Tony Wright Acquittal: How DNA Exonerated Convicted Murderer - Rolling Stone
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The Trials of Tony Wright: How DNA Exonerated Convicted Murderer

Half a lifetime ago, Philadelphia cops put him away for a brutal crime he didn’t commit. DNA tests showed someone else did it. But he’s still not free

innocence project, tony wright, criminal justiceinnocence project, tony wright, criminal justice

Illustration by John Ritter

Update: On August 23, 2016, after a retrial, Tony Wright was found not guilty on all counts and was released from prison

Through the roach-rife lobby, where bold bugs nose the soles of your shoes and scores of black women sit stiff-backed for hours in scoop chairs shushing their toddlers; through the pat-down room, where the beetle-eyed guard rifles your groin and buttocks; through the metal detectors and slab-steel doors and second and third sets of guards, you enter a room in which young black men are slouched in seating pods, the sleeves of their orange jumpsuits rolled up tight. There, at the back, by the bolt-barred windows, waits the luckiest — and unluckiest — inmate here, a man so bedeviled by the state of Pennsylvania that he inspired famous lawyers in two different states to fight like Hessians for his release. A kid of 20 when the murder cops came and sucked him into this nightmare, he’s older than you’d imagined him looking at 43, growing tufts of gray in his billy-goat scraggle and patchwork steel-wool hair. But, built like a boulder, he wraps you in a hug that loudly resets your spine. Here is your reward for the drive to Philadelphia and those hours dodging insects in the waiting room: Anthony Wright, whom this city tried its damnedest to destroy, is a man of patience and implacable peace. No police force on Earth could bend his will now.

We sit beneath a pillar, knee to knee. Small tears stand out on his lashes. He’s waited 23 years to tell this story, and now that someone’s listening, the words won’t come, bunched up in that bank vault of a chest. “It’s just, you fight and you fight, man. . . . I wrote 10 letters a day, seven days a week, to anyone I thought might give a damn — and then the day comes that I prayed and prayed on, and now I can’t even get it out. . . . ”

But who, with Wright’s inventory of pain and sorrows, could describe the indescribable that befell him? How do you convey being a strapping young man with a job and a little boy and a lazy Sunday watching football when two cops barge into your life and drag you off to hell? Is there any way to summon a sense of what it was like in that box in the Police Administration Building, where, as you would later tell the court, they chained you to a chair, pressed their hands on your neck and threatened to skullfuck you if you didn’t sign a confession that you did not write to the rape and murder of a 77-year-old woman? No call to a lawyer or your terrified mother, no room to breathe in or gather your wits; just hour after hour in a hole with those men and their short-fuse insistence that you sign their paper.

And so you signed just to make it stop, to get out of that room and go anywhere else with the space and the silence to think. It didn’t hit you until weeks later that you’d signed your life away; only the doubts of five jurors kept a needle out of your arm and spared you to write your daily stack of mail to strangers around the world. And then one of those letters hit the intake box at the Innocence Project office in New York, and the long, slow frog-march to justice began, a 17-year grind to clear your name and shuck the great stone off your back.

You’re almost there now, so close you can taste the street. Your conviction’s been thrown out. Though the prosecutors say they are going to retry you, their case is in shambles. DNA tests have excluded you and implicated another man for the rape, and likely the murder, of Louise Talley. In any other city, you’d be promptly released by the district attorney to begin the numbing task of building a life. But this is Philadelphia, a place so poisoned by police misconduct that it long ago lost its sense of shame. So, no, there is no offer of financial reparation and the carefully worded regrets of City Hall. Instead, they’ve moved you from a state to a county house, where you’re thrown among the young bucks awaiting trial in a filthy and full-to-bursting city jail. At night, you bunk down on a cot, the third man stuffed into a two-man cell at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. One of two major cities in “post-racial” America with a black mayor, a black DA and a black chief of police, Philadelphia has been waging a half-century war against its citizens of color. Small wonder Tony Wright can’t bring himself to speak now. Fifty years after the murder of the Freedom Riders, he has a better chance of justice in Philadelphia, Mississippi, than he does in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

For most of five decades, bad cops in Philly have fought off accusations of beating, robbing, framing and killing civilians at rates undreamt of in larger cities. Working cheek by jowl with a prosecutor’s office that rarely sought indictments against even those cops whose crimes were captured on camera, and a legal-aid system that pays court-appointed lawyers some of the lowest attorney fees in the country, the PPD has run off scandal after scandal and emerged with its culture intact. Two years ago, its cops shot 52 civilians, resulting in 15 deaths. The Department of Justice was brought in to examine the PPD’s use of excessive force; its findings have not been released to the public.

