Shortly after midnight on Aug. 1, 1991, Chester Hollman III was driving around Philadelphia with a friend when they were pulled over by police, who approached them with guns drawn. That was the start of a 28-year saga that saw Hollman wrongfully accused and convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole before ultimately being exonerated and winning his freedom.
Hollman's story is one of several featured in the new Netflix docuseries "The Innocence Files," which features people from the famed Innocence Project and other criminal justice reform advocates as they work to exonerate wrongfully imprisoned people.
Hollman was convicted in the 1991 murder of University of Pennsylvania student Tae Jung Ho. Ho was walking a friend home in the early morning hours of Aug. 1 when they were held up in a robbery by two men. Ho was fatally shot and the suspects ran off down the block into a waiting getaway vehicle, a white Chevy Blazer, which witnesses said was being driven by a woman; a second woman was also present in the jeep, according to the docuseries.
The Blazer was tailed for several blocks by a taxi driver, who managed to provide police with a partial license plate beginning with "YZA," before the cabbie lost sight of vehicle.
Hollman, 21 at the time, happened to be out that night with a female friend, Deirdre Jones, and was also driving a white Chevy Blazer with a license plate beginning with "YZA." Minutes after the initial 911 call was placed, shortly after 1 a.m., he was pulled over as he was heading back toward the crime scene – not away from it as the getaway car initially had been – and was arrested for Ho's murder.
As Hollman and his longtime attorney Alan Tauber, who has been representing Hollman pro bono since 2005, recount in the docuseries, police took Hollman back to the scene of the crime, where witnesses were unable to positively identify him as one of the suspects.
But by then, the wheels were apparently in motion and Hollman was taken to "The Roundhouse," Philadelphia Police's headquarters which also contained a jail. Hollman said he only learned he was a murder suspect after overhearing a police officer mention that fact to a colleague. Once he was placed in an interview room, he said he was punched him in the mouth during by a detective.
At around the same time, his friend Deirdre Jones was also being questioned by police. She recounted in the docuseries — though she didn't want to appear on camera out of fear for her safety — that detectives wouldn't let her see a lawyer and pressured her into making a statement against Hollman, lest she face murder charges herself. She signed a statement implicating Hollman in the murder.
The district attorney's office offered Hollman a plea deal, but he would have been required to provide the name of the shooter – which he didn't know, the docuseries states. He rejected it.
Hollman ended up being prosecuted by Assistant District Attorney Roger King, who was known for his skilled courtroom oratory and aggressive tactics. At the time of his retirement in 2008, he had secured 16 death penalty convictions, according to a 2016 obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The obituary notes, however, that a number of the people he successfully prosecuted were later exonerated.
Hollman was convicted of second-degree homicide in 1993, based on testimony from two people: Jones and Andre Dawkins. Both later recanted their testimony, according to The Innocence Project.
After several unsuccessful appeal attempts, Hollman's case came under review by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit. Patricia Cummings, the unit's head, noted several troubling issues with the case: arresting officers found no gun in Hollman's car the night of the shooting; a number of witnesses didn't positively identify him as a suspect; and the fact that there were only two people in Hollman's car rather than the four reported in the suspect's vehicle.
Her team, along with Hollman's attorney Tauber, even reconstructed the route that the suspect's car took after the shooting, based on the cab driver's account. Hollman was pulled over by police just four minutes after the initial 911 call was placed. Traveling the route the suspects took, it would have taken more than eight minutes to circle back to the location where Hollman was pulled over, the team found.
The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office even found that prosecutors and police at the time had other evidence linking at least three other potential suspects to the crime, including a person who had rented a white Chevy Blazer with a matching partial plate number — but didn't share that evidence with the court, according to CNN.
"We believe it was near-impossible Chester Hollman was the perpetrator of the crime," Cummings said at a hearing in 2019, according to ABC News.
"The way cases were investigated in Philadelphia back then and the kind of evidence that was used to obtain convictions, in my mind, seems very thin," Cummings tells the docuseries.
What Happened To Chester Hollman III?
In 2019, 28 years after his arrest, Hollman was released from prison at the age of 48 after a Philadelphia judge ruled he was "likely innocent" in Ho's killing, according to CNN.
The charges were completely dismissed on July 30, 2019, according to the Pennsylvania chapter of The Innocence Project.
Tauber points to the 2017 election of current Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner as a turning point in Hollman's case. Krasner campaigned on a promise to review cases that may have led to wrongful convictions, Tauber told the filmmakers.
Krasner speaks in the docuseries and argues previous Philadelphia district attorneys sought high conviction rates at the expense of actually seeking true justice. Krasner's Conviction Integrity Unit ultimately issued a formal apology to Hollman at his exoneration.
“I apologize to Chester Hollman. I apologize because he was failed, and in failing him, we failed the victim, and we failed the community of the city of Philadelphia," Cummings said at Hollman's exoneration, according to ABC News.
The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has exonerated 12 people who were wrongfully convicted to date and is continuing work to review cases, Krasner told Oxygen.com in a statement.
The docuseries features footage of Hollman celebrating with his family outside prison.
"I'm looking forward to starting the rest of my life," he told reporters. "All the years I've lost, I just want to do something going forward."
"He's going about becoming a regular citizen: getting a license, getting health insurance, starting to get some counseling and think about his future," Tauber told ABC News of Hollman in 2019.
Hollman himself was struck by his sudden freedom after nearly three decades in prison — telling local media at the time he felt almost lost after striving for freedom for years.
“I don’t feel like I’m really me. It took every ounce of strength to make it to this point," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer of experiencing freedom in 2019, adding that he planned to attend meetings to help him adjust to life outside prison.
“[I'm] not wanting to fail the people who got me out and the people I left in there,” he said.
While Hollman works to re-acclimate to life outside prison, Krasner stressed that the search for the wrongfully imprisoned should be a priority for prosecutors and advocates everywhere — taking aim at authorities who would "break the law" to get a conviction in a difficult case.
"Every innocent person who sits in a jail cell takes the place of a guilty person who got away. Sometimes it is simple human error we need to guard against. Other times it is deliberate, the consequence of people who are sworn to uphold the law and the constitution doing neither one — usually by hiding evidence helpful to the defense even when that evidence points an arrow at the actual perpetrator of the crime," Krasner said in a statement to Oxygen.com.
"Criminal justice doesn’t work when police and prosecutors willfully break the law themselves. Accountability is for everyone, including all of us in law enforcement whose sworn oath is to do justice, uphold the law and constitutions when we hold others accountable," Krasner said.
"The Innocence Files" is available to stream on Netflix beginning April 15.
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