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Robert Wilkinson


Convicted of five counts of murder in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in the spring of 1976, 26-year-old Robert “Reds” Wilkinson was not formally sentenced because an appeal was immediately filed. On December 21, 1976, Wilkinson’s conviction was reversed after the sole eyewitness, Nelson Garcia, recanted his testimony.
 
On October 5, 1975, at 3:25 a.m., a perpetrator threw a firebomb into Radames Santiago’s home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, killing Santiago’s wife and three children, as well as the son of a neighbor. Sixteen-year-old Nelson Garcia was in the house at the time and told police that he saw Wilkinson throw the firebomb. The police took Wilkinson in for questioning. Wilkinson told them he was on his way home from celebrating his first wedding anniversary when he saw the fire at Santiago’s home and turned in the fire alarm. After being interrogated for nine hours, Wilkinson, who suffered from cognitive disabilities, falsely confessed to throwing the firebomb. The Philadelphia Inquirer investigated the case and reported that Wilkinson, along with seven other people, were beaten, threatened or otherwise coerced by police into making false statements. The false confession was later suppressed on the ground that the plaintiff did not understand the Miranda warnings he was given. Nevertheless, in April 1976, Wilkinson was convicted of murder based on Garcia’s eyewitness testimony.
 
On December 20, 1976, Garcia formally recanted his state trial testimony before a state judge. Garcia admitted he had seen Wilkinson next to the house, but had not seen him throw the firebomb. He had been confused and afraid to change his story. 19-year-old David McGinnis confessed that he was the one who had thrown the firebomb and later pleaded guilty to federal charges arising out of the firebombing conspiracy. Common Pleas Court Judge John A. Geisz reversed Wilkinson’s conviction and the charges against him were dismissed on June 2, 1977.
 
In the four years that followed Wilkinson’s release, six of the homicide detectives involved in this case would be convicted of violating the civil rights of the suspects and witnesses. Although these men – John Ellis, James Carty, James Curley, William Jones, James Crown, and Roseborough McMillan – appealed their convictions up to the U.S. Supreme Court, they all lost and each went to prison to serve a 15-month sentence.
 
Wilkinson served 439 days in prison and, after his release, filed a lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia for his wrongful imprisonment. It was settled in October 1980, with U.S. District Judge Edward R. Becker mediating. Becker awarded Wilkinson $325,000 in damages.
 
– Researched by Alex Jarrell
State:PA
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1975
Convicted:1976
Exonerated:1977
Sentence:Not sentenced
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:26
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct