Man Who Spent 24 Years Behind Bars For Crime He Didn't Commit Has Conviction Vacated
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- A Philadelphia man who spent 24 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit had his conviction and life sentence vacated Tuesday thanks to an agreement with the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.
Shaurn Thomas' freedom comes thanks to the discovery of evidence never presented to prosecutors.
"It is a great day," says James Figorski, a former cop turned lawyer who volunteers with Pennsylvania Innocence Project. "Shaurn Thomas is finally going to walk free after 24 years in prison."
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Figorski worked for years to free Thomas who was sentenced to mandatory life without parole for the 1990 murder of Domingo Martinez.
Martinez was robbed in North Philadelphia and shot to death for $25,000 on the morning of Nov. 13, 1990.
Thomas, who was 16 years old at the time, says he was at the Youth Studies Center at the time of the murder. His mother was with him at the time and swore to his innocence, there was also a signed subpoena.
By the time of Thomas' trial in 1994, the sign in log at the Youth Studies Center disappeared and the jury never heard of the alibi. Instead, testimony by a single witness that was later recanted linked Thomas to the scene of the crime.
Figorski says he took on the case because he believed Thomas' alibi based on his personal experience as a cop.
"He was arrested the day before and he should have been at the Youth Studies Center the next day, which was the time of the murder," he says. "It showed me that Shaurn was innocent."
"This is a man who has not only been proclaiming his innocence, but has been doing everything he can to prove it," says Marissa Bluestine, who is executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. "This is one of those cases that should not have gone to trial, but unfortunately it did."
Bluestine says Thomas fought for his freedom for years, ordering copies of his juvenile records and other evidence, hoping to prove his innocence. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project took on his case when they opened their offices in 2009.
Figorski used his police department connections and investigation skills to discover scientific data that proved that false evidence was presented against Thomas at trial.
Then in 2011, Williams recants his testimony, admitting to parole agents he was not present at the scene of Martinez's murder and never saw Thomas there. Williams claimed he plead guilty in order to save his brother, who was facing a death sentence. Now, after years of court battles, Thomas will finally go free.
"The judge vacated his conviction and sentence," says Bluestine.
In addition to the false testimony and failure to present evidence, the DA's office recently received 36 pages of never before seen witness statements that contradicted the false testimony presented to the jury.
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"The prosecutors from the 1990s and all the way throughout had never seen these statements before," says Kathleen Martin, first assistant district attorney. She supervises the revamped Conviction Integrity Review Unit and says the DA's office took into account the new evidence, the alibi and information about the false testimony and decided to ask the judge to vacate Thomas' sentence because they lacked confidence in the conviction.
"We have agreed to release him on $50,000 bail pending a hearing in three weeks," she says. "We are making sure we have dotted all of our eyes and crossing all of our tees."
Martin says the Conviction Integrity Unity, which now includes full time staff, will review the new evidence to ensure that it supports Thomas' freedom. She says they will also investigate just how boxes of evidence that police gathered never made it to prosecutors.
"There will be a systematic review to look at the protocols," she says.
In the meantime, Thomas' lawyers will head to the State Correctional Institution at Fracksville to present the judge's order and bring Thomas home.
"Everyone is happy, very, very happy," says Stephonia Long, Thomas' fiancé. "The whole time he has been very positive because he believed in his innocence."
Long says their goal will be to take a trip to celebrate once he's free.
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