One Innocent Man

It was 1990 in North Philadelphia. A group of men were in the process of robbing and shooting a small business owner, Domingo Martinez, while he was traveling in is car with $25,000 in cash to his check cashing store. At the same moment, miles away, 17 year-old Shaurn Thomas was standing in front of a juvenile master, having been arrested the night before and held for the night by police for trying to steal a motorcycle. Shaurn signed a subpoena to appear again in court a few months later and left with his sister.

When the police showed up to the crime scene and started asking questions, they spoke with several eyewitnesses who described a red and white car that pulled in front of Mr. Martinez’ car, blocking his way. Three men got out. One man shot Mr. Martinez through his windshield, dragged him out of the car and dumped his body on the sidewalk. The men then drove off with both cars. Police initially suspected Mr. Martinez’ family of having masterminded the murder, but leads went nowhere. Two years later a prolific informer who lived in the Abbortsford Homes complex in North Philadelphia told police the Stallworth brothers had committed the murder. Police brought the Stallworths in for questioning. After several false starts, the brothers admitted their supposed involvement in the murder, and named Shaurn Thomas and his brother Mustafa Thomas as cohorts. Unlike what the witnesses at the scene described, the Stallworths said Mr. Martinez’ car was struck from behind by a blue car, and that there were 6 men in two cars that committed the murder. Even though those accounts differed wildly from the uninvolved civilian witnesses, police decided it was good enough. They arrested both Shaurn and his brother. They were both tried and convicted of murder. 

Both the Stallworths accepted plea deals and testified against Shaurn and Mustafa. They were out of prison in nine years. Shaurn, too, was offered a plea deal-five to ten years if he pled guilty. But Shaurn maintained his innocence and said he refused to admit to a crime he did not commit. At the age of 19, Shaurn received life in prison without the possibility for parole. 

In 1990 North Philadelphia was at the center of the crime and violence brought on by the crack epidemic that ravaged our nation’s inner cities. Drugs, gangs, AIDS, and poverty plagued the North Philly neighborhoods. By November of 1990, there were 500 homicides in Philadelphia alone. The Philadelphia Police Department was feeling the pressure. Every homicide that went unsolved was a mark on the police department in a city where already the police were being accused of not doing enough to curb the violence on the city streets.

So, when the Stallworths blamed Shaurn, it was a wrap. But, Shaurn never gave up hope. He was quoted “from the time I got locked up to the time I got released, I wrote letters. I wrote letters to people that I didn’t even know. I just knew that one say-I didn’t know when-that I would be a free person”. One of those letters made it into the hands of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. Shaurn was one of their first cases when they opened their Philadelphia office in 2009. 

Along with two private attorneys working the case pro bono from Dechert LLP, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project spent hundreds of hours on Shaurn’s case. According to his attorneys, even with his rock-solid alibi, Shaurn faced an uphill battle. At his trial in 1994, he not only had inadequate counsel but both of his co-defendants lied, saying that Shaurn was at the murder scene. Worse, although it wouldn’t come to light for decades, the police department had a file whose content would have exonerated him. A file that contained over 30 pages of witness statements directly disputing the ones who falsely implicated Shaurn.

Shaurn’s attorneys fought for eight years to win his freedom, or in other words, Shaurn spent 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Shaurn isn’t bitter. He is thrilled to be home with his fiancé and his mother. 

There are other cases right here in Pennsylvania. As I continue my work with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project I intend to explore these cases and maybe help to bring to light that injustices like these do happen—but that we can work to curb these injustices and free innocent men like Shaurn Thomas.