Jan 26, 2024 - News

Man wrongfully convicted of murder sues city of Philadelphia

Illustration of a gavel sticking through the bars of a jail door.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A Philadelphia man is suing law enforcement officials after he says he was wrongfully convicted in 2009 of killing an off-duty police officer because they withheld evidence and coached a witness for trial.

Why it matters: William Johnson's case is among dozens of murder convictions in Philadelphia that have been overturned over the decades because of misconduct by police and prosecutors, per the lawsuit filed this month in federal court.

Driving the news: Johnson served 18 years in prison before a federal judge vacated his conviction and prosecutors agreed to drop the charges. He was released last year.

  • That happened after it was revealed that the prosecutors who handled Johnson's case committed "egregious" misconduct, per the Inquirer, by withholding letters sent by a key witness that Johnson could have used at his trials.
  • Johnson says in the lawsuit he "did not" kill off-duty police officer Terrence Flomo, who was shot on Aug. 26, 2005, while trying to pick up a sex worker in North Philadelphia.

Details: The complaint names the city, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, and five police detectives as defendants, including George Pirrone and Thomas Augustine, who were both previously "credibly accused" of misconduct, per the lawsuit.

  • Johnson alleges malicious prosecution, municipal liability, and violations of his constitutional rights.
  • Homicide detectives had "free reign to engage in unconstitutional actions" and city officials "were deliberately indifferent to this misconduct," the lawsuit says.

Flashback: Johnson was tried with a co-defendant, Mumin Slaughter, for Flomo's killing, based on testimony from two sex workers who gave statements implicating the men in the crime.

  • One of the sex workers, Brenda Bowens, testified that she told Johnson and Slaughter that Flomo solicited her for sex, then saw them near his vehicle and heard gunshots, per the lawsuit.
  • The jury found Slaughter guilty of third-degree murder but was hung on the charges against Johnson.
  • Slaughter, who is now serving a decadeslong sentence for the murder conviction, made a deal with prosecutors at a 2009 retrial to testify against Johnson in exchange for leniency.
  • But he changed his mind and refused to testify, saying the statement that he gave law enforcement after his trial was "false," per the lawsuit.

What happened: Prosecutors were still allowed to present Slaughter's statement to the jury at the retrial without him testifying.

  • The jury convicted Johnson of third-degree murder. He was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.
  • Johnson's conviction was upheld for years despite appeals in state and federal court. His attorneys argued that Slaughter's statement shouldn't have been admitted because it violated Johnson's right to cross-examine a witness.
  • Judges ruled that admitting the statement was a "harmless error" since other witnesses testified against Johnson. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Johnson's case in 2018.

Yes, but: Prosecutors dismissed the case in June 2023 after agreeing Johnson's rights were violated.

  • His lawyers learned that Bowens, one of the original witnesses, had sent letters to then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham and prosecutor Carlos Vega recanting her statement before the first trial.
  • Bowens told prosecutors that homicide detectives threatened and coerced her into implicating Johnson and Slaughter and coached her statement by telling her "what to say," per the lawsuit.

The other side: The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office and the city declined to comment.

  • Pirrone, Abraham and Vega didn't respond to messages left by Axios this week.
  • Augustine died in 2022, and Axios was unable to identify a representative of his estate.
  • Abraham and Vega previously told the Inquirer the DA's office misrepresented facts in the case.
  • Vega, an outspoken critic of DA Larry Krasner, said the DA's office would only allow him to review Johnson's files if he agreed to be videotaped.

How it works: Prosecutors must legally turn over all favorable evidence to defendants due to what's known as the Brady rule. But Abraham and Vega didn't provide the letters to Johnson's defense team, per the lawsuit.

  • Vega also withheld a competency exam that showed another witness had a "psychotic disorder" that caused hallucinations and the information that she was hospitalized several times before the murder, per the lawsuit.
  • Prosecutors had spoken with Vega and Abraham while contemplating whether to retry the case, per the Inquirer.
  • The lawsuit quotes from a conversation that Abraham had with an assistant district attorney, Katherine Ernst, which was later retold in court.
  • Abraham told Ernst that Vega may not have disclosed the letters because he thought they were "bulls–t," per the lawsuit.

What they're saying: David Rudovsky, Johnson's attorney, tells Axios that prosecutors had to turn over the letters regardless of whether they believed Bowens.

  • There's no "BS exception to the Brady rule," Rudovsky says. "They don't get to decide what to believe or not. A jury does."
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