In the latest eruption of a decade-long scandal, seven detectives in the Narcotics Field Unit were caught breaking into houses, stealing money from drug dealers, planting evidence and fabricating charges. Elsewhere in Philly, another squad of narcs was brazenly robbing bodegas in broad daylight, swaggering into stores, clipping security-camera wires and helping themselves to the cash on hand. Two Daily News reporters, Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman, spent 10 months taking statements and hunting down proof — and finally found a shopkeeper with footage of cops clipping his security cameras. “There were five cops caught on camera, and none of them lost their jobs — in fact, one’s gotten a couple of big promotions,” says Laker, who shared a Pulitzer Prize with Ruderman in 2010 for their series and co-wrote a terrific book (Busted) that’s currently in production as a TV series. “But the thing that really bothered us was, nothing changed. These cops, and the rest of the department, went on with their lives as usual.”

The era of the bully-boy Broad Street cop began in the summer of 1967, when a guns-blazing, two-fisted high school dropout rose from the ranks to become police chief. Frank Rizzo may have been the most uncloaked racist to ever hold office in a Northeast city. Snarling “Get their black asses!” while news cameras ran, he sicced hundreds of riot cops on school kids who were peacefully protesting, bludgeoning dozens of them. He ordered his men to raid the city’s Black Panthers headquarters, drag them into the street and strip them butt-naked — then accused them of stripping themselves. For nearly two decades, he dominated this city’s ethos, first as police chief, then as the two-term mayor who tried to rewrite the statutes for a third term. By the time he retired to a lucrative second career as a virulent radio host, he’d thoroughly poisoned the well of race relations here and remade a department of 6,500 cops more or less permanently in his image.

Frank Rizzo

Frank Rizzo campaigning in Philadelphia in 1971. Photo by Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

One example among many: the highway patrol, a squad of cops in leather and crash helmets that functioned as “Rizzo’s own private army,” says Paul Conway, chief of the Special Defense and Homicide division at the public defender’s office in Philadelphia. “They acted with extreme excessive force for many years. They brought in so many suspects, pretty much all black kids, with bloody head wounds that we called their bandages ‘highway turbans.’ Rizzo’s mantra was, ‘Get the confession by any and all means, and I’ll back you if you go over the line.’ ” Bill Marimow, now editor-in-chief of The Philadelphia Inquirer, won a Pulitzer for uncovering dozens of cases in which suspects were taken to the basement of police headquarters, threatened with pistols or brutally beaten to sign confessions — some taken to emergency rooms with cracked skulls and broken jaws before being wheeled back to booking.

Heads rolled at the department after the exposé ran in 1977, but the culture Rizzo bred — corrupt, jackbooted, contemptuous of the Constitution — was immune to lasting changes. New commissioners came and went, vowing reforms, but were so hamstrung by the union and its political pull that they couldn’t get rid of even the most violent cops. Then crack blew in at the end of the 1980s and pumped the murder rate up just over 25 percent, causing a city whose taxpayers were fleeing to Bucks County to fear for its long-term survival. Pressure on the department was fierce and full-throated: Clear the clogged whiteboards of unsolved killings and bring the death toll down. For a rank and file weaned on Rizzo’s bruised-knuckle ethos, this meant doubling down on the strong-arm stuff, and no worries if an innocent kid got swept up in the net. The jails, after all, were full of such cases. What did one more come to, for the greater good?

The ghetto in North Philly runs, or, more like it, limps for miles on end in a mud-flat sprawl of houses bunched together for warmth. Towers put up to shelter the poor were bulldozed years back as a crime-reduction tactic, and little was built to fill those holes or retain the class of strivers who held things together through the turbulent Sixties and Seventies, the teachers and nurses and auto mechanics who shopped the mom-and-pops and thronged the churches. They’re long gone now, dug into enclaves in Germantown and Mount Airy, and with them went the amenities their salaries supported, as well as their moral example. What’s left isn’t the flash-and-trash blight of Brownsville but something much sadder and more intractable: block after block of boarded windows and doors and the occasional corner store with its roll gate up. North Philly is where the rainbow went to die.

If you’re from these streets, you count yourself lucky to have one fair shot to get out. Tony Wright got such a chance, albeit belated, and was well on his way to cashing that ticket when the Philadelphia police force stopped him cold. He was born to a single mother with a world of problems but a strong-willed family to back her up. Marilyn Martin was one of nine kids by Mary and Caesar Wright who were raised in their tidy, single-family Cape Cod seven miles north of Center City. Mary, a widow of 89 who still lives in the house that she and Caesar, a toolmaker, bought for a few thousand dollars in 1965, raised her children to finish school and start careers before they were ensnared by kids and lovers. Five of them earned diplomas and landed good jobs, but Marilyn got pregnant at 17 by a man from around the way named David Parker. The two weren’t a couple when Tony was born in 1971, but Parker did his best to be in his son’s life, even after moving to Georgia in 1979. “I’d fly him down each summer and Christmastime, show him what life was like in a God-fearing house,” says Parker, who now lives in Florida with his wife and has been a chef for 25 years at an upscale chain. “I hated that he lived in chaos up there; when he was with us, he always did a 180.”

Marilyn left her folks’ house for a drunk named William Martin, whom she married in their short time together. She moved into her mother-in-law’s with him when Tony was preschool age: There, she picked up a taste for vodka and after a while began to suffer blackout spells, which spiraled into manic fits. “She’d howl and moan and make no sense — my mom would call me to take her to the clinic” for detox, says Gladys Brown, who, at 65, is the oldest of Marilyn’s eight siblings. Recently retired after 42 years with the Department of Veterans Affairs, she’s the glue of the family and the go-to resource for her dozens of nieces and nephews. “I had Tony to my house every weekend when he was little and bought him whatever he wanted or needed,” Brown says. “He was a sweet, shy boy who never gave me one problem. My heart always hurt for what he went through.”

50 years after the freedom riders, a young black man has a better chance of justice in Philadelphia, Mississippi, than he does in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

All the love and proxy care in North Philly, though, couldn’t save Tony from his mother’s mistakes. She split up with Martin and moved on to a man named Harry, who Tony says owned and ran a speakeasy on a devastated block in the misnamed Nicetown section. Drunks rolled in from dusk till dawn, carousing down the hall from where Tony slept. Business was so brisk that Harry stuffed the cash into lawn-and-leaf bags upstairs, and he dressed Tony and his mother like ghetto royals, squiring them around the neighborhood in his Caddy. But Harry, when drunk, was a vicious bully: He whipped Tony bloody for small infractions and treated Marilyn as his punching bag. “Once, he took an ax handle to her for overcooking his steak,” says Brown. “Tony couldn’t stay there and see her beat like that. He bounced around a bunch and was in and out of class because he was never in one place to get settled.”

Left behind in school and left out in lunchrooms, where he was always the new kid at the table, Tony dropped out at 16 and fell in with some corner boys. They turned him on to street drugs, and into an entirely different kind of kid. “Sober, he was still the sweet child I knew, but when he was on that stuff, he’d steal whatever,” says Brown. He was arrested for theft; his aunts and uncles tried to intervene by strong-arming him to rehab. But Tony refused, tumbling farther down the black hole of the streets. “All we did was get high and run wild,” says Lisa Rambert, Tony’s girlfriend then and, by 15, the mother of his child, Tony Jr. Now 43 and sober for the past few years, Rambert recalls him as a bright but volatile teen who you didn’t want to step to on the block. “I remember this one dude tried him and Tony hurt him up, knocked him out cold in the street,” Rambert says. “Then someone called the cops and Tony bailed, ran to the rooftop and hid.”

