Ex-Philly Homicide Detectives Charged in Man's Wrongful Conviction

Anthony Wright spent 25 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit

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Three since-retired Philadelphia homicide detectives have been charged with lying in court in the case of a man who spent 25 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said his office charged former detectives Manuel Santiago, Martin Devlin and Frank Jastrzembski with perjury and false swearing in official matters for their 2016 testimony in the retrial of Anthony Wright and for their statements in a 2017 deposition related to the case.

The three ex-detectives were in the process of turning themselves in, Krasner said.

The charges follow a damning grand jury report that found Santiago and Martin coerced Wright, then 20 years old, into signing a false confession admitting to raping and killing 77-year-old Louise Talley in 1991. The report found that Jastrzembski then lied when he said he went to Wright’s home and found clothes that Wright wore during the crime; instead, the clothes were worn by the victim.

Brian McMonagle, the lawyer representing the detectives, called them "good men" who spent their careers seeking justice for crime victims. "In this case they sought justice for an 80 year old woman who was brutally raped and murdered. They are innocent of these charges and it will be an honor to defend them," he said in an emailed statement.

Michael Neilon, a spokesman for the city's police union, said the union is also representing all three detectives but could not comment further. A call to Devlin went unreturned. Jastrzembski answered his phone but said he would not speak with NBC10.

The usually outspoken Krasner was more reserved Friday as he announced the charges, citing the pending trial. However, he did say he believes the law must be applied equally.

“I believe that these charges are an indication that a Philadelphia jury, and in this case a grand jury, can carefully look at evidence and can understand that the law must apply equally to people, whether they are in law enforcement or are supposed to be served by law enforcement,” said Krasner, a former defense lawyer who has made overturning wrongful convictions a hallmark during his time as district attorney.

Wright was granted a new trial in 2014 after his initial conviction was vacated based on DNA evidence identifying Ronnie Byrd as the suspect. Byrd lived near the victim and was a known career criminal who had by that time died in a South Carolina jail.  

Nevertheless, former DA Seth Williams’ office decided to try Wright again in 2016, initially seeking the death penalty. Wright was found innocent in less than an hour and later reached a $9.85 million settlement with the city.

The grand jury report found that all three detectives lied during the retrial, with Santiago and Jastrzembski admitting in a 2017 deposition that they knew about the DNA evidence prior to the 2016 retrial, despite previously stating that they did not know about it.

The charges against the detectives are only related to the retrial and subsequent 2017 depositions in Wright’s civil lawsuit. Krasner said the reason for that is because the statute of limitations for the detectives’ “possible crimes” in 1991 has likely expired.

The grand jury report, nonetheless, was scathing in its criticisms of the trio.

The report said Santiago and Devlin forced Wright to sign a false confession for a crime he “knew nothing about and did not commit.” “It was fabricated by the detectives based on their incomplete knowledge of the crime scene and the crime itself,” according to the report.

The pair kept Wright in a small interrogation room handcuffed to a chair for hours, all the while dismissing his repeated claims of innocence, the grand jury found.

They used coercive tactics that are “never legally permissible” to get him to sign the confession, including threatening to “pull [Wright’s] eyes out and skull-f--- him,” telling him that if he signed the he could go home and having him sign without letting him see the contents of the confession, the grand jury concluded.

After signing, Wright was immediately arrested and held without bail for Talley’s murder.

The confession, which was not recorded on video or audio, said Wright was wearing a black Chicago Bulls sweater, blue jeans with suede on them and a pair of black Fila sneakers during the crime.

Later that evening and with direct knowledge of the confession, Jastrzembski and two other unnamed detectives searched Wright’s house, with Jastrzembski stating that they found the clothing described in the confession, according to the grand jury.

With no DNA evidence, a jury in 1993 convicted Wright based on the signed confession and the clothing Jastrzembski said he’d seized from Wright’s home. If not for two jurors, Wright would have been sentenced to death.

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