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Philadelphia man released after 44 years in prison may face new trial

Published 03/22/2024, 06:07 AM
Updated 03/22/2024, 09:02 AM

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) - William Franklin, recently released after serving 44 years in prison, could walk from a Philadelphia courtroom an exonerated man on Friday, or he may face another trial for a 1976 murder he says he did not commit.

His 1980 conviction based on tainted testimony was overturned after the lone eyewitness against him recanted. His conviction dates to a high-crime era when police and prosecutors were so intent to sew up unsolved homicides that they coerced vulnerable witnesses to fabricate stories and frame innocent Black men.

Many such cases have been exposed by District Attorney Larry Krasner, a former defense attorney, since he was elected in Philadelphia in November 2017. Krasner's office has exonerated 43 wrongfully convicted prisoners - 38 of them Black, three Latino and two white. But Krasner's office has so far told the court it will seek a new trial for Franklin.

A spokesperson for the District Attorney's Office declined to comment on Franklin's case or any possible rights violations of the past, referring Reuters to the Franklin case court filings in which it stands by the original testimony since recanted. Philadelphia police did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Franklin, 77, has been confined to his North Philadelphia home since his release from prison on March 5. Flashing a ready smile, he said in an interview before Friday's hearing that he was able to maintain calm because of his Muslim faith and support from family.

"They won't let me go astray," Franklin said. "I'm in a good place. Don't think I don't feel it, though. But I'm not going to get out there and rant and rave. That's just not me."

He also declined to criticize Krasner, saying, "I'm not going to bash the man because he's helping so many other people."

Franklin's defense attorney, Joe Marrone, said he hopes prosecutors will drop the case on Friday and clear Franklin for good.

Philadelphia's criminal justice system became known for "testilying," an insider's term made prominent by the Philadelphia Inquirer's investigative reporting, in which police and prosecutors manipulated witnesses into framing the innocent, then leveraged their commissions of perjury or other crimes to force them to stand by their stories.

Franklin's case has been linked to a "Sex for Lies" scandal in which Philadelphia detectives granted criminal suspects access to a police interview room where they could be visited by wives, girlfriends or prostitutes in exchange for false accusations.

Common Pleas Court Judge Tracy Brandeis-Roman on Feb. 28 overturned Franklin's conviction after hearing the statements of two "Sex for Lies" witnesses who years later recanted their trial court testimony that framed Franklin and his co-defendant, Major Tillery.

BAD OLD DAYS

Matthew Barry Johnson, a professor at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the practice of granting leniency to criminal suspects in exchange for testifying against others has long been a staple of the U.S. justice system - and quite often abused.

The advent of progressive prosecutors like Krasner, DNA evidence and more scientific crime-fighting has reduced abuses and overturned convictions across the country, Johnson said.

"But it's still an uphill battle with the prevalent fears about crime that are always amplified, oftentimes by politicians," Johnson said.

Franklin and his co-defendant Tillery were convicted of the 1976 poolroom shooting that killed Joseph Hollis and wounded John Pickens. Franklin said he had frequented the poolroom before but was not there at the time of the shooting.

Three and a half years passed without an arrest until police picked up Franklin based on the statement of Emmanuel Claitt, who would later tell the trial court that he saw Tillery kill Hollis and Franklin wound Pickens.

But Claitt, who was in prison with several open cases against him when he first implicated Franklin and Tillery, told an investigator for Tillery in a 2016 videotaped statement that he lied at trial and was never at the poolroom. Police allowed him to use an interview room and hotels for sex with his girlfriends in exchange for the fabricated story, he said.

"If right is right, right will prevail because the DA knows that they lied and they got me to lie," Claitt said on the video. "And I want to free my conscience. I can't live with myself knowing I did that."

Claitt died in 2020.

Judge Brandeis-Roman cited "Sex for Lies" and Claitt's statement in her decision to overturn Franklin's conviction.

In the interview with Reuters, Franklin called on officials to release all their files on the wrongfully convicted.

© Reuters. William Franklin, who was wrongly convicted and recently released from prison after serving 44 years for a murder he didn't commit, poses for a portrait in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., March 20, 2024. REUTERS/Rachel Wisniewski

Defense attorney Marrone has helped or is working to exonerate other "Sex for Lies" victims, including Tillery.

"There are so many guys sitting in state prison in Pennsylvania on homicide charges of the 80s and 90s," Marrone said, calling the number of victims unknown. "We get calls every day. So there could be 50. We don't know."

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