Anthony Wright

Before he was charged for rape and murder, Tony Wright was getting his life together after completing a two-year juvenile remediation program. He is seen here with his son, Tony, Jr. (L). Courtesy of the Wright family

Someone called the cops again when Tony was 16, reporting a theft at the home of one of his relatives. Cornered in the house, he grabbed a plank of wood, shattering the jaw of an officer named Bohndan Fylystyn before fleeing the scene. He was arrested hours later, hiding on a roof. This was June 1988, when crack crimes ruled the tabloids, and there were calls for Tony to be charged as an adult with the aggravated assault against a policeman. But he was lucky enough to draw Brad Bridge as his lawyer. Bridge, an appeals wizard at the public defender’s office, managed to keep the case in family court, enraging the dozens of cops who Tony remembers coming to the hearing to demand an eye for an eye. “The judge there, Petrese Tucker, deferred him to VisionQuest, which was a wilderness boot camp for kids,” says Bridge. “It was a very big break for him, given the severity of the offense,” but she made it clear he’d go straight to jail if he blew this chance she gave him.

VisionQuest, among the first of the country’s tough-love outposts for emotionally troubled teens and chronic offenders, seemed a difficult fit for a kid from North Philly, with its woodland desolation and wagon-train trips across the flat lowlands of the state. But Tony, by all accounts, thrived in his two years away. “He went there a boy and came back full-grown,” says Larry Wright, 55, Tony’s uncle and mentor. “He was all about helping his mama and little boy.” “I know he did good there ’cause they offered him a job, tried to move him to Florida to be a counselor,” says Darnell Fischer, Tony’s friend since adolescence and the only one he’s clung to, post-conviction. “But he wasn’t doing his son like his father did him. He came back to Philly to raise him up like a man’s supposed to do.”

It was May 1991, and Tony had moved home with his mother, who’d broken free of Harry and was renting a house in Nicetown. Larry helped him land a job hauling bags of cement for a builder. Tony learned to hang Sheetrock and work the stucco sprayer, and he came home every Friday with $500, giving a chunk of it to his disabled mother. Meanwhile, his biceps and bulging wallet earned him a lot of love in the clubs. “I tried to get back with him, but there was too many girls,” says Rambert. Still, many weekend mornings, he’d be up early to fetch Tony Jr., who was four and mostly living with Rambert’s parents. “He’d take me to the barbershop to show me off, then we’d go play games at the arcade,” says Tony Wright Jr., now a big-shouldered man of 27 who teaches art to at-risk kids after school.

On his 20th birthday, in August 1991, Tony returned to court for the final disposition of his case, having successfully completed his mandated stint of supervised release. The judge granted Tony his full discharge. He was officially cleared to start fresh.

Less than two months later, a little after 1 p.m. on a fall Sunday, there was a knock on the door while he and a girlfriend were watching football. Two homicide cops walked in and announced there’d been a murder in the area; would he mind coming down to the Police Administration Building to help them out? Stunned, Tony went without asking the basics: Who’d been killed and when? Was he himself a suspect? If so, shouldn’t they read him his rights?

A few hours later, he’d sign a full confession to the rape, murder and robbery of Louise Talley. The account was extraordinary in its detail and frankness, right down to the clothes it described Tony wearing when he killed her — a black sweatshirt bearing the Chicago Bulls logo; dungarees with suede patches; and black Filas — and that he’d hidden them in his room. There was just one problem: Not a word of it was true.

The previous afternoon, cops had been called to a house at 3959 Nice St., three-quarters of a mile from Tony’s place. Talley, 77, a widow who kept to herself and tended her small garden, was found on the floor of her upstairs bedroom, naked, bludgeoned and dead from 10 stab wounds. The weapon used to kill her, an eight-inch kitchen knife, was found in the folds of a pink bathrobe beside her; the room, like much of the house, had been tossed. Her murderer, who presumably made off with the two TVs taken from her house, hadn’t left any prints on the handle of the knife but, as the cops would later claim, had left a marker nonetheless: fresh semen stains on Talley’s rumpled sheets.

Twenty-four years — and multiple defense motions and DNA tests — later, an entirely different picture has emerged: No trace of semen was found on the sheets, but the rape kit that tested negative back then now showed that there had, in fact, been sperm in Talley’s rectum and vagina. It wasn’t Tony’s, however. The sperm belonged to a crackhead named Ronnie Byrd, who sometimes squatted in an abandoned row house right behind Talley’s place. Byrd, then 39, had a long list of priors — bad checks, drug busts, possession of stolen goods. But homicide investigators never bothered to run down Byrd. Instead, they brought in Roland St. James, an addict who ran a neighborhood crack house and who was placed near the scene by a witness. Rather than charge him, the cops took — or induced — a rambling statement from St. James that put Tony at the center of the crime. Then, they got St. James’ former tenant John “Buddy” Richardson to back his ludicrous story: that Wright was really a zombie crackhead who’d raped and butchered an old woman for the money to feed his binge.

