Inspiration Report

Shaurn-Thomas-WPVIAfter 24 years, Shaurn Thomas is finally free.

Thomas claimed for over 16 years that he did not kill a popular Philadelphia businessman in a street robbery. He was 16 then, and said he had been at a juvenile court proceeding for trying to steal a motorcycle when the daylight murder occurred. But the courts weren’t buying it, and Thomas lost appeal after appeal. Convicted almost completely on the testimony of a co-defendant, he was sentenced to life without parole.

In 2009, Thomas sent a letter to the newly formed Pennsylvania Innocence Project. A lawyer named James Figorski, who had spent 25 years as a Philadelphia police officer, happened to be the one who opened it. He knew how the city’s juvenile system worked, and he sensed something wasn’t right.

For the next eight years, Figorski volunteered countless hours investigating Thomas’s case, along with Innocence Project legal director Marissa Bluestine
Last year the two began meeting with the Philadelphia district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit. The prosecutors began to agree; Thomas was almost certainly innocent.

Last month, prosecutors moved to vacate Thomas’s murder conviction, and he was released from prison after nearly 24 years behind bars. That night, Thomas had his first meal outside of prison with family and his fiancée. He chose the seafood combination at Red Lobster, his lawyers said. He also tried using a cell phone for the first time.

“I feel wonderful, a free man. I can’t feel no better. Hey man, just got to believe in God, and have the right legal team, and keep fighting,” Shaurn told WBTV in the video below. “I don’t got no animosity towards nobody. What for? Life’s too short for that. You can’t get it back. I just move on forward. It’s a tragedy that happened to me, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.”

Now 43, Thomas was not in Philadelphia County court to hear the news. He remained in a state prison in Frackville, Pa., until the order from Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi was entered. Figorski drove up to Frackville that day to retrieve Thomas.

“At every level, Shaurn was failed,” Bluestine said. “By his lawyers, by the prosecutors, by the courts. Ironically, it took a former police officer to dig in and prove he’s an innocent man.”
Thomas was the fourth person convicted in the November 1990 slaying of Domingo Martinez, who owned three North Philadelphia travel agencies and was active with civic groups in the Latino community for decades. Martinez, 78, had gone to a Mellon Bank branch in Center City about 9 a.m. and withdrawn $25,000 in cash. After he drove away from the bank, his car was struck by another car, and someone in the other car got out, fatally shot Martinez and took the money.

The case was cold for two years, even though there were a number of witnesses, pedestrians and other motorists, who saw the collision and shooting. Then in 1992, a man named John Stallworth confessed to his involvement and named his brother and Thomas as participants. Stallworth’s confession was shown to be false because one of the other participants he named was in prison at the time of the slaying, but Stallworth still was held. In 1993, facing the death penalty, Stallworth changed his story and eliminated the man who was in prison. Thomas was arrested, charged with murder and jailed in July 1993.

Stallworth and his brother William cut plea deals in exchange for their testimony against Thomas and his older brother, Mustafa Thomas. Shaurn Thomas’s lawyer tried to present evidence of his alibi, his arrest and processing at the juvenile center, but “it wasn’t presented with the strength and detail that we have now,” Martin said.

Figorski and Bluestine began meeting with a prosecutor from the district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit in November 2016. Members of the unit reviewed the case and interviewed William Stallworth, who again recanted his trial testimony that Thomas had been involved in the homicide.

The prosecutors also found 36 pages of witness statements that had not been turned over to the defense during Shaurn Thomas’s trial, some with information implicating other suspects.
Figorski and Bluestine began meeting “pretty regularly” with the Conviction Review Unit beginning last year, Bluestine said, “to push them hard to look at this. We’ve never been afraid for them to look at the evidence because we knew he was innocent.”

“It happened because he had no money or power,” Figorski said. “They had a cold case they wanted to solve. And they had somebody willing to say [Shaurn] did it.”

Now, though, Shaurn is holding no malice or anger about the incident. While it took up a large part of his life, he is now happy to be out of the jail cell. He said that he “never lost faith” he would be freed.

“From the time I got locked up to the time I got released, I wrote letters,” Mr. Thomas said in a telephone interview on Thursday as he shopped for clothes in Philadelphia. “I wrote letters to people I didn’t even know. I just knew that one day — I didn’t know when — that I would be a free person.”

“Everyone is happy, very, very happy,” Stephonia Long, Thomas’ fiancée, told CBS Philly. “The whole time he has been very positive because he believed in his innocence.”

And free he now is.

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