“Theophalis Wilson, you are free to go,” said a Philadelphia judge recently. She was releasing a man who has been exonerated of the three 1989 killings he was convicted of as a teenager.
According to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, the case was a “perfect storm” of injustice, marred not only by prosecutorial misconduct, but also by a lying witness and an ineffective defense. Wilson has spent 28 years behind bars.
The witness, who has since recanted his story, says that he provided the false testimony as part of a deal that allowed him to escape the death penalty.
In 2013, forensic analysts testified at a hearing that the physical evidence contradicted the witness’s account of the events.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, perjury and false accusations are relatively common in cases where the defendant is ultimately exonerated. They occurred in 59% of all cases in the registry. Official misconduct is found in 54% of registered exonerations.
Wilson was exonerated through the actions of the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which is tasked with reviewing old convictions for evidence of injustice. These units are set up by individual prosecutors’ offices, meaning they aren’t present in many cities. Wilson was the 12th person to be exonerated by Philadelphia’s unit.
The chief of the unit told the court that the time had come for Wilson to “go home a free man, and that he go home with an apology.”
“No words can express what we put these people through. What we put Mr. Wilson through. What we put his family through,” she added.
Theophalis Wilson is not actually free to go, unfortunately. He remains in prison, convicted of a fourth murder. He and his co-defendant maintain their innocence in that incident, however.
Nevertheless, he is cheerful and determined to help others. “This is a great day,” he said. “Now we’ve got to go back and get the other guys. There’s a lot of innocent people in jail.”
There are a lot of innocent people in jail and prison. There are too few conviction integrity units and innocence organizations to go around. Often, private appellate lawyers are on the first — and last — line of defense after a wrongful conviction.