There were two wildly different versions of what happened in the interrogation room. At Tony’s trial, Detective Manuel Santiago testified he brought Tony downtown and had barely enough time to read him his rights when, minutes after he sat for questioning, Tony up and volunteered that he killed Talley. That night — according to the statement Tony signed — he’d been at the crack house getting high when he left to recruit Richardson to help him rob Talley’s house. Per the confession, Richardson agreed, but said he’d wait outside. So Tony knocked on her door himself and shoved his way in when Talley answered. He’d done the crime alone, describing the murder and theft in full before circling back to the rape of Talley, noting — bizarrely — that he wasn’t hard long enough to ejaculate.

From start to finish, the confession went “pretty quick, one and a half to two hours” total, said Santiago at trial. It bears noting that Tony’s lawyer, a court-appointed defender by the name of Bernie Siegel, never challenged that story on cross-examination, nor thought to ask the cop what had prompted the young man to freely sign and date his own death warrant. (Before the trial, however, Siegel had filed a motion to have the confession suppressed on the grounds that it was coerced.)

Anthony Wright

1991 Arrest Photo

Then there’s Tony’s version, which he testified to at his trial. The cops hadn’t brought him downtown just to ask him questions. As soon as Santiago took him into the room, he accused him of murdering Talley. Tony told the detective he knew nothing about it, and had both an alibi and witnesses to back that up. He was with a friend, he said, named Joseph Harris at N.A., a nightclub in North Philly. Furthermore, he had worked 10 hours at a construction site the day they claimed he was bingeing. But Santiago, Tony testified, never wrote that stuff down. Instead, after hours of back-and-forth charge and denial, Santiago left the room. Sometime later, two detectives came in and cuffed Tony’s hand to the chair. They presented him with a nine-page statement written out in neat longhand by Detective Martin Devlin and demanded that he sign it. Though there was conflicting testimony at trial as to which of the multiple detectives involved in the investigation were in the room, police documents identify Devlin and Santiago as Tony’s interrogators that day.

When Tony refused, one of the detectives crouched before him and pressed his nose against Tony’s, telling him that he’d pull his eyes out and skullfuck him. The other detective stood behind him, hands pressed against Tony’s neck. Panicked, Tony signed or initialed where they told him, though they wouldn’t let him read what was on those pages.

Armed with that confession, cops quickly got a warrant to search Tony’s bedroom for bloody clothes. That night, they burst into his mother’s house, she testified, flashed a piece of paper at her and headed upstairs without giving her a chance to read the warrant. She frantically dialed her sister Gladys. Gladys says she threw a coat on and was there in less than 20 minutes. “When I pulled up on her street, the cops were out the house, sitting in their paddy wagon,” Gladys says now. “I demanded to see the warrant, and the cop pointed at the house,” gesturing that Marilyn had it. But Marilyn, as she testified, didn’t have it, and wasn’t given a receipt for the things they removed from Tony’s room. She did see what they took, though: some framed photographs from his wall, and the white coveralls he wore to the construction site. As far as she knew, no black sweatshirt or size-11 Filas, no size-36 jeans with suede patches. He had never owned such items.

If bad cops have a redeeming feature, it’s that they’re too dumb to conceive of a time when technology will catch them in their lies.

But those clothes, purportedly found in Tony’s room by a detective named Frank Jastrzembski, were crucial pieces of evidence at trial, containing, as they did, small spatters of blood that proved a match for Talley’s. On the stand, Tony denied that the garments were his and said he’d never seen them before. Furthermore, the clothes weren’t his size: He wore size-nine-and-a-half shoes and had a 38-inch waist.

Aside from his confession and the clothes allegedly recovered from his room, the state had only the testimony of eyewitnesses to make its case. None of the fingerprints lifted from the crime scene were Tony’s, and forensic tests were too crude in 1993 to exclude him from the stains on her sheet. There was the testimony of St. James and his crack-house tenant, but their performance on the stand seemed a transparent sham — when they weren’t contradicting each other. St. James couldn’t even recall telling the cops that Tony had admitted “beating up or stabbing” a lady that night (the prosecutor helpfully showed him his witness statement, whereupon it all came back to him), and he and Richardson disagreed wildly on the events of the evening and couldn’t remember what he was wearing when he killed her. Moreover, St. James had an open arrest warrant at the time he gave his statement to police; nonetheless, the cops let him leave the precinct after he implicated Tony.

The only other eyewitnesses who testified were a pair of teen boys who’d been sitting on a stoop down the block from Talley’s house. They claimed to have seen Tony pacing the street before pushing into her place — but on every other important point, they disputed each other before one of them, Shawn Nixon, admitted, on cross-exam, that it was too dark to make anyone out. Twenty years later, they’d both recant their statements. According to sworn statements from Innocence Project investigators, the boys claimed detectives had coerced them into testifying as they had. The other teen, Gregg Alston, was told he’d never see his mother again if he didn’t testify that he’d seen Tony enter Talley’s house that night; Nixon said that he, too, felt compelled by the detectives to make his statement. This broke every rule in the police conduct book: Not only weren’t their parents present, as is usually required, Nixon’s mother, as she told the investigator, wasn’t even informed that her son had testified at trial.

It was largely on the strength of the confession and bloody clothes, then, that a jury found Tony guilty of murder one and sentenced him to life without parole. He was shipped out to Graterford, a particularly bad state penitentiary. Housed for a dozen years there before he was sent to another prison, he spent each day in the library, teaching himself the law from old textbooks. For years, his mother made the hourlong bus ride, bringing Tony Jr. on weekends. But the booze and the heartbreak wreaked hell on Marilyn’s system. In 1999, she went into a diabetic coma, and lingered for a month on life support before dying at 45.

Five years later, Tony got a letter from the Innocence Project, informing him that, yes, they’d take his case. It was the longest of long shots, a gift from on high: With a total of nine lawyers in its New York office handling DNA cases, IP has accepted less than three percent of the 45,000 pleas it has received. “It wasn’t a hard call with Tony,” says Nina Morrison, his IP lawyer for the past nine years. “There was the rape kit and clothing to do testing on, and a very stilted confession that was too pat to be believable. Basically, one of two things was true: Either he was guilty, or one or more police officers had committed serious misconduct in putting an innocent man away.”

Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld

Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project

Meanwhile, Ronnie Byrd — the man now implicated in Talley’s rape and murder — went on to commit crimes for two more decades before succumbing to chronic illness in 2013. His arrest record runs to the dozens of pages, a crack-fueled trail of thefts and break-ins that took him to South Carolina. But by the time Byrd was identified through the national DNA database, he was in a hospital on life support and never roused from his coma before dying. Richardson and St. James, the crack-house denizens, also died while Tony Wright was in jail; the street they darkened is all but gone now, burned or bulldozed to brown-dirt lots.

For the detectives who helped put Tony in prison, though, things could scarcely have gone better. After long careers, they each retired in middle age with gold shields and presumably handsome city pensions. Santiago landed an elite job in the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, working on a task force to curb gun violence. Devlin left Philly for New Jersey, where he joined the Camden County prosecutor’s office, rising to commander of the Major Crimes Unit. Jastrzembski went to work as a security manager at the Philadelphia offices of PNC Bank.

But if there’s one redeeming feature in bad cops, it’s this: They’re too dumb or cocky to conceive of a time when technology will catch them in their lies. After Tony’s trial, the detectives neglected to make the evidence disappear. And so — amazingly — the articles of clothing were still in city storage when Morrison, Tony’s Innocence Project attorney, succeeded, after six years of litigation, in getting them tested with STR analysis, which can pick up DNA from dead-skin cells. Lo and behold, the truth was revealed: The clothes had been worn by the dead woman, not Tony Wright. In conjunction with DNA tests on the rape kit, which excluded Tony and pointed to Byrd, the crackhead, only one scenario seemed plausible now: The cops had taken the clothes from Talley’s bedroom shortly after her murder, held them till they brought Tony Wright downtown, then lied about finding them in his room.

So what do we know of these cops? About Devlin, there’s a good deal in the public record concerning his role in dubious convictions. Jackie Combs Jr., now in his mid-40s, has spent half his life in prison for a murder he denies committing, after Devlin and other detectives bullied four young witnesses to testify against him in court. According to a report by the Philadelphia City Paper in 2000, the witnesses, who gave varied accounts of the killing, were nonetheless clear about the cops’ conduct, citing jail threats, and physical and verbal abuse. (Devlin denied their charges under oath, telling a reporter that such claims were “part of doing business.”) One of those witnesses, just 15 at the time, told reporters she felt “it’s my fault, because I changed my story, saying this man killed this guy [and] knowing he didn’t do it.”

Worse, there’s the case of Walter Ogrod, a trucker with a low-average IQ, who was sentenced to death for the murder of a four-year-old girl. Ogrod “had driven all night and hadn’t been to bed in 36 hours when Devlin went to work on him in the box,” says Tom Lowenstein, a former Innocence Project New Orleans investigator who’s writing a book about the case. “An hour or so into it, according to Devlin, Ogrod supposedly burst into tears and gave a 16-page confession of how he killed the girl.” In an article for the City Paper, Lowenstein detailed Ogrod’s side of the story: He was sweated by Devlin and a second detective, he says, for a dozen hours, while they suggested repeatedly that he was sick in the head and blocking all memory of the murder. He finally broke from lack of sleep, Lowenstein reported, and began to believe what they fed him — signing the statement written out in longhand by Devlin. However, after hearing Ogrod’s testimony, 11 of 12 jurors voted to acquit before a mistrial was declared. At a retrial three years later, the confession came back in, and this time, with the aid of a notorious jailhouse snitch, the state convicted Ogrod of capital murder. Housed on death row now for 18 years, he’s appealed his conviction through his federal defenders, seeking DNA tests of the evidence.

Next up, Santiago: “I got him dead to rights for faking a witness statement and bullying a nonwitness to testify falsely,” says Marc Bookman, a former public defender and a leading consultant on capital cases. “It was a murder case right around the trial of Tony Wright.” The cops had a kid who saw the shooting, but because he had warrants out for his arrest, he signed under his friend’s name: David Glenn. As the hearing approached, the cops went out and picked up the actual David Glenn. At the station, Santiago bullied Glenn into saying he saw the crime, and identifying the defendant’s photograph. “This David Glenn gets up on the stand and sets fire to their whole damn case,” says Bookman. “He says, ‘That isn’t my writing and I never saw the shooting. [Santiago] made me sign that or he’d arrest me.’ ”

When the defense attorney brought this to the DA, Santiago lawyered up, threatening to plead the Fifth if he was put to the stand. The DA dropped the case, setting the defendant free, while Santiago went back to business as usual. In 1989, a young man named Andrew Swainson was convicted of murder on the statement of a single eyewitness. Nineteen years later, that witness recanted, saying he hadn’t seen Swainson at the time of the shooting, and only knew what he looked like because he’d been shown his picture by Santiago in a photo lineup. How did he pick Swainson out of the pile? Simple: All seven photos Santiago showed him were of Swainson. Twenty-six years later, Swainson sits in jail, waiting for lawyers to help get his tainted conviction overturned.

Then there’s the third man, Detective Frank Jastrzembski, whose search of Tony’s bedroom allegedly produced the bloody clothing. As the lead investigator in the murder of a girl days after Talley was killed, Jastrzembski so botched the seizure of evidence — clothing — that his work was savaged by the Supreme Court judge who overturned the conviction 18 years later and freed the defendant, Jimmy Dennis, from death row. In a blistering decision, Judge Anita Brody said the PPD “covered up evidence” that “pointed away” from Dennis’ guilt, suppressed key witness statements, and staged sham suspect lineups. She especially bored in on Jastrzembski’s police work, saying garments had been taken from Dennis’ home and never itemized or photographed, before being lost mysteriously before trial. Nonetheless, Jastrzembski had brazenly taken the stand and said the clothes matched the kind worn by Dennis the day he shot the girl.

Most of the facts about Tony’s case were known, or knowable, by the time of his trial in 1993, and it might have made for great theater had his attorney raised them on cross-examination of the cops. But Siegel, Tony’s court-appointed lawyer, never interviewed, much less summoned to the stand, the co-workers who backed his story (“We all wanted to testify for him,” says his Uncle Larry, “but nobody called us to court”); seldom spoke to or visited his client in jail after he took the case; and seemed mainly interested in a plea-bargain deal that would get Tony life in prison. Why? Perhaps because he thought the case was unwinnable. Or perhaps because the city paid defense lawyers just $1,800 to prepare a capital murder case. The only feasible way to earn a living off those fees is to stack up cases and do the minimum on each.

