The city of Philadelphia has agreed to pay more than $4 million to settle a federal lawsuit brought by a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for nearly a quarter century before being exonerated for a murder he maintains he didn’t commit.
The $4.15 million deal ends claims from Shaurn Thomas alleging that Philadelphia police violated his constitutional rights as they coerced testimony from witnesses and withheld exculpatory evidence all to support a false narrative that he was involved in the November 1990 robbery and murder of 78-year-old Domingo Martinez.
“I’m pleased with the outcome and very humbled,” Thomas told Law360 on Thursday. “After all these years of fighting I’m glad to see some results. Justice was done for me the first day I walked out of prison — everything else has just been to help me with my future.”
According to court records, Martinez was murdered after being tailed from a bank after withdrawing $25,000 in cash for the operation of several checking cashing and travel agency businesses he ran with his daughter in North Philadelphia.
At the time of the murder, Thomas maintained, he was at the Philadelphia Youth Study Center — located miles away from the scene of the crime — where he was undergoing the intake process for a possible juvenile diversion program after being detained the night before for attempting to steal a motorcycle.
But the complaint said that detectives failed to thoroughly investigate Thomas’ claimed alibi, and records which could’ve helped back up his story were never turned over to prosecutors or to Thomas’ defense counsel.
“The law says that you can’t ignore facts related to somebody’s innocence and choose to barrel ahead anyway,” said Stephen Brown, an attorney with Dechert LLP
who helped represent Thomas pro bono in his civil rights case. “So our claim was that this was tantamount to fabrication of evidence because they had all this information suggesting strongly that he was there and then they just stopped pursuing it.”
Detectives ultimately linked Thomas to the crime after allegedly coercing confessions from brothers John and William Stallworth based on rumors reported to police that they’d been involved in the killing.
The complaint said that the Stallworths — one of whom later said he was threatened and physically abused during his interrogation — eventually said they’d been among six people who in two cars who followed Martinez from the bank and attacked him.
The confessions, however, ran counter to eyewitness statements that only one car had been involved in the crime.
The Stallworths ultimately pled guilty and agreed to testify against Thomas.
William Stallworth eventually recanted his confession in 2011 and said he’d been coerced by two detectives into providing false testimony about the attack.
Meanwhile, Thomas’ pursuit of a new trial under the state’s Post-Conviction Relief Act resulted in him unearthing new records that were never turned over to prosecutors or to defense counsel.
They included not only additional information about his alibi, but also records about a traffic stop police made in the days after Martinez’s killing of a vehicle matching the description of the one used in the attack.
Police not only recovered a gun during the traffic stop, but also took statements from the vehicle’s three occupants that they’d all known Martinez and that they’d overheard an acquaintance who frequently used the car bragging about having “robbed this old Puerto Rican guy” and flashing a lot of money at a neighborhood bar.
The new information was all provided to the conviction review unit in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, which ultimately decided to vacate Thomas’ conviction in May 2017.
Thomas followed up with his civil suit that September, which Brown said the city had vigorously defended to the point of losing a summary judgment motion last summer.
That’s when the two sides began exploring potential settlement options, he said.
Brown said he saw the settlement as recognition of a culture of corruption among certain portions of the police force in the early 1990s.
“The vast majority of Philadelphia police officers are going a very hard job very well within the limits of the law,” he told Law360. “But the city recognizes there were issues in that police officers who weren’t obeying the law in pursuing of their job were not being disciplined, and you can’t let that small number go ahead doing what they’re doing and you need a culture change in that regard.”
The settlement is being hailed as the largest sum the city has ever paid out to an individual who was exonerated without the use of DNA evidence.
The city previously struck a $10 million settlement with Anthony Wright, whose own rape and murder conviction was vacated after DNA evidence failed to link him to the crime, in June 2018.
A spokesperson for the city did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Thomas is represented by James Figorski, Stephen Brown, Tiffany Engsell and Stefanie Tubbs of Dechert.
The city is represented by Jonathan Cooper and Shannon Zabel of the City of Philadelphia Law Department.
The case is Shaurn Thomas v. City of Philadelphia, case number 2:17-cv-04196
, before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
--Editing by Abbie Sarfo.