A Black man in Philadelphia spent 37 years in prison, despite the trial witness being charged with perjury just months after his conviction. In 2022, he was released from his incarceration after evidence emerged that officers offered said witness sex and drugs to lie on the stand.
According to NPR, Willie Stokes, 61, spent more than half of his life in a Pennsylvania state prison after a man from his neighborhood named Franklin Lee told the courts that Stokes killed a man named Leslie Campbell during a dice game in 1980.
After being arrested on rape and murder charges and being bribed by police with a deal to receive special favors and an early release, Lee testified in a preliminary hearing in May of 1984 that Stokes confessed the crime to him.
Lee would later say that detectives offered him sex with his girlfriend, would give him party favors like weed and opioids, and a lesser sentence for his crimes if he lied on Stokes.
However, by the time of Stokes’ murder trial in August 1984, Lee had changed his mind about the deal he was offered. On the witness stand he told jurors he’d lied in the hearing and didn’t know anything about Stokes and the murder of Campbell.
Despite Lee recanting, the prosecution still won their case and Stokes was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors then charged Lee with perjuring himself in the preliminary hearing. Lee pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve a maximum of seven years in prison in addition to his sentences for his convictions on his original charges.
Some 30 years later in 2015 Stokes found out about Lee’s perjury conviction. He hired an attorney.
He and his lawyers, even armed with that evidence, didn’t get an evidentiary hearing on his federal habeas corpus motion until November 2021.
In a transcript of Lee’s testimony during the 2021 federal hearing, he told the judge that he “fell weak and went along with the offer,” admitting that he made everything up.
He further stated that his girlfriend, under the counsel of Lee’s mother, did not go along with the detectives’ suggestion to sleep with Lee in exchange for a lesser time. Not to be deterred, the detectives hired a prostitute to satisfy him the “next time.”
Lee confessed that his mother had an impact on him also. The transcript said he testified saying, “Once I talked to my mother, she told me, ‘I didn’t raise you like that, to lie on a man because you got yourself in a jam.”
He said, “She said, ‘I couldn’t care if they give you 1,000 years. Go in there and tell the truth.’ And that’s what I did.”
That federal magistrate judge took Stokes’ side after that hearing, especially after Philly’s DA’s office agreed that the trial and post-conviction actions by the prosecution — withholding info about the perjury plea from Stokes’ appeal lawyers — were unfair and Stokes deserved a new trial.
The US magistrate who listened to Stoke’s appeal said it was an ‘egregious violation of (his) constitutional rights,’ the Daily Mail reports. A U.S. district judge agreed and overturned the conviction last week.
Stokes’ attorney Michael Diamondstein summed up the case this way, “The homicide prosecutors that used Franklin Lee’s testimony to convict Willie Stokes then prosecuted Franklin Lee for lying on Willie Stokes. And they never told Willie Stokes.”
On Tuesday, Jan. 4, he was released from prison but was not aware that he was getting out until 30 minutes before he was let go.
From outside of the SCI Chester prison in Chester, Pennsylvania, Diamondstein said to CBS 3, “He’s only known for a half hour he was going to be released, this isn’t something that we expected.”
Key to his emancipation was Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who in 2018 dismissed 31 prosecutors in the city in efforts to achieve substantive criminal justice reform. Before this position, he sued the police department 75 times on cases that he believed had foul play.
Krasner’s office is responsible for the release of several Black men who were lied to by the Philadelphia police and spent decades in jail.
In August of 2021, Anthony Wright was exonerated of the rape and murder of an elderly woman in 1993 and served 25 years in prison before evidence proved that three former Philly homicide detectives Manuel Santiago, Martin Devlin, and Frank Jastrzembski set him up.
After serving 31 years behind bars and 25 years on death row, Christopher Williams and co-defendant Theophalis Wilson, through Krasner’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit, were found innocent of four 1989 murders.
Remarkably similar to Stokes, the CIU re-examined the cases and found the crooked police officers paid a witness, who was already in jail, to lie in order to get the men convicted of those murder crimes.
Williams has now enlisted civil rights attorney Ben Crump and is suing the city, the Philadelphia Police Department, Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, as well as 17 police detectives or their estates, two former assistant district attorneys, and former district attorney Lynne Abraham for $100 million for knowingly participating in his wrongful conviction.
While Krasner, who has shown massive support to Stokes’ case, has not yet formally decided not to retry him, his office did say publicly that Lee, the key witness, lied during his trial and that Stokes did not receive due process in his case.
A spokesperson from the DA’s office said that the decision will be shared before the scheduled Jan. 26 hearing in state court.
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