Trials and Error

Three Murders in Philadelphia

In the early 1990s, the police arrested three men for crimes they didn’t commit. It’s taken more than 25 years for justice to be served.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

It may have appeared coincidental when, on Aug. 23, two startling events transpired in separate high-profile Philadelphia murder cases. Anthony Wright, facing a jury for the second time after DNA revealed the probability of another perpetrator, was acquitted of the rape and murder of a 77-year-old woman after a short deliberation. And James Dennis, on death row for the robbery and murder of a young woman, was granted a new trial by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based on evidence hidden by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania at the time of his arrest. Both murders had occurred within a four-day period in October 1991; both investigations had involved the same two homicide detectives.

Was it really a coincidence? Vladimir Nabokov, one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, spent much of his literary career navigating the rough waters among crime, detection, and punishment. He once wrote: “A certain man once lost a diamond cufflink in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish—but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.”

Cuff links remain lost in real life, too. There are no coincidences in criminal justice stories, only explanations waiting to be discovered.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office was not interested in explanations, however. Reiterating its belief that Wright and Dennis were guilty, the office rebuffed allegations of wrongdoing. “If Mr. Wright’s legal team, or anyone else, has evidence of specific misconduct by any Philadelphia police officer, they should report it to us. As in the past, we will review it and proceed accordingly,” a spokesman announced.

He did not mention that the commonwealth was already in possession of such evidence, and had been since 1994.

* * *

During the afternoon hours of Oct. 19, 1991, Louise Talley was found nude and on the floor, stabbed to death in her North Philadelphia home. After a flurry of interviews with police and local residents, law enforcement’s attention quickly focused on Anthony Wright, a 20-year-old who lived nearby. Less than 24 hours after the victim had been discovered, Wright was sitting in Room 104 of the Police Administration Building; by the time he left the room a few hours later, he had signed a statement that would put him in prison for the next 25 years. One of the men who questioned him was Manuel Santiago, a detective in his seventh year in homicide.

The statement, neither audio-recorded nor videotaped and in the handwriting of one of the detectives, was quite damning:

I knocked on her front door and when she unlocked the door and opened it a little I like just barged into her house. … [A]s we went through the kitchen I picked up this knife that I saw by the kitchen sink. Anyway, I forced her to go upstairs and I took her into the middle bedroom and when we got in there I told her to take her clothes off because I was going to tie her up. She just kept begging me not to hurt her. She took her clothes off and then she started to struggle and that’s when I stabbed her.

While the confession itself was probably enough to convict Wright, there was more. When asked what he was wearing when he killed the victim, he said he’d had on a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt, a pair of blue jeans with suede on them, and Fila sneakers. The following night, a homicide detective named Frank Jastrzembski and other police officers recovered those exact clothes under the mattress in Wright’s bedroom, acting on a search warrant obtained by Jastrzembski; the sweatshirt and jeans were splattered with the victim’s blood. Other witnesses identified Wright as having been at or near the scene of the crime, and connected him to some televisions stolen from the house. The case was closed in a single day.

Two days after Wright was arrested for the murder of Louise Talley, Detectives Santiago and Jastrzembski were busy on another murder investigation less than three miles away. A high school student named Chedell Williams had been shot and killed after two men had approached her and a friend and demanded that they “give me your fucking earrings.” Acting on a rumor that “Jimmy” Dennis—a young man from a housing project a few miles away—had committed the crime, the police, led by Jastrzembski, ultimately found three eyewitnesses who identified him in a photo display, an in-person lineup, and a preliminary hearing. There was no physical evidence and no confession, but three eyewitnesses made for a strong case. Dennis, too, was arrested.

The Wright and Dennis cases followed the usual path of notorious Philadelphia murders. The DA’s office sought the death penalty in each. One year later, Dennis was convicted of first degree murder and sent to Pennsylvania’s death row. Eight months after that, Wright was also convicted, but when the jury could not decide between life and death, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Appeals would follow for both, years of them, and Detectives Santiago and Jastrzembski moved on to new homicide investigations.

* * *

In May 1993, less than a month before Anthony Wright was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, Santiago became the assigned detective in the killing of Japelle McCray, which occurred during a street craps game in North Philadelphia. The police soon found a witness, a young man who identified himself as David Glenn. He gave a statement that “Percy” had shot the victim, but he did not know Percy’s last name. Further investigation suggested that “Percy” might be Percy St. George. The police, having only a single witness, went looking for this David Glenn to confirm they were on the right track.

Perhaps the McCray case wasn’t a priority, or the homicide division was busier than usual that summer. For whatever reason, it was several months before Detective Santiago brought Glenn into the police station; there, the witness acknowledged that he had previously told the police about “Percy.” When the detective showed him a photo array, Glenn signed a photograph identifying Percy St. George as the man he had seen kill Japelle McCray. There was no physical evidence and no confession, and only one eyewitness this time—in short, the case was not nearly as strong as the Wright or Dennis cases. Nevertheless, the police arrested Percy St. George, relying on the veracity and accuracy of David Glenn. The Defender Association of Philadelphia was appointed to represent St. George. I was one of his lawyers.

* * *

Glenn proved to be a reluctant witness at the preliminary hearing. This is not unusual in homicide cases; witnesses rarely come forward enthusiastically. But Glenn was more averse than the typically disinclined witness—not only did he claim he had seen nothing, he insisted that he had not even made the initial statement about “Percy.” When asked why he had identified Percy St. George as the killer when he hadn’t even seen the crime, he sounded like the 16-year-old he was: “[Santiago] told me that I could get locked up, so I was scared, because I had never been locked up before.”

Such recantations are commonplace in criminal courtrooms, and detectives are adept at overcoming them. Santiago testified under oath that it was Glenn who’d admitted to making the initial statement saying “Percy” did it and Glenn who’d picked out the Percy St. George photo “almost immediately.” That was enough—St. George would stand trial for murder. Jastrzembski also took a statement from the victim’s twin sister, who identified Glenn as the eyewitness she had talked to immediately after her brother’s shooting. Single (and reluctant) witness or not, the Philadelphia district attorney decided to seek the death penalty.

There were some good reasons to believe Glenn rather than Santiago. The two statements—one he denied making at all, the other that he said had been coerced—showed different dates of birth and different home addresses. There was also a little quirk in the signature on the first statement: the i in David had a circle instead of a point. If Glenn had not given the first statement, who had? He swore under oath that it was his friend, another 16-year-old named Inmon Goggans.

A short investigation followed. Short, because when asked separately by the defense and the prosecution whether he had given the first statement to the police and used the name David Glenn, Goggans immediately admitted that he had. Why? He was worried about being arrested on some bench warrants, so he used his friend’s name to avoid detection. Goggans said he had not actually seen the killing at all; when the police rounded him up as a witness, he wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, so he told them what they’d wanted to hear.

A year after St. George’s arrest, one thing was clear beyond question: 16-year-old David Glenn, who had entered police headquarters having seen and done nothing, left admitting to a statement he hadn’t given and identifying the perpetrator of a crime he hadn’t witnessed. Someone was going to have to explain how this could have happened. Had Detective Santiago coerced a teenager to wrongly identify someone in a capital murder investigation? Had Detective Jastrzembski encouraged the victim’s sister to misidentify the tall and gawky David Glenn for the short and squat Inmon Goggans?

On Oct. 7, 1994, exactly one year after Percy St. George’s preliminary hearing, another hearing was scheduled, this one at the request of the defense to “bar prosecution based on due process violations.” Santiago was subpoenaed to testify, but his attorney responded instead. Calling the allegations against his client “bold, unsupported, and scurrilous,” the lawyer nonetheless pointed out that the detective would be “compelled to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege.” Two other detectives involved in the investigation also took the Fifth, leaving the commonwealth without evidence or witnesses. The capital murder charge against St. George was dismissed, and the hearing was canceled. None of the three detectives were charged with a crime, and all remained on the police force after the case was closed. No explanation has ever been offered for why three Philadelphia detectives, two of whom were assigned to the homicide unit, would assert their Fifth Amendment rights in a case where they were the investigators rather than the investigated.

* * *

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

Serious criminal appeals are the exact opposite of trials. They occur not as singular events but usually span decades and jurisdictions. The vast majority disappear with yesterday’s newspaper, never to be read again. If some new truth does emerge during the appellate process, it often arrives buried in procedural minutiae. Thus it was with the Wright and Dennis cases.

After more than a decade in prison, Wright began petitioning the court to analyze the DNA of the bodily fluids recovered from the victim. Although such testing had occurred in criminal cases as early as the late 1980s, it was still relatively rare at the time of Wright’s trial. Even when testing became common, the prosecution routinely fought it in older cases, and courts often refused to order it. The logic was Heller-ian. In order to get post-conviction testing, the applicant had to show that the results, if exculpatory, would prove him innocent. This was the conundrum facing Anthony Wright: His alleged confession to Detective Santiago could not be disproven by DNA.

After a judge in Philadelphia rejected his request, he looked to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which turned him down as well. Another three years passed until the state Supreme Court—citing a number of wrongful convictions that involved confessions—reversed the Superior Court, and it took another several years after that until the testing was complete. By then it was 2014, and Wright was entering his third decade of incarceration.

The DNA results proved to be a bombshell. Not only was there no physical evidence placing Anthony Wright at the scene of the crime, but the sperm found in the victim’s vagina and rectum turned out to be that of a small-time criminal and crack addict named Ronnie Byrd, who had subsequently died in a South Carolina prison. Remarkably, the name “Ronnie Byrd” did not appear in the 1991 police reports. And there was more—the bloody clothes Jastrzembski claimed to have seized from Wright’s bedroom did not have Wright’s DNA on them but the victim’s; the locations of the trace evidence made it clear that she had been wearing the clothes. The case seemed to have collapsed under the weight of incontrovertible evidence. But the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office had a different perspective. Noting that there was “utterly overwhelming evidence of [Wright’s] guilt,” the prosecution claimed the DNA simply raised the “possibility of a second perpetrator.” This was news to anyone who watched the first trial—there had been no mention of a second perpetrator then. Even the alleged confession hadn’t referenced another person. But the commonwealth was undaunted. The DA’s office would not oppose a new trial for Anthony Wright. But prosecutors still professed that he was guilty, and they still intended to prove it.

* * *

Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike have noted that jurors expect to see DNA evidence in every murder case, a perception court-watchers dub the “CSI Effect.” In reality, a 2010 study showed that DNA evidence exists in less than 5 percent of homicide investigations. Wrongful convictions that are overturned based on DNA evidence represent only a sliver of people who are unjustly imprisoned in the United States. The Innocence Project reports that 71 percent of DNA exonerations have also involved witness identifications that later proved to be incorrect, but prosecutors and judges are far less likely to acknowledge the possible injustice of a misidentification when there’s no DNA to confirm it. Those fighting to prove their innocence without the benefit of DNA evidence are leaning into a very stiff wind.

James Dennis had no genetic testing available to exonerate him after his conviction. What he did have was a receipt for a welfare check, one that belonged to a woman who’d been on the same bus as Dennis, four miles from where the crime had occurred. When he was arrested, he told the police he had seen this woman at the time of the murder, but she testified against him at trial: She said she had seen Dennis on the bus two hours after the crime, negating his alibi. The woman based her testimony on the recollection that she had noticed him about an hour after cashing her welfare check. Detectives prompted her memory with a receipt stamped 13:03, which she mistakenly understood to be 3:03 p.m. The prosecution did not correct her, nor did they provide the receipt to the defense. In the eyes of the jury, Dennis had lied about his whereabouts at the time of the murder.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied his appeal, finding the receipt irrelevant and noting “the overwhelming evidence” of Dennis’ guilt. He returned to that same court three more times over the next 13 years, in each instance heading back to death row with more evidence of innocence and commonwealth misconduct, and less hope for a new trial. In his last state appeal, Dennis established that the main eyewitness had told the victim’s aunt and uncle she recognized the perpetrator from her high school, a school Dennis had not attended. That statement had been kept from Dennis’ lawyer at trial. The court was not impressed, however; there were two other eyewitnesses who had positively identified him.

It was the beginning of 2011. Within a month the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had cleared the way for DNA testing in the Wright case but had rebuffed Dennis’ claim that he had been wrongly identified. While Wright began to prepare for a new trial, Dennis looked to the federal courts for relief. As would soon be revealed, the case against him was far weaker than the previous appeals had indicated.

* * *

Any lawyer in the criminal justice system is familiar with the case of Brady v. Maryland. Indeed, the opinion is so ingrained in the day-to-day functioning of the law that attorneys on both sides of the aisle simply refer to “Brady evidence”—material in the possession of the state that must be provided to the defense because it is “favorable to an accused.” On its face, it is a clear-cut rule, but criminal lawyers know better. As the late Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan said in a very different context, “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” In other words, favorable is subject to interpretation.

There is an additional irony to the Brady rule: The decision about what is “favorable” is not made by a neutral party but by the prosecution. There is thus a “fox guarding the henhouse” quality to the process, and many legal commentators have questioned the efficacy of placing this obligation on the prosecution. James Dennis certainly had reason to believe the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office was taking a very narrow view of its responsibility.

The welfare receipt and the statement that the perpetrator had attended the victim’s high school were important—any defense attorney would have wanted such information. But there was more that hadn’t been turned over. Ten days after the murder, an inmate in a local county jail named William Frazier informed the police that a friend had told him that he and two other men had committed the murder in question. Although inmates often try to negotiate their way out of prison by bartering less than dependable material, this statement offered what the law likes to call “indicia of reliability.” It included specific details that comported with the evidence the police had already gathered about the murder; it identified a triggerman who fit eyewitnesses’ physical description of the perpetrator more closely than James Dennis did; and the confession itself had been overheard by Frazier’s aunt, a wholly disinterested witness.

In all, the prosecution withheld six documents relating to Frazier’s statement from the defense. The police had taken Frazier seriously—they’d escorted him from the jail on a ride-along, where he pointed out the homes of the people he’d named. He also told them that one of the men “likes to wear sweat suits,” a fact that fit the description provided by eyewitnesses. Nevertheless, the commonwealth claimed the Frazier lead was a dead end and thus immaterial. The federal district court made short work of that argument, pointing out that the statement was credible and could not be “passed off as merely a ‘fruitless lead’ that the prosecution was entitled to keep to itself.” The federal court, 22 years after the crime, granted Dennis a new trial.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams was not shamed by the revelation that his office had hidden important evidence. Rather, he was emboldened, condemning the district court’s “acceptance of slanted factual allegations.” Now it was the DA’s turn to take the next step up the appeals ladder. By the time the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals re-examined the Dennis prosecution three years later, some old facts were brought into a new light.

It turned out that Detectives Santiago and Jastrzembski were more deeply involved in the investigation than the previous appeals indicated. They had followed up on Frazier’s tip by speaking to one of the three men he’d implicated in the murder. That man—like the main eyewitness—had admitted to knowing the victim from high school, and to hanging out on the exact same corner where another eyewitness said he’d seen one of the alleged perpetrators. Yet the detectives hadn’t shown a photo of the man to any of the witnesses nor had they revealed the information to the defense.

Santiago had also conducted all of the photo displays, just as he would a few years later with David Glenn in the Percy St. George case. Jastrzembski, meanwhile, said he had seized clothes from Dennis’ house, just as he claimed to have done in the Wright case. Although he later testified that those items fit the description of the clothing worn by the perpetrator, the jury never saw the actual garments. According to the detective, the clothes had been thrown in the trash by cleaners.

Two months short of a quarter-century after the crime that sent Dennis to death row, the 3rd Circuit, in a rare en banc decision, voted 9–4 to grant him a new trial. Once again, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office derided the court’s decision, stating that it would “determine whether to seek further review on the basis of the compelling dissent by four federal judges, who concluded that the evidence against Dennis remains ‘strong.’ ”

* * *

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

While James Dennis was still fighting for his freedom, Anthony Wright had neared the end of his ordeal. His second trial, handled by the Innocence Project and a top Philadelphia law firm, was shaping up as a very different affair from the first. Not only had DNA evidence cast doubt on the provenance of the clothes allegedly recovered by Detective Jastrzembski, but an entirely new suspect had been introduced into the case. Only one thing remained unchanged—the unrecorded confession taken by Detective Santiago. This time around, the defense argued that the jury should learn about the detective’s methods in the Percy St. George case:

[W]e intend to question [Santiago] regarding allegations of witness coercion and other wrongdoing concerning a statement taken from a material witness in that homicide case. And an alleged coercion of that witness’ signing and identifying a photograph in that case. [Also] regarding the letter written by his attorney dated October 3rd, 1994 … in connection with that case … that if called to the witness stand regarding that case and not granted fully immunity, Detective Santiago would plead the Fifth Amendment rather than testifying in open court.

Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project emphasized that this was “not an everyday isolated accusation of misconduct. [Detective Santiago] was willing to let a capital murder case get dismissed with prejudice rather than take the stand and defend the simple taking of a witness statement.”

The prosecution’s position was simple, if ironic: Detective Santiago had never been convicted of any crime, and “unconvicted criminal accusations” were never permitted into evidence. Neither side pointed out that Santiago could not possibly have been convicted, since the same prosecutor’s office had not even sought to arrest him for his conduct. Nonetheless, the judge refused to allow inquiry into the St. George case.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter. “DNA has changed the playing field in criminal justice,” Peter Neufeld, the co-founder of the Innocence Project, told the jury. “Now you jurors will level that playing field.” In August 2016, after a nine-day trial, the jury deliberated over lunch and then acquitted Anthony Wright. While his lawyers worked to have the paperwork processed for his release, the Wright family shared emotional moments with the jurors, who had remained at the courthouse after their verdict.

“I’m angry,” the jury forewoman said. “The evidence was there that he did not commit this crime. The city should never have brought this case. I’m just happy that today’s verdict will let Tony move on with the rest of his life.” She labeled the statement that Santiago elicited from Wright a “supposed confession.”

The defense team called for an independent investigation of all convictions of young black men who were prosecuted using evidence developed by the detectives in Wright’s case. “After the DNA results were known, we have three and a half years where the District Attorney’s Office did nothing to reinvestigate this case or find out who Ronnie Byrd was,” Neufeld said. “It’s absolutely unconscionable and unacceptable.”

The Philadelphia prosecutors were not deterred by the quick acquittal. “We believe that the evidence was sufficient to prove Anthony Wright participated in the murder of Louise Talley,” the office spokesperson declared, adhering to its new theory that Wright had not acted alone. There was no need for an independent investigation of all convictions of young black men, the DA’s office added, as no evidence of “specific misconduct” had been produced. The facts that three Philadelphia detectives, including the detective who testified about the “supposed confession” by Wright, had taken the Fifth in a separate case and that the DA’s office had done nothing about it for more than two decades went unmentioned.

Four months after Anthony Wright went home, James Dennis left death row. Surrounded by a phalanx of lawyers, some of whom had been helping him for decades, he walked into Room 507 of Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center in a burgundy jumpsuit, short and squat and bald. While the prosecutor still believed him guilty, there was the matter of all those police reports that hadn’t been turned over, and the very real chance Dennis might be acquitted as Wright had been. Maybe neither side wanted to take a chance. In any case, Dennis pleaded no contest to the same charges that had put him in line to be executed, only this time the 25 years he had already served paid his bill to the commonwealth. When asked if he had anything to say, he told the judge he’d been in prison all those years for crimes he hadn’t committed. “I just want the nightmare to end,” he said. An old robbery charge from 1991 is still on his record, but the prosecution has agreed to recommend his parole. He’s hoping to be out of prison for good any day now.

* * *

Wright and Dennis spent the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years in prison. Dennis remains in prison as the Trump era unfolds. But the detectives accused of misconduct in those cases have emerged from the accusations unscathed. Both Santiago and Jastrzembski served as Philadelphia police officers for more than 25 years, each spending a decade or more in the homicide division. Santiago went on to be a special agent in the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, where he was working at the time of his testimony in the second Wright trial. Jastrzembski spent another 17 years in private security after leaving the police force, finally retiring in 2015.

The last chapter of this saga has not yet been written. In September, the Innocence Project joined with a premier Philadelphia civil rights firm to file a wide-ranging lawsuit against the city and 11 police officers, including Santiago and Jastrzembski. Alleging a conspiracy to deprive Wright of his liberty through a malicious prosecution, the complaint lists a pervasive pattern and practice of unconstitutional transgressions in homicide investigations, including coerced confessions, fabricated false evidence, and withheld exculpatory evidence. Eight other cases involving misconduct are listed, among them the ones involving James Dennis and Percy St. George. One of the many claims alleged in the lawsuit, which is still in the discovery phase, is that Philadelphia and its police department have been “deliberately indifferent” to the need to discipline police officers.

Like all civil lawsuits, the damages sought are monetary. Clocks cannot be turned back; youth cannot be restored. Near the end of his testimony in the Wright trial, Jastrzembski remarked, “It’s not TV. This is the real thing.”

He doesn’t need to tell Wright, and Dennis, and St. George. They already know.