Three former Philadelphia police officers whose testimony in the trial of a black man accused of the 1991 rape and murder of a 77-year-old woman was found to be false could now face a trial of their own.
A Philadelphia grand jury has recommended criminal charges against Martin Devlin, Manuel Santiago and Frank Jastrzembski, who all worked for the police department for more than 25 years each before retiring.
The allegations concern the retrial of Anthony Wright in 2016. who had already spent 25 years in prison, but the three officers also played a significant role in the original 1993 conviction. They repeated their ‘false’ statements during the retrial.
Had the verdict not been overturned and Wright exonerated thanks to DNA evidence, the statements made by the three officers could have sent Wright back to jail for the rest of his life.
Wright (pictured center walking out of prison with his attorneys) was serving a term of life without parole when new DNA testing showed another man had raped neighbor Louise Talley
‘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,’ Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, pictured, said on Friday.
The former detectives were charged with perjury and false swearing in official matters after a grand jury recommended the charges 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,’ Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said on Friday.
It is extremely rare for those in law enforcement to be criminally prosecuted for their roles in wrongful convictions.
Krasner has specialized in reviewing wrongful convictions and has set up the Conviction Integrity Unit. So far, it has helped secure exonerations for 22 people – 18 of whom were black men.
Anthony Wright (center), now 49, was 20 years old when he was convicted in the death of Louise Talley in Philadelphia. He walked free in 2016 and reunited with his two granddaughters
The three detectives involved in Wright’s case also worked on four other cases that have since been overturned.
According to Friday’s grand jury findings, Philadelphia homicide detectives Santiago and Devlin managed to coerce Wright into signing a false confession less than 24 hours after the body of Louise Talley, his next door neighbor, was found.
Authorities found her naked body on the floor of her home in October 1991. Talley had been raped and stabbed 10 times with a kitchen knife in the back, chest and neck.
Wright was taken into custody the following day, but his confession was found to be ‘fabricated by the detectives based on their incomplete knowledge of the crime scene and the crime itself’ and later disproved by DNA evidence.
The detectives were found to have used coercive tactics that were illegal including the threat of violence to ‘pull [Wright’s] eyes out of and skull-f***’ him.
He was also promised that he would be allowed to go home if he signed the confession, which he was not allowed to read.
Wright had initially told police he had taken money from Talley before killing her. He later took back his confession and said he had been coerced into giving it.
Despite insisting he was innocent, the 20-year-old Wright signed the confession without being allowed to read it first. He was immediately arrested and held without bail.
The three detectives, who have since retired, always denied having pressured Wright to confess.
Following his confession, Jastrzembski searched Wright’s home for the clothes Wright was said to have been wearing at the time of the crime.
He said that a pair of jeans, sweatshirt and trainers were found under a mattress.
Wright was convicted by a jury in 1993 based on the false confession and clothing Jastrzembski claimed to have found.
It was only after DNA evidence was reexamined in 2014 that Wright’s confession was found to be false and the clothing not his own.
DNA found in semen from Talley’s rape kit showed that it did not match Wright’s but that of Robert Byrd, a former crack addict from Nicetown, Pa., who assaulted her, tests showed. Byrd has since died in prison in South Carolina at the age of 62.
A Grand Jury found not only was his confession coerced but DNA evidence did not match that of Wright. Wright is pictured in an archive shot with his son, Anthony Jr (left) in 1991
Despite the irrefutable scientific evidence of Wright’s innocence, he faced a second trial which might even have ended up with him receiving the death penalty.
Once again, the three officers ‘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’s findings read.
Santiago and Jastrzembski testified that the prosecution did not inform them about the results of the DNA testing.
They noted that Wright willingly admitted to committing the crime with Devlin claiming he had even transcribed Wright’s oral confession word-for-word.
But upon cross-examination, when Wright’s defense counsel read the confession aloud, when Devlin was asked to transcribe it, he was only able to write six words in the time allowed.
A Philadelphia grand jury has recommended criminal charges against Martin Devlin, Manuel Santiago, and Frank Jastrzembski who all worked for the police department for more than 25 years each and coerced a confession from Wright (pictured holding his one-year-old granddaughter and holding his other granddaughter, 8) upon his release in 2016
In 2016, Wright was acquitted of all charges by a jury who spent less than an hour deliberating.
He was finally free, having spent 25 years in jail for a crime he did not commit.
He was surrounded by his relatives, included his father, his 28-year-old son and his two granddaughters – ages 1 and 8 – to witness his first moments as a free man.
‘I can’t even put it into words right now, man,’ Wright said. ‘It’s unbelievable. It’s the greatest day of my life.’
As of January 2020, there have been 365 exonerations thanks to DNA evidence according to the Innocence Project, which led Wright’s defense.