenda Murray said. She said she wanted to testify about this at her brother’s trial, but his attorney never contacted her.

Gerrard’s notes from his interview with Wesson said that Wesson admitted to using Murray’s name when he sought treatment, and the hospital records also noted that his “sister” brought him in. Because these records weren’t disclosed to Murray’s attorney at trial, he was unable to challenge the state’s stipulation on the hospital visit, creating doubt about who really was treated for a gunshot wound.

The motion also said the state had failed to disclose police notes from an interview with Randolph that said Strickland told Randolph he had seen “Haughton run down the steps.” This could have impeached Haughton’s’ testimony about his limited role in the shooting. The state also failed to disclose the tip they had received from a man who claimed to have seen Burton running from DeLegal’s house.

Murray’s attorneys had also discovered undisclosed evidence corroborating Strickland’s account of a canceled, court-ordered lineup. In a memo, the police said the lineup was canceled because they were unable to find fillers. According to the memo, inmates who took part in a lineup received $.75, which had been the price for a pack of cigarettes. But the price of a pack had just gone up a nickel, and no inmates agreed to participate in the Strickland lineup unless the participation fee increased to $.80. (Murray’s attorneys would later call this explanation “incredible.”)

Separately, in the years since Murray’s conviction, Gerrard had faced numerous allegations of witness tampering, including one that led to the wrongful conviction of Willie Stokes. These actions bolstered the recantations of Haughton and Wesson, the motion said.

“Given that only two males participated in the shootout with Kaboobie, the new and reliable evidence before this Court proves Murray’s actual innocence,” the motion said. “There is no dispute that Wesson was one of the two males, and physical evidence (his gunshot wound) is unassailable proof that Wesson was there. Strickland’s eyewitness account, Haughton’s and Wesson’s recantations, and the corroborating accounts from Smith and Thomas prove that Haughton was the third participant in the three-person shootout with Kaboobie and Wesson.”

On January 18, 2023, the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office agreed that Murray should be allowed to reopen his habeas petition. “Considering all the evidence, old and new, regardless of admissibility, Respondents agree that it is likely that any reasonable juror would have had a reasonable doubt as to Murray’s guilt if they’d had the complete picture now available to the Court,” the state said.

On March 27, 2023, Judge Brody granted Murray’s motion to vacate the denial of his habeas petition, allowing him to refile a new petition, which was submitted on May 2, 2023. A month later, the state and Murray’s attorneys stipulated that the state had failed to provide Murray’s trial attorneys with significant exculpatory evidence related to Burton’s possible involvement, the recorded conversations between Holden and Burton; and evidence regarding Strickland’s polygraph results and statements about what he saw.

“Had Murray’s counsel known that Strickland allegedly saw Haughton in DeLegal’s house on the day of the murder, that his polygraph results indicated deception on this very issue, and that he refused to implicate Murray before a hastily canceled lineup, his counsel could have investigated and called Strickland at trial, giving him the opportunity to tell the court in the first instance what he later admitted to in letters and affidavits,” the stipulation said. “Competent counsel also could have used all this evidence to impeach Haughton’s self-serving testimony.”

Judge Brody granted Murray’s petition that day, vacating his conviction and ordering a new trial. He was released from prison on September 27, 2023, after more than 40 years in prison. The state dismissed his charges on October 11, 2023.

“We are extremely happy for Bruce and his family, although this eventual victory came at a very high price for our client,” Engle said. “While we are thrilled to see Bruce free, we are saddened that it took over four decades for him to receive some measure of justice.”

Shortly before Murray’s release from prison, attorney Grace Harris had begun representing Holden. On August 15, 2023, she moved to set aside the court’s denial of Holden’s motion to reopen his habeas petition. The new motion relied on many of the same facts in Murray’s petition. Judge Brody granted Holden’s motion on November 28, 2023, allowing him to refile his habeas petition, which Harris submitted on December 19, 2023.

On January 23, 2024, Harris and the district attorney’s office filed a joint stipulation of findings and conclusions that asked Judge Brody to grant Holden’s habeas petition and vacate his conviction. As in Murray’s case, the stipulation said the undisclosed evidence was exculpatory and undermined the integrity of the conviction.

Judge Brody granted the habeas petition on January 25, 2024. Holden was released from prison on bail on March 6, 2024. Judge Barbara McDermott of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas granted the state’s motion to dismiss the case on March 27, 2024.

Harris said in a statement: “We are so grateful that Gregory is finally home with his family and community who love him and have missed him dearly. It is impossible to measure just how much was taken from him over the course of the 42 years of injustice that he endured, but the world is certainly a better place now that he is free.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 11/13/2023
Last Updated: 4/22/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Weapon Possession or Sale, Conspiracy
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