PHILADELPHIA — John Miller spent 22 years in prison almost entirely due to the fleeting word of one man: an accused robber who initially told detectives that Miller had confessed a murder to him. But the robber quickly recanted and said he had lied to police to receive beneficial treatment in his own cases.
Despite the change of heart — and without much evidence at trial, beyond police affirming the informant’s statement — a jury convicted Miller anyway, earning him an automatic life sentence.
As a Philly judge agreed to overturn a murder conviction after 31 years, the DA’s Office took aim at the justice system
He spent 23 years on death row for a Philly murder he said he didn’t commit.
Now, nearly a year after Miller’s case was overturned and he was freed from prison, the 45-year-old has filed a lawsuit featuring explosive claims against the five detectives who helped put him behind bars.
Among other assertions, Miller and his lawyers claim that evidence discovered during his appeal shows that the officers were aware of demonstrably false aspects of their star witnesses’ version of events — but that they did not disclose evidence of the flaws, as required by law, and continued to push for Miller’s arrest and conviction.
The detectives’ decision to trust David Williams — a “known liar,” the suit claims — not only led to Miller’s wrongful incarceration, it also may have allowed the case’s true killer to become its key informant. Four years after Miller’s 1998 conviction, the suit says, Williams wrote to Miller’s mother and said that he needed to clear his conscience because he had been “living a lie.”
Williams wrote that he had actually committed the murder, firing a gun in self-defense.
“Your son had no knowledge of this crime,” he wrote. “He wasn’t even there.”
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court, is unique due to the circumstances of Miller’s extended incarceration: Despite Williams’ 2002 confession, Miller remained in prison for an additional 18 years and Williams was never charged with murder. Courts rejected Miller’s appeals for procedural reasons — and because they held that Williams’ initial statement to police was the only credible version of his frequently changing story.
Andrew Richman, chief of staff in the city’s Law Department, declined to comment on Miller’s lawsuit, which names the city as a defendant, as well as the detectives involved in his case: Jeffrey Piree, William Coogan, Richard Bova, John Bell, and Michael Sharkey.
Miller’s lawsuit is the latest in a string of events challenging the norms and practices of the city’s criminal justice system in the late 1980s and 1990s, an era when the city routinely topped 400 murders per year and detectives secured arrests at a rate far higher than the national average.
Earlier this month, District Attorney Larry Krasner openly wondered if that high arrest rate was the result of police cutting corners or locking up innocent people, mostly young men of color. Since Krasner took office in January 2018, his Conviction Integrity Unit has helped secure the exonerations of 14 men previously convicted of murder. Every man but one of them has been Black.
The city in recent years also has been paying out an increasing amount to settle wrongful-conviction lawsuits brought by men who spent decades behind bars only to have misconduct by police and prosecutors exposed during their appeals.
Between August 2018 and October 2019, according to figures provided by the Law Department, taxpayers spent nearly $18 million to settle four wrongful-conviction lawsuits, three of which stemmed from arrests made in the 1990s. Between 2010 and 2018, the figures show, the city paid $1.5 million to settle two such lawsuits.
The spending level is almost certain to grow; at least two other exonerees have pending suits against the city, and three other men cleared of murder within the last year have been released from prison but have not filed suit. Krasner’s office has also said it is continuing to investigate possible misconduct from the era.
Civil lawsuits are one of the only avenues of recourse for people freed from prison in Pennsylvania. The state is one of 15 nationally to provide no money or service assistance to people who have had their convictions overturned.
Nilam Sanghvi, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and a previous lawyer for Miller, said some of the project’s exonerees have been released from prison onto street corners or at bus stops with only trash bags of their belongings.
While people released onto parole are given some form of job training and mentoring with a parole agent, she said, “Our clients who are fully exonerated are released with nothing.”
Miller, through his attorney, Jonathan Feinberg, declined to comment. But Feinberg said the case was an example of “long-standing and insidious efforts (by police) to blame innocent people, who are often young Black men, for committing violent crimes.”
Miller was arrested on June 24, 1997, and charged with fatally shooting Anthony Mullen, 49, near 30th Street Station nearly two years earlier.
The arrest was based in large part on information supplied by Williams, who had been arrested for a string of robberies and, in a bid for leniency, told police he had information about several murders.
Miller’s suit claims that Williams told police demonstrably false information about the Mullen murder, and that detectives knew it. Among other errors, according to the suit: Williams separately told two detectives, Sharkey and Piree, that a man named Mark Manigault was present at the scene of the Mullen murder.
But Manigault had been in jail that day, the suit said, and Piree, in the investigative file, documented an interview with Manigault and Manigault’s prison history. Those records were never provided to anyone outside of the Police Department, the suit claims, violating the law requiring exculpatory evidence be provided to defendants. Attempts to reach Piree for comment Wednesday were not successful.
Years after Miller’s conviction — and after Williams confessed to Miller’s mother — Williams was called to testify at an appeal hearing to reiterate his alleged admission. But the suit says a prosecutor asked Williams if he was willing to face the death penalty, causing him to change his story again on the witness stand.
Miller remained in prison, and Williams was charged with perjury and pleaded guilty.
In 2011, the suit claims, Williams again wrote to Miller’s mother — confessing to the killing, and apologizing for what he said at the appeal hearing.
Miller’s winding road toward freedom finally ended last year, when a judge agreed to toss Miller’s case with support from his lawyers and Krasner’s office.
Feinberg and Sanghvi said Miller has since been trying to reconnect with family and friends, find work, and cope with the two decades he spent behind bars.
“He spent what should’ve been the best and most productive years of his early adulthood locked away in a state prison,” Feinberg said. “Mr. Miller is doing his best to start anew.”
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer