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Man exonerated on Philadelphia murder charge 17 years after being picked up for violating curfew

An exonerated man walked free on Monday night more than a decade after he was wrongfully convicted for a Philadelphia murder, officials said.

David Sparks, then 16, was initially picked up by police for violating a teen curfew on Sept. 4, 2006, the night 19-year-old Gary Hall was killed. Sparks was found guilty in Hall's shooting death two years later. The exonerated man, now in his 30s, was released from prison on Monday night.

"He walked free from the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Phoenix last night into the arms of his loving family and legal team," the Pennsylvania Innocence Project wrote in a social media post about Sparks. "David was just 16 years old at the time of his arrest and is excited to do the everyday things so many of us take for granted." 

David Sparks
David Sparks enjoyed several cups of freshly brewed coffee after his exoneration, according to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. Courtesy Pennsylvania Innocence Project

Sparks enjoyed several cups of fresh brewed coffee and a steak dinner with family and his legal team after his release, according to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit said it found Sparks' constitutional rights at trial had been violated. Information from witnesses implicating Ivan Simmons, also a teen, as a suspect in Halls' death was suppressed by Philadelphia Police Homicide detectives. Simmons and his brother were also considered suspects in the murder of Larres Curry, just a few days earlier one block away.

Multiple witnesses had seen Simmons at the scene of the murder, but Simmons, unlike Sparks, fled and "evaded detention for the curfew violation that ensnared Sparks," according to the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. 

Simmons was shot and killed in December 2006, just as Sparks was awaiting his preliminary hearing in Hall's death. 

Investigators believe Simmons was killed as part of a series of retaliatory shootings between two rival groups. 

One eyewitness of the Hall murder, who was not interviewed by police at the time of the deadly shooting, was arrested and charged with committing a 2007 quadruple shooting of four Hall associates. During his confession, Nick Walker explained how the cycle of retaliatory shootings started. 

"This happened right after Ivan killed Gary," Walker said about Simmons. "Money was on my head because I would hang with Ivan."

The assistant district attorney on Sparks' trial also told the Conviction Integrity Unit that notes and documents implicating Simmons were not shared with him, officials said. He told them that he "did not understand why the police did not make them available to him."

Sparks had called 911 from the scene of Hall's murder, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2018. He's heard on the call reporting the shooting and asking first responders to "hurry up."

During Sparks' trial, prosecutors relied primarily on two teenage witnesses cousins who were 14 and 16 at the time of at the time of Hall's murder. They gave inconsistent statements about the crime and Sparks' and Simmons' involvement. Officials did not specify what the inconsistencies were in the news release about Sparks' exoneration. One of the witnesses has since recanted much of her testimony against Sparks. 

Hall had graduated from high school shortly before his death, Conviction Integrity Unit supervisor Michael Garmisa said. He'd been looking to get into the carpentry business. 

"He and his loved ones, and all victims of violence, deserve a criminal legal system that seeks to avoid such devastating errors," Garmisa said.

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