Anthony Wright

Tony Jr. visits his father in prison last year. Courtesy of the Wright family

Siegel tried to get Tony to take a plea deal, and brought in Brad Bridge, his juvie lawyer, to talk “sense” to him in jail. “But I got nowhere fast,” says Bridge, “which struck me as odd for someone facing a needle.” If Tony had slain Talley or simply burgled her house while Ronnie Byrd raped and killed her, he’d have had a huge card to play before trial: the name of his accomplice on which to trade. Instead, he sat in a cell for two years, determined to have his day in court. On what planet would someone keep silent and risk death to protect the neighborhood crackhead — a homeless man who was twice his age and whom he’s never met, even in passing?

It’ll be a salient question to put before a jury, if the state actually goes ahead with its vow to retry Tony for Talley’s murder. In a statement to Rolling Stone, District Attorney R. Seth Williams conceded that “the new DNA prompted us to agree to a new trial,” but said the state still has “considerable and compelling evidence against Mr. Wright that cannot be discounted through conspiracy theories and allegations of police misconduct.” Williams then strangely called for Wright “to take a polygraph test,” a methodology laughed out of most criminal courts years ago. “The National Academy of Sciences found that polygraph tests aren’t viable or reliable, and the state of Pennsylvania determined they are inadmissible at trial, but the Philly DA’s office thinks they’re more probative than exhaustive DNA tests on rape-kit swabs and clothing?” said an incredulous Peter Neufeld, the co-founder of IP and Morrison’s co-counsel in Wright’s case. “Maybe they should fill Tony’s pockets with rocks, then dunk him in the Schuylkill to see if he floats or sinks!”

As for the police department, there was a carefully worded statement acknowledging that “technology has revealed new information” about the investigation. Saying that the case is “under review,” the department declined to respond to pointed questions about the work of the detectives named in this piece (none of whom responded to Rolling Stone’s phone calls for comment). If the DA’s office truly means to retry Tony, his lawyers will first request a hearing on the admissibility of key portions of the state’s evidence, including the statement Tony signed. At that hearing, the detectives will presumably be called on to explain how Tony could have copped to a brutal rape from which DNA has excluded him. They’ll also have to explain, under oath and intense grilling, how clothes he never touched somehow came to appear in both his statement and his bedroom. Only this time, they won’t be questioned by a court-appointed lawyer earning pennies for a murder case. Morrison and Neufeld have recruited Sam Silver and Rebecca Lacher, top litigators at Philadelphia law firm Schnader LLP, to handle any further proceedings. “Private clients pay millions for their talents,” says Morrison. “Once the initial DNA tests came back, we knew we needed a strong and savvy team in a case as difficult as this.”

Now guilty of nothing in the eyes of the law, Tony has been sitting in a county cell since last October. But he’s glad, at least, to be back in Philly, where the people who love him — Tony Jr. chief among them — are just a half-hour’s drive for visits. It’s been a long, hard road for both Tony Wrights: Tony Jr. bounced from house to house, much as his father did. But he found mentors in church who nursed him through high school and, eventually, to college in Florida. He came back to Philly and landed a job working with troubled kids. This spring, he and his fiancée expect the birth of their first child, a girl. They’re hoping against hope that Tony Sr. will be there to witness her birth.

They don’t much look alike, these two who share a name: Junior, a genial, pillow-cheeked giant, has five inches and 50 pounds on his old man. But there’s grace in both of them, and the field-tested patience of men who’ve seen the worst and outlived it. You don’t escape the snares of North Philly if there isn’t something different in your wiring. It takes nerve to insist that your life has value in a place that shorts it at birth, and nerve to declare that the truth still matters after the lies of policemen robbed you blind. Nothing will make right the wrong they did you: no settlement from the city, no apology from the mayor, no punishment of those men for their crime. There are untold Tony Wrights in every city in this country, men with the bad luck to be poor and black when they encountered dishonest cops. We need to hear their stories, and to rethink the war that put so many of them behind bars. If that sounds like heavy lifting, well, they’re prepared to be patient. They have nothing on their hands but time.


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