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Charles Rice

Other Exonerations of Juvenile Defendants in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
At about 9:30 p.m. on September 25, 2011, Latrice Johnson was sitting with her children and other relatives on the front steps of her mother’s home in south Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when two men approached and started shooting.

Johnson was shot in the leg. The three other victims were 6-year-old Denean Thomas, Johnson’s niece; Johnson’s stepdaughter, 23-year-old LaToya Lane; and Johnson’s son, 17-year-old Khalief Ladson. None of the injuries were life-threatening, and Johnson and her family members were treated at area hospitals.

Johnson told police that night that she could not identify the shooters. She said there were two men, one in a gray sweatshirt and the other in a black sweatshirt, who had fired shots then ran off into the night. Ladson and Lane gave similar descriptions.

On September 26, the police received a tip from a confidential informant that 17-year-old Charles “C.J.” Rice might have been involved in the shooting.

At the time, Rice was recovering from his own gunshot wounds, received in a drive-by shooting on September 3. There was talk on the streets that Ladson had been involved in that shooting, which made the September 25 shooting an act of revenge. (Ladson was never charged in the earlier shooting.)

The police visited Johnson at the hospital and showed her a photo array that included Rice. She selected him as one of the young men involved in the shooting. Separately, Lane selected 19-year-old Tyler Linder as the person who had shot at her and the others. Linder and Rice were friends, and they had been together when Rice was shot three weeks earlier.

Police arrested Linder and Rice on September 27, 2011. They were each charged with four counts of attempted murder, three counts of aggravated assault, conspiracy to commit assault, conspiracy to commit murder, and several weapons violations. Rice and Linder were tried together in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, with Judge Denis Cohen presiding.

Rice’s mother, Crystal Cooper, was a paralegal in the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office (DAO) and had hired a former colleague, Sanjai Weaver, to represent her son. Initially, Cooper paid Weaver, but later, the court appointed Weaver to represent Rice, paying her a flat fee prior to trial and then a set amount for each day of the trial.

Although the state had two witnesses, one who identified Rice and the other who identified Tyler, there was no physical or forensic evidence connecting the two defendants to the crime. In addition, both men had alibis. Tyler said he was helping his mother clean a building on the other side of the city. Video at the premises captured him at 8:45 p.m. Rice said he, too, was several miles away, recuperating from his gunshot wounds at a relative’s house.

At a pre-trial hearing, the state moved to allow Detective Robert Spadaccini to testify that Ladson had been a “person of interest” in the September 3 shooting. But Spadaccini didn’t have any evidence to support this theory. Judge Cohen said: “You have no idea who the source was. How does that come in? You have no idea who the source was or has any reliability to the source.”

The prosecutor argued that the lack of evidence to arrest Ladson was not the point. “I think it still goes back to motivation and the state of mind of [Rice.]”

Judge Cohen pushed back. He said: “How do you show that the defendants even knew about it? All we know [is] he has a very vague, amorphous, unsubstantiated claim that Ladson was a suspect. You have no idea what the source is, and you’re saying the fact that he was a suspect is a motive by the defendants. But, one, we have no idea who, if anyone, was the source. And, two, we have no idea they knew about it. So how does that come in?”

The prosecutor said, “I don’t have an answer for that question.”

Prior to Judge Cohen’s decision on the motion and for reasons that aren’t clear from the record, the state and Weaver agreed to a stipulation that said: that Linder was with Rice at the time of the September 3 shooting; that Rice had told Spadaccini that he did not see who shot him and that he did not want to cooperate; and that Ladson had become a suspect in the investigation.

Johnson testified that she was at the house on South 18th Street when two men, including Rice, came down Fernon Street, to the northeast, and began shooting when they got to the corner of Fernon and South 18th. She said the men were 20 feet away and illuminated by a streetlight. She said she never saw a gun but did see sparks. She said the men continued running down Fernon Street after the shooting.

The prosecutor asked Johnson if she had told the officers at the scene “who did the shooting.” Johnson hedged and said she could not “recall exactly.” Later, Johnson was shown her initial statement, where she made no identification of the shooters. Johnson said she knew Rice because he and Ladson had been friends, although she also said she had not seen Rice in about four years, when he would have been 13 years old.

