For 19 years, Termaine Joseph Hicks maintained his innocence.
But Hicks has always told a different story: He ran into the alley to help the woman when he heard her scream. As he was reaching for his cellphone to dial 911, the police suddenly arrived, shot him in the back and charged him unjustly.
Now, under the scrutiny of a new investigation, the case against Hicks has fallen apart.
The 45-year-old was exonerated on Wednesday, the Philadelphia Inquirer first reported, after a new analysis suggested the conviction was based on false testimony and questionable evidence — possibly in an attempt to justify a botched police shooting.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit sided with Hicks and his lawyers, and Common Pleas Court Judge Tracy Brandeis-Roman vacated his conviction on Wednesday.
“I am quite cognizant of the pain and the trauma of the victim, and then more pain in realizing that the wrong person was convicted,” Brandeis-Roman said Wednesday, the Inquirer reported. “I do feel that, one case at a time, this system is being improved.”
The reversal comes amid a recent flurry of exonerations as the city’s district attorney, Larry Krasner, has aggressively pushed to revisit at least 16 questionable convictions.
Hicks’s case began in the early-morning hours of Nov. 27, 2001, according to a memorandum summarizing the case, as a woman walked to an early shift at Dunkin’ Donuts. Someone grabbed her, dragged her into an alley and raped her at gunpoint. She couldn’t clearly see her attacker in the dark, and she suffered a head injury.
Philadelphia police officer Marvin Vinson arrived on the scene with his partner, Sgt. Dennis Zungolo. Vinson told the court he saw Hicks attacking the woman and saw him reach for a gun. Then, he said he shot Hicks in the chest or stomach.
A jury believed the police’s version of events over Hicks’s story. He was convicted and served 19 years in State Correctional Institution Phoenix, about an hour northwest of Philadelphia.
But in recent years, evidence has piled up to suggest that the case presented by police and prosecutors was riddled with errors, the Inquirer reported.
Although most of the evidence analyzed in the recent review of the case was available at the time of Hicks’s original trial, the jury never saw an enhanced security tape that corroborated parts of Hicks’s story. The tape showed a man in a gray hoodie dragging the victim into the alley. Witnesses also testified that they had seen a man in a gray hoodie attack the woman, according to court records. But there was no gray hoodie among Hicks’s clothes that were turned over to police after he was treated for gunshot wounds in the hospital.
Medical records and damage to the clothes Hicks was wearing that night showed he had actually been shot in the back, contrary to what police claimed, the Inquirer reported. The gun police said they found on Hicks was registered to another Philadelphia police officer, who had not reported it stolen or missing, according to court records. The Inquirer reported that Hicks’s lawyer, Vanessa Potkin, said the gun was covered with blood, but the coat pocket, where Vinson claimed Hicks had been keeping the gun, was clean.
Hicks tried to appeal his conviction, court records show, claiming that his former defense attorney had erred by not insisting that police show the enhanced surveillance footage. That video also showed a delivery truck pull into a nearby loading dock, flashing its lights across the alley.
The victim had told police the attack stopped when bright lights shined on her assailant, spooking him. She assumed the lights were police flashlights, but the enhanced footage suggested the light had instead been the delivery truck’s headlights. Hicks said he showed up at the scene moments after the true assailant ran away from those headlights and just a few moments before police arrived.
Judges denied Hicks’s requests for a new trial until this year. But the prosecutors who reworked the case now say at least some of the testimony against Hicks was not true.
“False testimony was used,” said Patricia Cummings, chief of the Conviction Integrity Unit, the Inquirer reported. “And I believe it’s impossible to say that did not contribute to the conviction.”
Cummings said Philadelphia prosecutors would not attempt to retry the tainted case.
The Philadelphia police did not immediately return a request for comment on the case, but Anthony Erace, the executive director of the Police Advisory Commission, told the Inquirer he would seek a review of the investigation. Vinson and Zungolo still work for the Philadelphia police, the Inquirer reported.
Hicks was released from a state prison outside Philadelphia on Wednesday.
“I feel 100 pounds lighter,” he told the Inquirer. “It’s unfortunate and sad that it took how long it took for me to clear my name.”
His attorneys celebrated the exoneration Wednesday, noting that Hicks, who was the father of a 5-year-old boy when he was incarcerated, would be able to meet his 2-year-old grandson for the first time.
“He is going to be returned to something that he should have had on November 27, when police encountered him, but he didn’t,” Potkin said, the Inquirer reported. “The presumption of innocence.”