by: Crystal Bonvillian, Cox Media Group National Content Desk
PHILADELPHIA – A Pennsylvania man was granted freedom Tuesday after spending 24 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
Shaurn Thomas beamed as he walked out of the Schuylkill County Correctional Facility in Frackville and embraced family members, including his fiancée. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Thomas’ freedom was granted Tuesday morning by a judge who threw out his conviction in the 1990 murder of a businessman in North Philadelphia.
Prosecutors in the case agreed with Thomas’ defense team that the evidence brought forth at trial did not support his conviction, the Inquirer reported.
“I felt the justice system was going to prevail sooner or later, and that somebody would hear my cries,” Thomas said during a news conference outside the prison. “And they heard them.”
The people Thomas referred to were lawyers from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, who took on Thomas’ case eight years ago. His lead attorney was James Figorski, senior staff attorney at Dechert LLP and a former Philadelphia police officer.
Thomas was convicted of the slaying of businessman Domingo Martinez, who was shot to death in November 1990 while taking a $25,000 check to be cashed.
Thomas, then 16, had an alibi. He told authorities from the beginning that he was at a youth study center for juvenile offenders, dealing with the aftermath of an unrelated crime.
Both Thomas and his mother said they were in court at the time of the murder, awaiting his initial appearance on an arrest the night before for a motorcycle theft, Dechert LLP said in a statement.
The sign-in logs from the youth center disappeared before Thomas’ murder trial began. His alibi did not convince the jury, who found him guilty of Martinez’s murder.
He was sentenced to life in prison in 1993, at the age of 19.
Figorski, who represented Thomas pro bono, told the Inquirer that he was drawn to the case because he believed Thomas’ alibi. He worked with the Innocence Project to clear his client’s name.
“Jim has never wavered in his support of Shaurn, and is responsible for uncovering astounding evidence of his innocence,” the Innocence Project said in a news release.
The defense team began working in January with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Review Unit, which found the case file from the Martinez murder investigation. The file disappeared decades ago.
“In that file were 36 pages of witness statements taken days after the murder for which Shaurn would be arrested years later,” the Innocence Project said. “Those statements point to viable alternative perpetrators.
“Had that information been available at trial — and had the story of Shaurn’s presence in court at the moment the murder was committed been told correctly — prosecutors agreed the trial would likely have ended differently.”
Despite his release, prosecutors could choose to refile murder charges against Thomas, the Inquirer reported. They have until June 13 to make their decision.
In the meantime, Thomas is adjusting to being back with his family. He told NBC10 in Philadelphia that he plans to leave the city.
“Philadelphia caused me too many heartaches,” Thomas said.
His mother, Hazeline Thomas, said it was difficult knowing that authorities did not believe her or her son. She said her son never gave up on proving his innocence.
“I’m proud because he was innocent and he did something about it,” she told NBC10.
“Family, prayer, hope,” Shaurn Thomas said. “Keep writing. Keep fighting. Never give up.”