Lane testified that she saw Linder at the corner of Fernon and 18th pointing a gun at her and the others. Lane said Linder was alone, although she saw a second man run south down 18th Street toward Morris Street.

Spadaccini testified that police recovered 12 .380 cartridges at the shooting scene near the corner of Fernon and 18th streets. (A firearms technician would later testify that five of the cartridges were fired from the same weapon, and the other seven had insufficient markings to make a determination.)

Spadaccini also testified about the September 3 shooting, where Rice had been shot in the side, hip, and butt and spent eight days in the hospital. Linder had told police that he did not know who fired the shots that wounded Rice because it was dark. Spadaccini said that Rice was “uncooperative.” Spadaccini described Ladson as a person of interest in that shooting, but he also said that he never tried to contact Ladson about that shooting or the one that left him injured. In addition, Spadaccini said that although Cooper had told him of her son’s injuries at the time of Rice’s arrest, no one in Rice’s family came forward to tell the police about Rice’s alibi.

Ladson did not testify.

Cooper testified that her son had been shot on September 3 and left the hospital on September 11, with his surgical wounds stapled together on his stomach. She said she feared for his safety, so she had Rice stay with his godmother, Deania Duncan, in West Philadelphia. She said she did not see Rice on September 25, but she called him several times. Cooper said that when she brought her son to the police department to turn himself in on September 27, she told the detectives that Rice could not have committed the crime because he could barely walk.

Qadafi Malone, Duncan’s son, said he was with Rice all day on September 25. He said that Rice walked very gingerly and needed help with steps and stairs. He also said that Rice’s physical’s injuries prevented him from getting down on his knees to pray, as Malone and his family did several times a day.

Dr. Theodore Tapper, a pediatrician in Philadelphia, had been Rice’s long-time physician. Tapper said he examined Rice on September 11 after his release from the hospital. He said that Rice had undergone extensive surgery at Jefferson Hospital to find a bullet that had gone through his stomach and small and large intestines. Tapper also saw Rice on September 20. He testified that Rice had also contracted pneumonia in the hospital. At this visit, Tapper said, Rice was in “moderate pain,” and had difficulty getting on the examination table. He had an 8-10” incision in his mid-section, held together with 10-12 surgical staples, and the incision was slightly open and draining yellow fluid. Tapper said Rice took short steps and walked like an old man.

Dr. Tapper testified that he was “very dubious as to whether he could walk standing up straight, let alone run with any degree of speed five days after I saw him.”

Neither Linder nor Rice testified, although Linder presented evidence of his alibi on the night of the shooting.

On February 8, 2013, the jury acquitted Linder and convicted Rice of all charges. Rice later received a sentence of 30 to 60 years in prison.

Rice appealed his conviction, which was affirmed by the Pennsylvania Superior Court on January 20, 2016.

On February 23, 2016, Rice moved for a new trial under the state’s Post-Conviction Relief Act, claiming that Weaver had provided ineffective assistance of counsel. The motion said Weaver had done little trial preparation, particularly with regards to Tapper’s testimony about Rice’s injuries and how they might have impeded his mobility.

Judge Cohen held an evidentiary hearing on January 25, 2019. Weaver did not testify. She was sick and died later that year. Tapper testified that Weaver did not provide him with Rice’s hospital records. With that documentation, Tapper said, he would have testified more forcefully about Rice’s condition. If Rice had been able to somehow run, Tapper said, the “incision probably would have split open to one degree or another and intestines would have been coming out or blood would have been coming out or fluid coming out.”

Dr. Murray Cohen, the surgeon who operated on Rice, testified at the hearing that Rice tolerated the surgery well and could “very well have been able to run on [September 25].” Asked if running could have caused the wound to rupture, Cohen responded, “Not my staples and not my suture.”

Judge Cohen denied Rice relief on December 19, 2019, and two years later the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Rice’s motion to appeal.

On November 1, 2022, the Atlantic magazine published a lengthy article on Rice’s case, written by Jake Tapper, the CNN newscaster and son of Theodore Tapper.

“There is certainly reasonable doubt—an excess of reasonable doubt—that Rice committed the crimes of which he was accused,” Tapper wrote. “But what happened after that night is not open to argument: Rice lacked legal representation worthy of the name.”

