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Philadelphia Woman's Conviction For World War II Vet's Murder Overturned

India Spellman and her 14-year-old friend were allegedly coerced into confessing to the murder of George Greaves in 2010 and then convicted largely on the basis of those confessions. She was exonerated on Thursday.

By Megan Carpentier
Judge Gavel G

A Philadelphia woman who was convicted of an elderly man's murder when she was just a teenager has been exonerated.

India Spellman, 29, was convicted of the 2010 robbery murder of World War II veteran George Greaves, 87, as well as another robbery that day, but has now been exonerated of all those crimes, according to a press release from the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

Greaves was murdered in his yard sometime around 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 18, 2010, during what police believe was an attempted robbery by two people, according to The Nation and Philadelphia CBS affiliate KYW reporting at the time. His murder occurred around an hour after another woman in the area was the victim of an armed robbery, according to court documents reviewed by Oxygen.com.

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Neither the first robbery victim nor the eyewitness to two people leaving Greaves' murder identified Spellman or her co-defendant, then-14-year-old Von Combs, contemporaneously — and the murder witness first told police that she hadn't seen the perpetrator's faces, according to court documents reviewed by Oxygen.com. The robbery victim, whose cell phone was stolen, initially told police that the perpetrators were a Black man and a "a woman with dark skin and a '[M]uslim outfit,'” according to court records. Her description didn't match either Spellman or Combs.

Combs, who was a friend of Spellman's, was arrested shortly after the murder. He was interrogated by Philadelphia Police Homicide detective James Pitts, who had a history of domestic violence and a record of police misconduct — including coercive confessions. During an interrogation by Pitts, Combs allegedly confessed to taking part in the robberies but said Spellman had killed Greaves. (He later recanted his confession and his trial testimony against Spellman, alleging the confession and testimony had been coerced and fed to him by Pitts. Combs was tried as a juvenile and later released.)

Spellman was arrested on Aug. 20, 2010 and brought in for interrogation despite being under 18 and having a learning disability that hinders her ability to read. Her parents, waiting outside the interrogation facility, were denied access to their daughter and falsely told she had already confessed, according to the Nation. That wasn't true — but, according to Spellman, after psychological pressure and a physical assault by Pitts, he promised her she could go home if she signed a confession he wrote.

She signed, but she never went home.

Instead, as Combs was tried in juvenile court and sentenced to two years, Spellman spent three years in prison awaiting her trial as an adult. Pitts, meantime, physically coerced a confession out of another suspect and was investigated in that case and detained an elderly man for six hours without cause. Neither Pitts' misconduct nor the earlier lack of witness identification was disclosed to Spellman's lawyers before trial. (Pitts was also sanctioned for another abuse of authority between Spellman's conviction and appeal, but her lawyers were not informed about that either.)

Spellman was convicted of the first robbery and the robbery and murder of Greaves on Feb. 20, 2013, KYW reported. She was sentenced to 30 years.

Two other people interrogated by Pitts were subsequently exonerated, The Nation reported. (Pitts' interrogations feature dozens of times in a Philadelphia Inquirer database of misconduct allegations lodged against the Homicide division.)

The Philadelphia Conviction Integrity Unit took up Spellman's case in 2019 in "response to Spellman’s Post Conviction Relief Act petition [that] uncovered numerous instances of official misconduct, violations of her constitutional rights, and new evidence that supports Spellman’s innocence claim," the D.A.'s statement said.

They discovered that Spellman, who had always said she was at home on her cell phone at the time of the robbery and murders, was correct: Her phone records from T-Mobile showed her phone connected to a tower near her house repeatedly between 2:30 and 4 p.m. on the day of the murders. The same tower would be unlikely to serve Greaves' home or the location of the first robbery. 

It also showed she made a 25-minute phone call right around the time of the murder.

They also talked to Combs, which is when he officially recanted his confession and trial testimony.

The D.A.'s office began filing for Spellman's release last June and, after three more filings, a Philadelphia judge granted their petition on Thursday.

Greaves' last surviving relative, a cousin named Myrtle Ryan, submitted a statement to the court but the judge refused to read it into the record, the D.A.'s office stated.

"I was present at India’s trial in 2013 and have read accounts of the concerns over her conviction as well as been informed by my daughter who has attended the recent hearings of the present proceedings," she stated. “I am now convinced that India did not murder Bud and am greatly saddened that she has become another victim of this incident through no fault of her own."

“We are devastated knowing that Bud’s killer has never been apprehended and that India has spent 12 years in prison for a crime she did not commit," she added.

Spellman spoke to reporters after her release.

"I’m just happy to be home with my family, and I thank God," she said, according to the Inquirer. "I’ve been telling them for years that I was innocent."

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