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Philadelphia Man Freed After 37 Years In Jail Because Witness Says Police Bribed Him To Lie
But Willie Stokes, convicted in the murder of Leslie Campbell based solely on the perjured testimony, will learn later this month if prosecutors plan to retry his case.
On Tuesday, a Philadelphia man was released from prison after 37 years, because detectives allegedly bribed a key witness with sex and drugs in exchange for false testimony.
That trial witness was actually charged with perjury over the false testimony shortly after Willie Stokes was convicted of murder in 1984, but he was not made aware of the perjury charge and conviction until 2015, according to the Associated Press.
“He took his first free breaths this afternoon after almost 40 years, and he is very happy and humbled,” his attorney Michael Diamondstein told the Washington Post.
“What happened here was an abomination,” Diamondstein added. “For too many years, law enforcement have treated Black and Brown people like they are expendable and this is a stark reminder it has to stop.”
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said in a press release earlier this week that Stokes was a victim of police and prosecutorial malpractices that resulted from the “so-called tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s, and unfortunately persist in far too many jurisdictions today.”
“Prosecutors have an obligation to seek justice, and to redefine prosecutorial success — not by 'wins' in the form of convictions, but by accuracy and fairness in resolving criminal investigations and prosecutions,” he said.
For decades, Stokes tried to overturn his conviction but got nowhere. Then in November, the U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania agreed to hold a hearing.
Judge Carol Sandra Moore Wells determined that, for 37 years, prosecutors neglected to reveal to Stokes and his attorneys that Franklin Lee, the star witness who accused him of murder, admitted that he lied about Stokes and was convicted of perjury — which meant that Stokes was entitled to relief, according to the Washington Post.
Lee testified in November that, in 1984 while in he was in prison on unrelated rape and murder charges, two detectives offered him “Sex, drugs and a deal,” if he lied about Stokes.
He said that as an incentive, the detectives allowed his girlfriend to meet with him privately at police headquarters. He also testified that on a separate occasion, those same detectives provided him with condoms and a sex worker.
Lee then testified at Stokes’s preliminary hearing in 1984 that Stokes was at Lee's “house drinking, smoking, gambling,” and confessed to killing Leslie Campbell in North Philadelphia, according to court documents, the Washington Post reported
Lee’s testimony was the only evidence linking Stokes to the murder. Another victim said Stokes was not the shooter.
Lee recanted the testimony at Stokes' trial, but a jury still convicted him of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Lee apologized Stokes during his testimony in November, according to the Washington Post.
“And I’d like to for the record, if I can, apologize to Mr. Stokes and his family for the problem I caused, sincerely,” he said.
Despite being released, Stokes is not yet fully in the clear. The court federal ordered Stokes be retried within 120 days or released. He’s now due back in court on Jan. 27 to likely learn if prosecutors will drop the case or retry him.
The two detectives accused of asking Lee to commit perjury had faced similar accusations involving suborning false testimonies from other witnesses, according to court documents, the Washington Post reported. The first accusations against the detectives allegedly suborning perjury were revealed more than 30 years ago, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Both are now deceased, according to AP.
A federal judge also overturned the conviction of Arthur Lester, who accused the same two detectives of also using coercive tactics to get him to confess, and at least five other men are still behind bars for convictions allegedly obtained through coercive methods used by the pair, the Inquirer reported.