A month later, on December 12, 2022, Rice filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on December 12, 2022, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. He was now represented by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and attorney Karl Schwartz.

The petition re-asserted Rice’s claims that Weaver provided ineffective assistance at trial. It said she had failed to use physical evidence and the geography of the crime scene to highlight the inconsistencies in Johnson’s testimony. Johnson had testified that the shooter was 20 feet away and illuminated by a streetlight. The petition noted that shell cartridges were found 60 feet away, at the corner, and there were no streetlights to assist Johnson in her identification.

In addition, the habeas petition focused heavily on Weaver’s decision to stipulate that Ladson was a suspect in the earlier shooting, which allowed a parade of state witnesses to testify about the connection between the two incidents. “Her stipulation to this purported evidence, which provided the [state] with a powerful theory of motive, in the absence of anything remotely approaching powerful evidence of guilt, constituted deficient performance,” the petition said.

Working with the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) of the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office, Rice’s attorneys obtained the prosecutor’s trial file on the case. (Despite that cooperation, the CIU did not actively participate in Rice’s exoneration.) The trial file contained several documents that had not been disclosed to Weaver, including an undated memo explaining problems with the state’s case. The memo said the identifications were shaky and that Linder had a strong alibi. “Both can ID only one of the two defendants and they do not tell police/nurses immediately who shot them,” the memo said.

In Johnson’s case, the memo included reports from two attending physicians who had examined Johnson’s wounds on separate occasions and had each written that Johnson said that she was sitting on the porch, heard shots, and then felt a burning sensation in her legs.

The top of the memo said: “This memo is to be emailed to the Unit Chief. It should never be placed in [the] trial file.”

In a response filed on September 22, 2023, the district attorney’s office agreed that Rice’s habeas petition should be granted. The response said that Weaver’s representation had been deficient, based on her agreement to the pre-trial stipulation that connected the two shootings.

“As a hearing two days before trial made clear, the evidence was inadmissible at trial because the prosecution could not establish any foundation for it—i.e., how the police concluded that Ladson was a person of interest,” the response said. “Instead of keeping this damaging fact out of the trial, trial counsel handed the prosecution a gift, allowing them to introduce an ‘extremely, extremely important’ piece of its case without any adversarial testing.”

The state’s response did not address Rice’s claim that the state had failed to turn over the trial memo highlighting problems with Johnson’s identification of Rice.

On October 23, 2023, U.S. Magistrate Judge Carole Sandra Moore Wells recommended granting Rice’s habeas petition. She said that without Weaver’s stipulation, the motive evidence would not have been admissible. “Trial counsel’s failure to apprehend this crucial point of state evidentiary law and the absence of any strategic reason for entering into the stipulation constituted deficient performance,” Judge Wells wrote.

Judge Nitza Alejandro accepted the recommendation and granted the petition on November 27, 2023. Rice was released from prison on December 19, 2023.

The state dismissed the charges on March 18, 2024. The district attorney’s office said it would not be able to meet its burden of proof if it were to retry the case.

In a statement, District Attorney Larry Krasner said that the conviction was flawed for several reasons. “Mr. Rice did not receive effective assistance of defense counsel at trial, nor did this office under a prior administration conduct a vigorous investigation of potential alibis,” he said. “I also want to acknowledge the manner in which Mr. Rice’s mother, a DAO paralegal at the time of his arrest, was treated by this office. All defendants are presumed innocent unless or until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. At minimum, this office should have made sure Mr. Rice had access to competent legal counsel, just as I and all DAO supervisors would if their own children were accused of a crime.”

Rice told CNN: “For me personally, I’m glad to see this wrong righted. Can’t call it a mistake. Because the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s judicial system had at least five separate times to correct this specific situation, and chose not to act in the interest of justice. Either the Court did not review the case as the public trust endowed the court the ability to do so, or the Pennsylvania Courts did review the case and chose to allow a clear injustice to stand for as long as no one else knew what was going on.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 4/7/2024
Last Updated: 4/7/2024
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Weapon Possession or Sale, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:2011
Sentence:30 to 60 years
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No