Willie Stokes spent the last 37 years in prison after the primary witness lied about a crime he did not commit. No other evidence linked him to the crime, but Stokes got life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Philadelphia man left the state correctional facility in Chester, Delaware County on January 3 after the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania vacated his murder conviction. A survivor of the shooting for which Stokes was convicted of murder testified that Stokes was not the gunman. Stokes, now 61, has been in prison since age 24.
Witness Admits He Lied
In 1983, Franklin Lee, the key witness against Stokes, was facing rape and murder charges. Last November, he testified that two homicide detectives offered him “sex, drugs, and a deal” for framing Stokes.
Lee had known Stokes from their neighborhood. Lee claimed Stokes told him he killed a man, Leslie Campbell, during a dice game.
Lee received a lighter sentence for his false testimony against Stokes. In total, Lee served 35 years for the rape, murder, and perjury charges. He was released from prison two years ago and worked as an assembly line supervisor.
The two homicide detectives, Lawrence Gerrard and Ernest Gilbert, have since died. According to court documents, the two men faced other allegations of using coercion to obtain false testimony from witnesses. To date, at least five other people are still incarcerated based on similar claims.
Lee was charged with perjury, pleaded guilty, admitted his testimony was made-up, and received a seven-year prison term. It wasn’t until 2015 that Stokes found out about the perjury plea.
Numerous Petitions and Appeals Filed
Over the past 37 years, Stokes filed numerous petitions and appeals to overturn his conviction. All were rejected on procedural grounds.
In November 2021, Judge Carol Sandra Moore Wells reviewed the evidence and stated that prosecutors never revealed Lee’s admission of lying in testimony to him or his attorney.
In court, Lee apologized to Stokes and his family. Stokes was listening via teleconference, and his lawyer advised him not to respond to Lee’s apology. Moore Wells said the record should reflect that Stokes was crying, and those tears indicated to her that he was accepting Lee’s apology.
Moore Wells ordered that Stokes be retried within 120 days or released. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office acknowledged that the evidence suppression seriously affected the prosecution’s legal basis.
Pervasive Police and Prosecutorial Malpractice
In a news release, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said the Stokes case was marked by “prosecutorial and policing practices that were too pervasive during the so-called tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s,” with such practices still existing in some jurisdictions.
A Corned Beef Hoagie
After Stokes left prison, he said he wanted to hug his mother and get a corned beef hoagie. His mother was unable to attend, fearing that her son would not be released, but other family members were present.
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