Dec 5, 2023 - News

Philly man fought nearly 5 decades to overturn murder conviction

Photo illustration of Michael White in front of prison bars.

Michael White spent nearly five decades in prison before his conviction was vacated for the second time in 2022. Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Courtesy of Marrone Law Firm

Michael White sat at a table with his family this Thanksgiving, his plate piled high with turkey, macaroni and candied yams. And, of course, his favorite: pecan pie, just like mom used to make. He thought about how many holidays he'd missed — but also how many he had left.

  • "Remember, I came from a mess hall," he tells Axios. "It was a tear-jerker."

Driving the news: White, 71, spent nearly five decades in prison after being convicted in the late 1970s of the murder of a North Philadelphia shopkeeper.

  • His conviction was overturned twice, most recently in 2022. He was released from prison in April after accepting a plea deal that required him to admit to murder.
  • He regrets taking the deal every day, he says, because he's innocent.
  • Hoping to restore his name, White is suing Philadelphia and the police detectives who, he says, beat him into a false confession during an interrogation, plus a former Philadelphia prosecutor found to have withheld evidence that could've helped White at trial.

"I don't care if I don't get a dime," White says. "I want the public to know what I had to go through, what my family had to go through."

What happened: White was 25 years old when he and a co-defendant, Eughenia Jones, were convicted of murder in the Jan. 19, 1977, shooting death of Georgell Lewis, owner of the former Taylor's Variety Store in North Philadelphia.

  • Detectives obtained a confession from White at a time when the police department's homicide unit was accused of questionable practices.
  • In 1977, just days after a hearing in White's case, the Inquirer released an explosive investigation that found homicide detectives routinely beaten, threatened, intimidated, coerced, and disregarded suspects' constitutional rights during interrogations.

State of play: The lawsuit targets the estates of deceased detectives Lawrence Gerrard and Francis Miller, and former Philadelphia assistant district attorney Frank DeSimone, who handled White's case. White says they violated his civil and constitutional rights.

  • The lawsuit comes a year after a federal judge approved White's reopened habeas corpus petition, paving the way for his release after he spent 47 years in prison, mostly at the maximum-security SCI Graterford.
  • He acted as his own attorney on an initial petition in 1994, but it was dismissed with prejudice. That meant he couldn't refile the legal challenge, seemingly closing the door on ever being released from prison.
  • But a change in the law gave his attorneys another chance to argue the habeas corpus petition, this time with White prevailing, partly because Philadelphia prosecutors changed their stance.
  • They wrote there was a "reasonable probability" that White's trial in 1977 would've turned out differently if he had access to concealed evidence, per court records.
  • The judge instructed prosecutors to retry White or release him within six months of the decision.

Context: After the conviction was overturned for the second time in December 2022, Joseph Marrone, White's attorney, says that prosecutors presented his client with a choice before his release in April that he described as a "dangling carrot" offer.

  • White could secure immediate release from prison by admitting to third-degree murder. Or he could remain there while trying to get bail and await a retrial with no assurance of being acquitted.
  • At the urging of his family, White accepted the deal but says he still feels like he was put into an impossible situation and regrets his decision.
  • "If you were in your 50s, maybe you would dig harder and play harder," Marrone says. "He bargained his belief for his freedom."

The other side: It's unclear why prosecutors insisted on a third-degree charge. They declined Axios' requests for comment on the case.

  • Attorney John Della Rocca, the appointed head of Miller's estate, declined to comment on the lawsuit, and Axios couldn't determine who represents Gerrard's estate.

Meanwhile, DeSimone tells Axios that he didn't intentionally conceal evidence from White and that his actions back then were "2 million percent" aboveboard.

  • DeSimone says he provided all the records he had at the time to White's former trial lawyer, Joel Slomsky.
  • He claimed that Slomsky "backed me up" when he testified at a post-conviction hearing in 1992, but that wasn't supported by a review of court transcripts of the hearing obtained by Axios.
  • "You don't do that to people. You don't withhold information. … It just wasn't part of my DNA," DeSimone says.

The big picture: White asserts he is one of more than 20 people who have had their convictions overturned since the 1990s because of "pervasive" misconduct by Philly homicide detectives, per the lawsuit. Many of those wrongful conviction cases received publicity, but White's story hasn't been told until now.

  • According to a 1977 Inquirer investigation, judges ruled in 80 of 433 homicide cases between 1974-77 that detectives had acted illegally during interrogations.
  • The report said detectives had "come to accept breaking the law as part of their job."
  • Gerrard, one of the defendants in White's lawsuit, was among a group of Philly detectives implicated in a separate "sex for lies" scandal. Informants say they were induced to cooperate in murder cases in exchange for sex and drugs. Gerrard denied the allegations.

