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Montrell Oliver

Other Pennsylvania exonerations of juveniles
Not long before midnight on February 16, 1997, 20-year-old Juakeim Bates along with two friends, 21-year-old Johann Weldon and 24-year-old Larry Smith, pulled into a gas station in west Philadelphia. They had driven from Norristown, New Jersey, to buy drugs. In the station, Bates saw 20-year-old Omar Goldwire, whom he knew from having spent time together at a juvenile placement school.

When Bates said they had $3,200 to buy drugs, Goldwire offered to help them. They followed Goldwire to his home in the Mantua neighborhood of Philadelphia. It was in the early morning hours of February 17, 1997 by the time Goldwire came back out, ostensibly to help them find drugs. Instead, Weldon and Smith said, Goldwire was joined by two other men, one of whom was carrying a shotgun, and wearing a mask and a trench coat.

Weldon was the driver and had the cash, Bates was in the front passenger seat, and Smith was in the back seat. Weldon said the man with the shotgun pointed it at Bates and Goldwire pulled out a handgun.

At that point, Weldon decided to try to drive away. The shotgun was fired as Bates raised his arm. A shotgun slug pierced his arm and then entered his chest, severing his aorta. He quickly bled to death as Weldon sped away, as a barrage of shots were fired, shattering the car windows.

As soon as they spotted a police car, Smith and Weldon stopped and told the officer that Bates had been shot. They told police that several people were shooting into their car. Bates was rushed to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. Smith and Weldon provided a description of Goldwire and his car.

Not long after, Goldwire drove back to the gas station where he had first encountered Bates, Weldon, and Smith to see what was going on. Police recognized his car and arrested him. Goldwire’s brother, Khalif Goldwire, and his friend, Marcus Best, were with him. Omar Goldwire claimed that he was not involved in the shooting and was surprised by the two men who attempted the robbery. He denied having a weapon. Police arrested Omar Goldwire on an outstanding unrelated charge, and Khalif Goldwire and Best returned to the Goldwire home.

When police interviewed them, Khalif Goldwire and Marcus Best claimed that when Omar Goldwire first arrived home, 17-year-old Montrell Oliver and someone they knew as “Jimmy” were also there. They claimed that when Omar Goldwire left the house, ostensibly to help Weldon, Bates and Smith find drugs, Oliver, who was wearing a skull cap and a trench coat, left with Jimmy. They said Oliver had a handgun, and that Jimmy had a shotgun. They said they heard gunshots and that Omar, Oliver and Jimmy returned. Omar was yelling at Oliver and Jimmy, saying: “You fucked up!”

The following day, February 19, 1997, Oliver was arrested. He and Goldwire were charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, possession of an instrument of a crime and conspiracy.

At a preliminary hearing several weeks later, Khalif Goldwire recanted his statement. However, Best testified that he saw Oliver leave with a handgun and Jimmy with a shotgun. Best said that after they returned, Jimmy left the shotgun in the kitchen, but Oliver kept the handgun and left.

In February 1998, Goldwire and Oliver went to trial in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. Weldon and Smith identified Omar Goldwire, but could not identify Oliver. The only evidence linking Oliver to the crime was the testimony of Best. The defense argued that Khalif Goldwire and Best had been the two who went outside with guns and were the perpetrators of the crime.

Monique Goldwire, sister of Omar and Khalif Goldwire, testified that she was at the Goldwire residence the night of the murder with Khalif, his girlfriend, and Marcus Best, but did not see Oliver. Ricky Smith, who was an eyewitness to the murder, testified that Oliver was not one of the shooters based on the height and build of the assailants.

On February 17, 1998, after nearly three days of deliberations, more than a half-dozen questions, and the read-back of testimony from three witnesses, including Best, the jury convicted Oliver and Omar of first-degree murder, three counts of robbery, two counts of aggravated assault, possession of an instrument of a crime, and conspiracy.

During the penalty hearing, Oliver testified that on the night of February 16, he was with the mother of his child when a woman named June came by. She was looking for Omar Goldwire. Oliver said he didn’t know where he was, but left with her to try to find him.

“We went to the Chinese store, and from the Chinese store we went to Ava’s house,” Oliver said. “From there, we went from 39th and Folsom to 40th and Spring Garden and I stayed there—I left my house when the 10 o’clock news came on. And from there I stayed there the next day until 11:30 a.m., the next day which was the 17th, and I never left. I never left that night. I was [there] that whole night. That’s all. That’s the truth right there.”

Thelma Goldwire, mother of Omar and Khalif, also testified for the defense at the sentencing hearing that she did not see Oliver in the Goldwire residence the night of the shooting.

Goldwire and Oliver each were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

On October 7, 1999, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the convictions.

On November 10, 2000, Oliver, acting as his own lawyer, filed a petition for post-conviction relief. An attorney appointed to represent him filed a “no-merit” letter asserting that the petition was meritless. The petition was dismissed, but the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed, finding Oliver had not received proper notice of the court’s intent to dismiss. On remand, the court provided proper notice and dismissed the petition as meritless.

Oliver appealed, but failed to file a brief and the appeal was dismissed in May 2008.

In October 2016, Oliver filed a pro se petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus. After a federal magistrate ruled that Oliver was entitled to seek sentencing relief because the U.S. Supreme Court, in Miller v. Alabama, outlawed mandatory life sentences for juveniles, an attorney with the Federal Community Defender Office was appointed to represent him.

When the prosecution conceded that Oliver was entitled to relief under Miller, the federal proceedings were put on hold while Oliver returned to state court. In February 2018, Oliver filed a Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition in state court, seeking relief under Miller. Pro bono attorneys from the law firm of Duane Morris represented Oliver in these proceedings. On January 18, 2019, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas vacated his sentence of life without parole and resentenced him to a term of 24 years to life imprisonment.

By that time, his federal defender and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project submitted his case for review by the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

On March 18, 2019, Oliver filed an amended federal habeas petition that alleged in part that his trial defense attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to call witnesses who would have testified and corroborated Oliver’s whereabouts on the night of the crime.

In September 2019, the prosecution filed a response agreeing to an evidentiary hearing to take testimony from the alibi witnesses.

In May 2021, the prosecution agreed to resolve the matter without a hearing. An agreed statement from Oliver’s legal team and the prosecution said that the parties agreed that Oliver’s trial defense lawyer, who died in 2010, had investigated Oliver’s alibi defense and identified two potential alibi witnesses, June Bell and Jadean Whitmore, neither of whom were called as witnesses at trial. Bell and Whitmore had provided affidavits in 2018 saying that they were willing to testify at the trial but were not called. According to the affidavits, Bell would have testified that she was with Oliver at the time of the murder, that she met Oliver at Whitmore’s residence on the night of the murder, and that she and Oliver left Whitmore’s residence and spent the night at a friend’s apartment on Spring Garden Street. Whitmore would have testified that she saw Oliver leave her residence with Bell and that he did not return until 11:00 a.m. the following day.

In August 2021, U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Hey recommended that Oliver’s writ be granted. However, U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg ordered that the evidentiary hearing be held.

On February 10, 2022, Oliver was released on parole, almost 24 years after he had been convicted.

Subsequently, at the hearing in August 2022, Bell and Whitmore testified in accordance with their affidavits. In October 2022, Magistrate Hey issued another recommendation that the writ be granted.

On January 9, 2024, Judge Goldberg granted the writ. He vacated Oliver’s convictions and ordered Oliver to be retried or the case dismissed.

On June 13, 2024, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/3/2024
Last Updated: 7/3/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Assault, Illegal Use of a Weapon, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1997
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No