Minutes after his friend was shot outside a corner grocery store in Philadelphia, 17-year-old Dontia Patterson was at his side.
Patterson lived just down the street, and on that day — Jan. 11, 2007 — he told police that he ran outside into his front yard after he heard three or four shots ring out. His neighbor pointed to the body lying on the ground outside the store and asked Patterson if that was his friend. Running closer, Patterson could see that it was, he told police. He started yelling, “Oh, my God! Is he dead? Is he dead?” a witness soon described to police, according to court documents.
Within hours, Patterson was in the back of a police car. Within months, he was charged with his friend Antwine Jackson’s murder. And within two years — after two trials, because of a hung jury in the first — he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.
He was convicted based largely on eyewitness identification from two men who were 40 yards away at the time of the shooting. They did not know Patterson. Their description of what the killer was wearing did not match what Patterson was wearing, according to court records. There was no motive established by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. There was no physical evidence connecting Patterson to the crime.
But there was plenty of evidence withheld — and now the same district attorney’s office that sent Patterson away for life is eviscerating its own former prosecutors because of it. Patterson, “in all likelihood,” is an innocent man, top prosecutors wrote in an extraordinary motion filed Tuesday.
In the motion, Anthony Voci, supervisor of the district attorney’s homicide unit, said the former prosecutors brought an “illogical” case against Patterson that was “so lacking in integrity” that they could not have won it if all the evidence they withheld had been exposed.
He said his office will not seek to try Patterson for murder a third time and moved to drop all charges. Should a judge sign off on the motion Wednesday, Patterson will be a free man after 11 years behind bars.
“Patterson’s conviction is an egregious example of police and prosecutorial misconduct in hiding evidence helpful to the defense that the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution require to be revealed to the defense before trial,” Voci wrote. “The constitutional requirements police and prosecution ignored in Patterson’s case are crucial. They protect the innocent and re-direct the entire criminal justice system to investigate further to pursue the guilty, all of which protects the public.
“Prosecution that deliberately violates these constitutional rights is not law enforcement in any sense,” Voci wrote. “It is a violation of the law.”
Patterson’s conviction was vacated in February on the grounds of ineffective trial counsel after the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and law firm Cozen O’Connor filed a post-conviction writ. In 134 pages, it detailed how the murder investigation went wrong and all of the exculpatory evidence that was excluded from his trial.
The Philly district attorney’s office notes in its motion that police had significant evidence pointing to two other men as the perpetrators of Antwine Jackson’s murder — two men who had a legitimate motive to kill him and who were very likely to have escaped justice. For whatever reason, police and prosecutors did not adequately pursue these leads, Voci wrote.
In a “white paper” police drafted the day after Jackson’s murder, police described information from a confidential informant who told them Jackson’s murder “was the result of an ongoing battle over the drug corner” in the neighborhood where Jackson was shot. The suspected killer was identified along with the location where he fled and hid. The suspect identified was not Patterson. Additional people interviewed by police backed up the information contained in the white paper, according to court documents.
In addition, the store owner who knew Patterson well insisted to police that he saw the shooter come into his store just before killing Jackson outside. Again, the store owner said that shooter was not Patterson.
But Patterson’s defense attorney, again for unknown reasons, did not call the store owner as a witness.
Instead, the case presented to the jury was built on flimsy eyewitness ID and spotty, inconsistent statements from two witnesses and an off-duty police officer, who was Patterson’s neighbor and had every reason to dislike him, the district attorney’s office said.
The officer’s granddaughter had a relationship with Patterson that caused tremendous strife within the family, which also was not disclosed to the jury, the motion said. The officer said she recognized Patterson’s “walk” in the grainy surveillance video during Patterson’s second trial. She said she couldn’t see his face, however.
The two men who claimed they did were more than 100 feet away from the scene.
First, the two men told police they saw the killer run away, wearing all black. Minutes later, they said they saw Patterson run up to Jackson after the shooting, distraught. But Patterson was wearing beige pants and a brown shirt, with no shoes and white socks when he arrived at Jackson’s side, the men told police. They said he must have changed his clothes.
One of the men testified: “Well, I heard him first. He was like, ‘Who did this? Somebody did this. It was a setup’ — stuff like that. And then we saw him — we looked at each other and said, ‘That’s the guy who shot him.’ ”
Based on this evidence, Voci wrote in the motion that the prosecution’s theory was simply “illogical.”
“Killers do not usually remain or return to the scene of the crime,” Voci wrote. “They do not usually cry out for their victims while possible witnesses and police approach. Even the two identification witnesses who observed the shooting from far away oddly claimed that Patterson must have left after the shooting, then changed clothes before returning to the crime scene.
“Although Patterson was tried twice,” Voci wrote, “neither jury heard the truth.”
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project celebrated the motion to drop the charges against Patterson in a statement, saying his only involvement in this entire crime was “acting to comfort his dying friend.”
“I’m just so grateful that finally, after all these years, someone listened to me,” Patterson said in a statement. “Since I was 17 I’ve been saying I’m innocent, and every day since my arrest. I didn’t kill my friend.”
Around the time Patterson was charged with murder, he became a father. In the decade he spent in prison working in the kitchen, his appellate lawyer Hayes Hunt told The Washington Post, he was sending his earnings back to his 11-year-old daughter. Now he is looking forward to a regular job to help support her.
And once he’s free, Hunt said, the first thing Patterson wants to do is accompany her on a school field trip to New York.
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