Evan M. Lopez
Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi today ordered a new trial for Eugene Gilyard and Lance Felder, two men serving life sentences for a 1995 murder they say they did not commit. The men’s Post Conviction Relief Act petition was based on detailed confessions made by a convicted murderer named Ricky Welborn, one of two men who Gilyard had long maintained were responsible.
"This is the type and quality of evidence that needs to be put before a jury," said DeFino-Nastasi, announcing her order for a new trial. She also noted that the original "evidence supporting the convictions," limited to highly contradictory eyewitness identifications, "was terribly weak."
Gilyard was represented by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which presented evidence that Welborn and a man named Timothy Tyler had shot North Philadelphia merchant Thomas Keal to death in a botched robbery. The confessions also contained two strong pieces of corroborating evidence. First, Welborn told investigators that he had shot a second man, Anthony Stokes, with the same shotgun earlier that day. Stokes, located in a state prison, agreed that Welborn had shot him — and released hospital records to back it up. Welborn also said he used the same shotgun in a robbery later that fall — a crime to which he had pleaded guilty.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project approached District Attorney Seth Williams' office in the hope it would agree to review the new evidence. Instead, the DA has fought their petition tooth and nail, much like he has other Innocence Project cases. They ultimately argued that Welborn had been promised $10,000 to confess. That argument was based on phone calls and letters from Welborn made over the summer, in which Welborn claimed that he did not commit the murder and that he had been promised cash to say that he did.
The DA could point to just one $500 deposit made in Welborn's commissary—by a woman using the same first name as a relative who frequently made such deposits.
DeFino-Nastasi agreed with the defense, noting that Welborn only stepped back from his testimony after a lengthy May cover story in City Paper led friends and relatives to complain that Welborn was snitching. In addition, the letters, which Welborn had stated he was aware were being monitored by authorities in a recorded phone call, were sent to addresses that either had no relationship to the case or did not exist.
Judge DeFino-Nastasi seemed incredulous at the DA's argument that the entire petition was a complex, more than decade-long conspiracy. With a touch of sarcasm, she said the theory was "a little bit too coincidental."
Marissa Bluestine, legal director at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, hailed the ruling but called it "three years overdue. We asked the Philadelphia District Attorney's office to assist us in this investigation from the very beginning. They refused. In fact, we got silence. And even through today we got absolutely unbelievable, obstructionist answers and responses to blatantly obvious evidence of innocence."
The DA’s office said it was not yet prepared to comment on whether it would appeal the ruling.
The City Paper investigation also prompted a key defense witness, Lance Felder's younger brother Kenyatta Felder, to come forward and testify. His testimony, which implicated their oldest brother, Rob, as an accessory to the shooting, was powerful: it showed that Kenyatta was willing to help free one brother even at the potential expense of the other being locked up for life.
"I'm just so overwhelmed, grateful," Gilyard's mother, Christine Gilyard, told City Paper after the ruling. "I knew the truth was the only thing that was going to set him free, and the truth came out in court."
Welborn, Tyler, and Rob Felder could all be prosecuted for Thomas Keal's murder if Gilyard and Felder are found not guilty at trial. Ironically, the three men who may have committed the murder will have mountains of evidence that they are innocent. It was presented, however unconvincingly, by the Philadelphia District Attorney.
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