correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the proportion of exonerations with misconduct by police according to a National Registry of Exonerations study. Police misconduct in such cases was 35 percent. This article has been corrected.

Three former Philadelphia homicide detectives, who built a murder case that wrongly convicted a 20-year-old man and kept him in prison for 25 years, were arrested Friday on charges of perjury and false statements in a rare attempt by authorities to hold police accountable for actions which lead to false arrests and wrongful convictions.

The detectives said that Anthony Wright had confessed to the rape and murder of his 77-year-old neighbor Louise Talley in 1991, and that they found the bloody clothes he wore during the killing in his bedroom. But Wright denied confessing, and DNA testing in 2013 showed that another man, who lived near the victim, had raped and likely murdered her, prosecutors said in court papers. It also showed that the clothes the detectives claimed they found were actually worn by the victim, not Wright, court records state.

Still, Philadelphia prosecutors insisted on retrying Wright in 2016. And that is when the actions of homicide detectives Manuel Santiago, Martin Devlin and Frank Jastrzembski began to unravel, according to a Philadelphia County grand jury’s detailed presentment Friday.

At the retrial, two of the detectives testified they had not been told about the results of the new DNA testing. One claimed he’d found the victim’s sweatshirt in Wright’s room. And Santiago and Devlin testified that “Wright freely and willingly admitted to killing Mrs. Talley during questioning at the Philadelphia Police Department’s Homicide Division,” the grand jury found, claiming that Devlin had transcribed by hand all of the questions and answers in the interrogation.

But Devlin was unable to demonstrate his note-taking ability for the jury in the retrial, while Wright testified that he spent hours handcuffed to a chair, denying involvement and crying for his mother, according to the grand jury’s report. The jury acquitted Wright of rape and murder charges in less than an hour. Following his release, most of the jurors met with Wright the next day to wish him well.

In 2018, the city of Philadelphia agreed to pay a $9.85 million settlement to Wright. The lead prosecutor in the retrial, Carlos Vega, ran for district attorney in the Democratic primary against incumbent Larry Krasner in May and was soundly defeated.

Krasner’s Conviction Integrity Unit, led by Assistant District Attorney Patricia Cummings, has exonerated 21 wrongly convicted men since 2018. But in addition to their testimonies convicted of murder. Cummings’s unit has also been focused on seeking accountability both in the Philadelphia police and in prior prosecutors’ administrations, such as the era of Lynne Abraham, who was the district attorney from 1991 to 2010 and earned the nickname the “Queen of Death” for frequently seeking the death penalty. Her office sought the death penalty for Wright.

A study released last year by the National Registry of Exonerations found that of 2,400 exonerations since 1989, 54 percent of the defendants were victimized by official misconduct, with police involved in 35 percent of cases and prosecutors in 30 percent of the cases. But the study found that in only 4 percent of cases involving prosecutorial misconduct were prosecutors disciplined, and police officers were disciplined in 19 percent of cases.

Maurice J. Possley, senior researcher at the exonerations registry and a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, said, “The prosecution of police and other officials for criminal misconduct during cases which result in exonerations is still a relatively rare event. The misconduct frequently has occurred in the distant past. As difficult as it is to prove an exoneration, it is also so difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that criminal conduct occurred.”

Sometimes, officers are disciplined internally after a case is reversed, often for witness tampering, fabricating evidence or concealing exculpatory evidence and committing perjury at trial. “There were very, very few instances of criminal charges being brought against officers,” Possley said.

The officers’ conduct at the original trial in 1993 was arguably beyond the statute of limitations, Krasner said at a Friday news conference. But in addition to their testimonies in the 2016 retrial, the officers also gave sworn depositions during Wright’s civil suit in 2017.

Again, Devlin was asked to transcribe Wright’s alleged confession as an attorney read it to him, and was only able to write one sentence, the grand jury wrote. Santiago was asked if it was true that Wright had gone from “a guy that had absolutely no problems cooperating with you, hopped in the car, went downtown … to a guy who gave you this detailed statement confessing to a murder and rape, correct?”

“That is correct,” Santiago said, according to testimony included in the grand jury’s report.

Wright told the grand jury he was kept handcuffed in a small room for hours, threatened with having his eyes pulled out by Santiago and Devlin, then was handed a confession to sign so he “could go home.” He said he never had the victim’s clothes in his home.

Even after DNA seemingly cleared him, Wright was retried. Attorney Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project, who represented Wright, said it was “the only DNA exoneration in the country where the prosecutor elected to retry the case despite overwhelming evidence of innocence.” Prosecutors simply changed their theory of the case to add the second suspect, who had since died.

The grand jury wrote that they sought to hold Santiago, Devlin and Jastrzembski “accountable for lying under oath to condemn an innocent man and cover up their wrongdoing, and for perverting the integrity of the law.”

“These charges are an indication that a Philadelphia jury,” Krasner said, “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 supposed to be served by law enforcement.”

Wright told the Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday, “This will mean everything to me if those guys individually can be held accountable for what they did to me. And their name is on so many people’s paperwork that were wronged.”

The three former detectives surrendered Friday afternoon to face multiple counts each of perjury and false swearing for false testimony, said Jane Roh, a spokesperson of the district attorney’s office. Records for the officers hadn’t been entered into the Philadelphia County courts system computer as of Friday night, so it could not be determined if they had retained attorneys.