Finally Free: Inside Tony Wright's Murder Exoneration

In 1991, Tony Wright was framed for a rape and murder he didn't commit.  Now he's finally out of prison – and ready to take back his life

Three years after DNA proved he was innocent, Tony Wright was finally released from prison. Credit: Kevin Monko/ Innocence Project

Last week, after 25 years in prison for rape, robbery and murder, Tony Wright was found not guilty in a two-and-a-half-week re-trial – a verdict that took a jury of his peers just five minutes to deliberate. “The evidence of his innocence was so overwhelming that there could’ve been no other verdict,” said Grace Greco, the jury forewoman, at a packed and emotional press conference in the Philadelphia offices of Wright’s star-studded legal team. “I’m angry that this case was ever re-tried, but thrilled that we were able to release Tony from this nightmare of twenty-five years.”

Wright, whom this magazine featured last year in an investigative piece about police misconduct in Philadelphia, had been exculpated in the fall of 2014 by DNA evidence showing that he hadn’t raped an elderly widow named Louise Talley, and that another man – a violent crack addict named Ronnie Byrd – had. That proof, uncovered by Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld and his senior counsel Nina Morrison, should have been enough to free Wright immediately, with an apology and a sizable check from the city to compensate him for his suffering. Instead, Seth Williams, Philadelphia’s reviled District Attorney, chose to re-present murder charges and hold him in a cell for two more years. “I’ve been doing this, with my partner Barry Scheck, for 25 years, and never once in our history have we had to try a case after our client was exonerated,” Neufeld said at the press conference. Nor had he seen anything like the jury’s reaction after they rendered their verdict. “They waited outside the courthouse for hours to hug Tony, and to tell the media what a farce this had been. Homicide juries never do that; they usually run, not walk, back to their lives.”

Indeed, the only one at the press conference not inflamed by the trial was the man who’d finally walked free. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” said Tony Wright, between sobs of joy and hugs from the jurors who’d come to cheer his release. “My legal team saved my life, and this jury is right behind them. I’m on cloud nine now, and so, so thankful.”

In the fall of 1991, Wright was a 20-year-old construction worker who looked a lot like the current film star Michael B. Jordan. He had a great-paying job, a string of pretty girlfriends and a four-year-old son he adored and supported by hauling bags of concrete around a job site. He was sitting at home watching a football game one Sunday when two homicide cops came knocking. They hauled him downtown, claiming to want a witness statement, then accused him, once inside the interview box, of raping and killing Talley. Wright was dumbfounded: he’d been out clubbing the night she was murdered, and had dozens of witnesses who could back that up. But Detectives Manuel Santiago and Martin Devlin, two cops with long histories of alleged coercion and misconduct, refused to take his statement and check it out. Instead, they cuffed him to his chair, he says, put their hands around his throat and threatened to gouge his eyes out if he didn’t confess to the crime. After hours in the box, they presented him with a statement that Devlin had written out but wouldn’t let him read. Sign it, they said, and you can go home. Exhausted, he signed it – and was charged with capital murder.

At his initial trial, in 1993, he was minimally defended by a court-appointed lawyer who was paid $1,800 to take his case. Though Wright’s life hung in the balance, that lawyer, Bernie Siegel, never tracked down alibi witnesses or rebutted the cops’ story that Wright had freely confessed just minutes after they’d brought him in. On the strength of that “confession,” and some blood-stained clothes that a third cop claimed he’d found in Tony’s bedroom, Wright was convicted and barely escaped the needle; he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. For more than a decade, he wrote to anyone he could think of who might take a second look at his case. Finally, his letter landed on a desk at the Innocence Project. Its lawyers filed motions to test the physical evidence (the clothes “recovered” from Wright’s house, as well as the rape kit performed on Talley), but were blocked for six more years by the DA’s office. In early 2014, DNA analysis was done. It showed that Wright had never touched the so-called “murder clothes” (they were the dead woman’s, not his), and that the semen in the rape kit was Byrd’s. The only reasonable conclusion: the cops had taken the clothes from Talley’s house and lied about finding them at Wright’s. Wright’s conviction was overturned and the case against him left in shambles. His lawyers – and the Philly media – demanded his release.

But Willams, the city’s ethically compromised DA – his foundation is the subject of an expansive FBI probe; he’s taken $160,000 in unreported gifts from donors; and is keeping a man in a death row cell after a judge overturned his conviction – decided to press ahead with a second trial. That decision blew up badly in Willams’ face. Sam Silver, a powerhouse trial attorney who joined Tony’s defense pro bono, made buffoons of the detectives on the witness stand, though he was barred from grilling them on their checkered pasts. To Santiago, who claimed that he didn’t record statements because the equipment didn’t exist at the time, Silver presented transcripts from an earlier trial, at which Santiago bragged about taping a statement. To Devlin, who swore he wrote down Wright’s confession exactly as it came out word for word, Silver presented a legal pad and ordered him to take dictation. Speaking at normal cadence, he stopped at twenty words and asked Devlin to read them back. Devlin showed the jury six or seven.

A day after the verdict, Wright spoke without malice about the men who’d robbed him of half his life. “I have no bitterness towards anyone; those cops don’t have to explain nothing to me,” he said, dandling his baby granddaughter on his knee. “But they took me away from my four-year-old boy. Why would they do that to my son? Explain it to him, if you can.”

In the very near future, he’ll compel them to do so in a federal courtroom. When the dust has settled, Wright will file a massive lawsuit against those policemen and the city that employed them, alleging that they violated his civil rights in racial “patterns and practices” that go back decades. That proceeding, when it happens, will make for can’t-miss theater. In civil court, those detectives’ histories will be on trial, and they’ll be forced, under oath and federal perjury risk, to account for their actions in dozens of cases reaching back, at minimum, to the 1980s. It’s worth noting that Pennsylvania is among the twenty-four states that doesn’t pay damages to the wrongly convicted; each exoneree must sue and wait years for compensation, if it ever comes. But money isn’t the driver for Tony Wright. “I want to shine a light on those three cops – and on Pennsylvania’s beef with DNA evidence. Science doesn’t lie, but they refused to let go of me. So now it’s my turn to put them on trial: throw open the [jail] door for all the other brothers, and show the world how corrupt this city is.”