By the numbers: Philadelphia has paid out more than $116 million to settle police misconduct claims since 2016, some to wrongfully convicted people who alleged misconduct dating back decades.

  • Earlier this year, the city reached a $9.1 million settlement with Walter Ogrod — another client of Marrone who spent decades on death row before being exonerated of the 1988 slaying of 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn.
Photo illustration of the old Philadelphia Police headquarters, the Roundhouse.
The Roundhouse, the PPD's former headquarters. Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Jessica Kourkounis for the Washington Post via Getty Images

Flashback: On Jan. 19, 1977, White says he traveled to North Philadelphia to search for a handyman who could help him fix the frozen pipes that had burst inside his Mount Airy home.

  • That's when he says he ran into Jones, considering it a "godsend" since he needed to pay some bills and Jones owed him $1,500.
  • Lewis, the store owner, also owed Jones money, White says. So White agreed to accompany Jones to Lewis' shop at 20th and Jefferson Street. White feared Jones would spend the money on drugs unless he went with him, per the lawsuit.

This is where the accounts conflict. According to evidence presented at trial, White, Jones and three other men decided to rob Taylor's Variety Store, knowing it was an easy mark because White believed Lewis sold drugs out of the store.

  • White and Jones went into a back room with Lewis while the other men were stationed outside the entrance of the front door and back room.
  • White allegedly ordered Lewis to lie on the ground while Jones took his watch and ring. Both men later gave statements to police claiming they fired the shot that killed Lewis.
  • In White's telling, he was merely a bystander to Jones and Lewis' argument over drugs.

"At the very last second, I see the gun," White says. "It happened like a flash."

  • White adds that he never considered going to the police because he "knew what the street was like. You don't go to the police, because No. 1, we didn't trust the police."

Zoom in: White says he ran out of the store, only later learning that Jones had robbed Lewis and taken money from the cash register. He says he didn't take "not a [single] thing" from the store.

  • The men were arrested and taken to the Roundhouse, the PPD's old headquarters, to be interrogated.
  • There, White says detectives beat him with books, squeezed his testicles, and put a gun to his head.
  • White says he gave the detectives several stories to stop the beating, eventually telling them that he intended to rob Lewis because he needed money to pay his mortgage, per the lawsuit.

The "nightmare" only worsened after that, White says.

Details: Before trial, prison officials "mysteriously" lost White's medical records. He intended to rely on them to prove he was beaten and falsely confessed under duress, he says.

  • White and Jones were convicted at separate trials and received life sentences.
  • Fifteen years later, in 1992, White learned during a post-conviction hearing that Lewis had been arrested five times on drug charges, including twice inside the store.
  • Slomsky, the attorney who represented White at trial, testified at that hearing that he had asked DeSimone for the criminal history of Lewis but was told that he had no arrests and no convictions.
  • That, Slomsky said, "emphatically" dealt a blow to his trial strategy, according to transcripts of the proceeding.
  • Without the police reports and testimony of police officers to corroborate Lewis' involvement in drug trafficking, he felt that it was too risky for White to testify.
  • So he advised him not to take the stand.
Illustration of a .38 caliber handgun.
Prosecutors said a .38-caliber revolver was used to kill Georgell Lewis. Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Of note: In March 1993, Armand Della Porta, the late Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge who presided over the trial and post-conviction hearing, wrote in his decision that DeSimone, the prosecutor, committed "misconduct" by withholding the police reports of Lewis' arrests.

  • In turn, he tossed out White's conviction, plus barred prosecutors from retrying the case on grounds of double jeopardy.
  • The decision stood for three months. Prosecutors won an appeal in June 1993, and White languished in prison for nearly three more decades before winning his freedom again.

What's next: Life has changed a lot since the last time White saw the outside of a prison cell.

  • His two daughters, Zakiyyah and Nakiyyah, are grown up and have children.
  • A grandson just finished his redshirt freshman year as a running back at Monroe College in the Bronx, New York.
  • White's brother, Howard, who spent decades in prison after White says he was also wrongly convicted in the 1982 drive-by shooting of Fred Rainey, received a compassionate release from prison in April 2022 so he could live out the rest of his life with family while dying of prostate cancer.
  • The brothers, who hadn't spoken in years, talked over Zoom while White was still imprisoned before Howard died.
  • White's mother, who baked him a pecan pie every year for his birthday, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and can no longer cook.

The legal fight could take years to resolve. In the meantime, White plans to advocate for other wrongly convicted people and is committed to seeing the lawsuit through.

  • "I was blessed to be able to survive that," White says of his time in prison. "Jail is nowhere to be and definitely nowhere to die."

The bottom line: As he shoveled forkfuls of his daughter's pecan pie into his mouth, White said it tasted just like his mom's. He felt the strange looks of his nieces and nephews. They never thought they'd be sitting next to him at Thanksgiving dinner – and he never thought he'd smell that pie again.

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