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Man freed from prison 37 years after witness lied and took police bribe of drugs and sex

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in May 2021. (Claudia Lauer/AP)

An earlier version of this report misidentified Larry Krasner's office. He is the Philadelphia district attorney, not the Pennsylvania district attorney. This story has been corrected.

A Philadelphia man walked out of prison on Monday, 37 years after he was convicted of murdering a woman, an accusation he has vehemently denied, and after a federal court found prosecutors suppressed evidence of false testimony given by a key witness, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office said.

Willie Stokes’s release comes after the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania vacated his murder conviction last week, concluding that the state violated Stokes’s constitutional rights by “withholding” crucial evidence about the false testimony of a key witness in the case, according to court documents.

The court ordered Stokes to be retried within 120 days or released, and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office acknowledged that the suppressed evidence crumbled the legal basis of the prosecution and “fatally undermined confidence” in Stokes’s conviction.

Stokes is expected to appear in court Jan. 27, when the district attorney’s office will probably inform its final decision to dismiss the matter or retry him, his lawyer Michael Diamondstein said in an interview Monday.

“He took his first free breaths this afternoon after almost 40 years, and he is very happy and humbled,” Diamondstein said, and added that Stokes’s first wish after being released was to go “get a corned beef hoagie.”

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On Monday, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner acknowledged that Stokes’s “remarkable” case was part of police and prosecutorial malpractices that were pervasive “during the so-called tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s, and unfortunately persist in far too many jurisdictions today,” he said in a news release.

“Prosecutors have an obligation to seek justice, and to redefine prosecutorial success — not by ‘wins’ in the form of convictions, but by accuracy and fairness in resolving criminal investigations and prosecutions,” the statement added.

Krasner noted that Stokes’s legal ordeal of nearly four decades — during which he filed numerous relief petitions and appeals to overturn his conviction, only to be rejected on procedural basis — underscored “the urgency of the criminal legal system seeking justice over finality.”

It was not until late November that the U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania agreed to hold a hearing. After reviewing the evidence, Judge Carol Sandra Moore Wells concluded that for 37 years prosecutors did not disclose to Stokes and his defense lawyers that Franklin Lee, the key witness who had accused him of murder, admitted that his testimony was a lie and that he had been convicted of perjury for it, and therefore Stokes was entitled to relief.

In 1984, Lee was in prison facing murder and rape charges when he was approached by two homicide detectives who offered him “sex, drugs, and a deal,” in exchange for framing Stokes, according to his testimony in November.

“They said I wouldn’t do no more than two to five, the most seven years,” he said.

Lee added that to help persuade him to testify against Stokes, the detectives allowed his girlfriend to meet with him in private at police headquarters. Another time, he said, the detectives provided condoms and a sex worker, he said.

The two detectives, Lawrence Gerrard and Ernest Gilbert, have faced allegations of using similar “coercive methods” to obtain false testimonies from witnesses in other cases, court documents show.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the allegations first emerged more than 30 years ago, when a federal judge overturned the conviction of Arthur Lester, who said Gilbert and Gerrard used those tactics to coerce his confession. At least five other men are still in prison on convictions tainted by similar claims, the local newspaper reported.

During Stokes’s preliminary hearing in 1984, Lee claimed that Stokes was at his “house drinking, smoking, gambling,” and that in his basement, he admitted to killing Leslie Campbell in North Philadelphia, according to court documents.

There was no other evidence linking Stokes directly to the crime. A second surviving victim of the shooting attack testified that Stokes was not the shooter. Only one eyewitness said he saw Stokes at the scene holding a gun — but not shooting.

But during Stokes’s murder trial, Lee surprisingly recanted his testimony — which prosecutors argued was not credible given his own criminal history.

Nevertheless, on Aug. 21, 1984, a jury convicted Stokes of first-degree murder and possession of an instrument of crime and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Soon after, they also charged Lee for perjury for his false hearing testimony. But that information was never disclosed to Stokes — who could have used it for his defense and appeals litigation.

It took decades for Stokes to discover that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office had prosecuted Lee for falsely accusing him.

During the November hearing, Lee, 62, testified that his initial statement given to police and at the preliminary hearing implicating Stokes in Campbell’s murder was false.

“Mr. Lee, did Willie Stokes ever tell you that he killed Leslie Campbell?” Diamondstein, Stokes’s attorney, asked Lee at the November hearing.

“No,” he answered.

“Did Willie Stokes ever tell you he committed any murder?” the lawyer asked.

“No,” he replied.

After his testimony, Lee apologized to Stokes — who had been listening via teleconference from the State Correctional Institution in Chester.

“And I’d like to for the record, if I can, apologize to Mr. Stokes and the family for the problem I caused, sincerely,” he said.

Stokes’s lawyer advised him not to respond.

“Let the record reflect he’s crying,” Moore, the district court judge, pointed out. “I’m going to take his tears to indicate he’s accepting the apology.”

After the hearing, Moore recommended that Stokes’s conviction be overturned, finding “reasonable probability” that Stokes would have been acquitted without Lee’s testimony and concluded that the trial’s verdict was “therefore unreliable.”

“What happened here was an abomination,” Diamondstein said. “For too many years, law enforcement in Philadelphia have treated Black and Brown people like they are expendable and this case is a stark reminder it has to stop,” he added.

Stokes was released from the State Correctional Institution Monday afternoon.

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