Three years ago, when I published a story about Tony Wright, an innocent man incarcerated 25 years for the rape and murder of a woman he never met (“The Trials of Tony Wright: How DNA Exonerated Convicted Murderer“), I wrote that a black man “has a better chance of justice in Philadelphia, Mississippi than in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.”
In meaningful ways, that stark fact is changing, in large part because of Wright. First, hard-won decisions in his favor began to change some rules around confessions. Then, last week – two summers after a jury took five minutes to reverse Wright’s conviction at a retrial – he struck a deal with the city of Philadelphia that will pay him almost $10 million in compensation. In the sordid history of that town and its cops, it is by far the biggest settlement with a victim of police misconduct, and punctuates a period of notable improvements in the city’s criminal justice system. “Man, the money is great, but those reforms are my legacy,” Wright tells me over the phone from his office. “I needed to make sure that what happened to me can never be done to my grandkids.”
I had trouble hearing Tony over the chaos in the background. Since July of last year, he’s been working in the mailroom at one of the largest law firms in the city, Pepper Hamilton. The day after the news broke, the firm staged a blowout in his honor, ferrying in tubs of hot wings, stromboli, salad and a cake. On the phone, he couldn’t talk for 30 seconds without pausing to be hugged by one of many dozens of coworkers.
It is hard to overstate Wright’s affect on people who know his story: detained at 20 by two notorious Philly cops who, he says, coerced a false confession out of him; his conviction on capital murder at a trial that leaned heavily on the testimony of those cops; his decades-long struggle to find anyone to help clear him before the Innocence Project stepped in; and the six-year battle by the Innocence Project’s lawyers to win DNA testing on the so-called “murder clothes” worn during the commission of the crime.
Though the clothes – miraculously — were still in storage and available for forensic analysis, Wright was denied testing by court after court because of his forced confession. At length, Nina Morrison, Wright’s relentless lawyer, won a judgment to test the bloodstained garments. DNA proved that Wright had never worn the clothes — they belonged to the dead woman, Louise Talley. Additional testing ruled out Wright in her rape — the perpetrator was Ronnie Byrd, a homeless man who’d been squatting in a house behind hers.
“Now, thanks to Nina, and as part of Tony’s exoneration, you can get DNA testing if you signed a confession – the state’s Supreme Court says so,” says Peter Neufeld, the co-founder of the Innocence Project and the lead lawyer in Wright’s civil case against the city. Additionally, said a lawyer connected to that case, further reforms are taking shape, among them videotaped recordings of every interrogation conducted by the Philly P.D. “If they’d have had me on camera, I wouldn’t have served a day — and my son wouldn’t have grown up without a father,” says Wright.
At Wright’s retrial in 2016, one of the cops who coerced his confession appeared to perjure himself. Ex-detective Manny Santiago told the jury he knew nothing about DNA evidence that exculpated Wright. But a year later, in depositions for Wright’s civil case, he admitted that he’d had extensive conversations with the assistant district attorney before he took the stand. “It’s also clear, from the transcript, that the ADA [Bridget Kirn] made no effort to correct the record when [he] lied, as she had an ethical duty to do,” says Neufeld. Neither Santiago nor Kirn currently work for the city; Santiago retired with a full pension from the city, and Kirn was fired by Larry Krasner, the new DA and firebrand reformer, in his first week on the job. Asked how he felt about the cops in his case, Wright took a long breath and held it. “I’m a man of faith, but I don’t give a fuck for them: God’ll take care of ’em when their time comes,” he said. “I’ll tell you this, though: they should be investigated by Krasner, and their pensions should go to my grandkids.”
His settlement will be paid out over three years; he’ll receive a large chunk by month’s end. Wright, in consultation with a financial advisor, has big plans for that money. “The first thing I’m doing is buying annuity funds so me and my family are taken care of,” he says. Next up on his punch list: a sprawling house in Delaware, where he, his son Tony, Jr. and their respective partners can raise Tony’s grandkids, Romera and Trey. And then, so help him, he’s getting the car of his dreams: a top-of-the-line Benz convertible in midnight black. “First song I bump when I drive it off the lot: ‘Picture Me Rollin’, by Tupac!” he chortles.
He was about to sign off; he was besieged by well-wishers who wanted to snap selfies with him. But before putting the phone down, he made certain I knew how grateful he was to those concerned. “Peter, Nina and Barry [Sheck, the co-founder of Innocence Project] — I feel like the world is in their debt,” he says. “They damn near invented the idea that there’s innocent people sittin’ in jail. They’re family to me, and so are you, man. I love you and what your magazine did for me. Y’all take on the stories that no one else touches — and y’all go in there hard.”