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With DAO Support, Federal Court Vacates 1984 Murder Conviction of Willie Stokes

PHILADELPHIA (January 3, 2022) – The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has granted federal habeas relief to Willie Stokes, who has been serving a life sentence for murder since 1984 despite his conviction resting largely on a key witness who pleaded guilty to perjury soon after Stokes’ conviction. The Court and the District Attorney’s Office agreed that Stokes’ due process rights were violated at the time of his conviction and during subsequent attempts to have his conviction overturned.

“This remarkable case is marked by prosecutorial and policing practices that were too pervasive during the so-called tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s, and unfortunately persist in far too many jurisdictions today. Prosecutors have an obligation to seek justice, and to redefine prosecutorial success – not by ‘wins’ in the form of convictions, but by accuracy and fairness in resolving criminal investigations and prosecutions,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said. “Mr. Stokes’ ordeal over nearly four decades of filing relief petition after relief petition, only to be rejected on procedural bases and without all of the evidence the Constitution says he was owed from the Commonwealth, underscores the urgency of the criminal legal system seeking justice over finality. I want to thank Assistant District Attorneys Matthew Stiegler and and David Napiorski of our Federal Litigation Unit and DAO Law Division Supervisor Nancy Winkelman for working to make sure this office always seeks justice on behalf of the Commonwealth.”

Following years of unsuccessful Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) and federal habeas litigation, the U.S. District Court last November agreed to hold an evidentiary hearing on Stokes’ petition for a writ of habeas corpus.  After hearing the evidence presented at that hearing, the DAO agreed that Stokes was entitled to federal habeas relief due to misconduct at the time of Stokes’ conviction and subsequent petitions for relief regarding a failure to disclose that the key witness at Stokes’ preliminary hearing, Franklin Lee, had recanted his testimony and was soon after prosecuted by the DAO for perjury.

During the evidentiary hearing in November, Lee testified that his initial statement given to police and his testimony at the preliminary hearing implicating Stokes in the 1980 murder of Leslie Campbell in North Philadelphia had been false. Lee also testified that prosecutors at the time told him he would receive a favorable deal on his open cases in exchange for his testimony against Stokes. There was no other evidence linking Stokes directly to the crime.

Prosecutors went on to secure a conviction and life sentence without the possibility of parole for Stokes, and they also pursued perjury charges against Lee for recanting his preliminary hearing testimony at Stokes’ trial. Prior to DA Krasner, the DAO did not disclose Lee’s perjury conviction to Stokes, which Stokes could have used as he pursued PCRA and federal habeas relief.

Stokes’ case has been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer series, “The Homicide Files,” focusing on police and prosecutorial misconduct in Philadelphia. The DAO Conviction Integrity Unit, which investigates credible claims of official misconduct and innocence, has secured 24 exonerations of 23 wrongfully convicted individuals since 2018.

Following the November evidentiary hearing, Magistrate Judge Carol Sandra Moore Wells filed a report and recommendation that Stokes be granted habeas relief on his claim that the Commonwealth violated Brady v. Maryland in failing to turn over the fact of Lee’s perjury conviction for over 30 years. Judge Wells’ December 22, 2021, opinion finds that the best available evidence suggests that Lee pled guilty to perjuring himself at Stokes’s preliminary hearing, where he inculpated Stokes, and not at his trial, where he recanted his prior testimony. Judge Wells further finds that there is a reasonable probability that Stokes would have been acquitted without Lee’s testimony and that the trial verdict is therefore unreliable. Judge Wells recommends that Stokes be granted habeas relief on his claim, and the Commonwealth agrees.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Savage approved and adopted Judge Wells’ report and recommendation, and granted Stokes’ petition for habeas relief.

CONTACT:Jane Roh, 215-686-8711, [email protected]

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The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million residents of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually.