Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced charges on Friday against three former homicide detectives who made false statements that contributed to the wrongful conviction of a man who spent 25 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit.
The former detectives — Manuel Santiago, Martin Devlin and Frank Jastrzembski — played significant roles in the 1993 conviction of Anthony Wright, who has since been exonerated by DNA evidence. They repeated their false claims decades later during a retrial that could have kept the innocent man in prison. The former detectives were charged with perjury and false swearing in official matters after a grand jury presentment recommending the charges was unsealed on Friday.
“After hearing testimony from key witnesses and reviewing evidence, the Grand Jury recommended that Santiago, Devlin, and Jastrzembski be held accountable for lying under oath to condemn an innocent man and cover up their wrongdoing, and for perverting the integrity of law,” Krasner said Friday.
It is exceedingly rare for law enforcement officials to face criminal prosecution in relation to their roles in wrongful convictions. But reviewing wrongful convictions has been a key agenda item for Krasner, one of the leaders of the progressive prosecutor movement. In 2018, his office created the Conviction Integrity Unit, which has helped secure exonerations for 22 people. At least 18 of the exonerated were Black men. The detectives charged on Friday worked on at least four of the cases that the Conviction Integrity Unit has helped overturn.
Wright, who is Black, was wrongfully convicted in 1993 of the 1991 rape and murder of 77-year-old Louise Talley. According to the grand jury presentment, Santiago and Devlin, who were Philadelphia homicide detectives at the time, coerced Wright into signing a false confession less than 24 hours after Talley’s body was found. The confession was “fabricated by the detectives based on their incomplete knowledge of the crime scene and the crime itself,” the presentment read. The confession included claims that would later be disproved by DNA evidence, including that Wright raped and stabbed Talley repeatedly but did not ejaculate.
The detectives used illegal coercive tactics including threatening to “pull [Wright’s] eyes out of and skull-fuck” him, promising that he could go home if he signed the confession, and instructing him to sign the confession without allowing him to read it first, according to the presentment.
Wright, who was 20 at the time, insisted he was innocent and spent hours crying for his mother, who could hear him outside the interrogation room. But desperate to go home, the young man eventually signed the confession. He was arrested immediately and held without bail.
After Wright signed the confession, then-detective Jastrzembski searched Wright’s home for the jeans, Chicago Bulls sweatshirt and Fila sneakers that Wright supposedly confessed to wearing at the time of the crime. He claimed to have found the jeans and the sneakers on the floor and the sweatshirt under the mattress.
A jury convicted Wright in 1993 based on the false confession and the clothing Jastrzembski said he had found. If two more jurors had agreed, Wright would have been sentenced to death instead of life in prison.
In 2014, after extensive litigation by the Innocence Project, Wright’s conviction was overturned based on DNA evidence that proved the confession was false and the clothing was not his. DNA extracted from the semen found in samples from Talley’s rape kit was matched to a man named Robert Byrd who was no longer living by the time of the discovery.
Despite clear, scientific evidence of Wright’s innocence, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office decided to try Wright for the crime again. (Carlos Vega, one of the prosecutors on the case, mounted an unsuccessful challenge against Krasner during the Philadelphia DA race earlier this year.)
During Wright’s second trial, Santiago, Devlin, and Jastrzembski “testified falsely under oath about both the evidence used to convict Wright and their knowledge of the DNA evidence that ultimately exonerated him,” the grand jury presentment read. Santiago and Jastrzembski testified that the prosecution did not tell them about the results of the DNA testing ahead of the retrial — though they later reversed this claim in depositions for a civil suit. Santiago and Devlin testified that Wright willingly admitted to the crime and that Devlin had transcribed Wright’s oral confession word-for-word as he delivered it.
During cross-examination, Wright’s defense counsel read the confession aloud and asked Devlin to attempt to transcribe it. Devlin was only able to get down six words.
The jury acquitted Wright of all charges after less than an hour of deliberations. Wright was freed after spending 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Read the grand jury presentment here: