Curtis Crosland of Philadelphia spent over 30 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Now, after a review of his case, he’s a free man once again.
CNN reports that the 60-year-old Crosland’s conviction was overturned in June with help from the Philadelphia Conviction Integrity Unit. In 1991, he was found guilty of the 1984 murder of local store owner Il Man “Tony” Heo based on testimonies from two witnesses who later recanted their statements.
Not only that, but the CIU’s review of Crosland’s case also found that Philadelphia’s police department and district attorney’s office had the evidence that proved his innocence on file the whole time. There was also no evidence, physical or otherwise, that connected Crosland with Heo’s murder.
From a CIU news release announcing Crosland’s exoneration:
Citing the CIU’s “exhaustive and dedicated investigation” of this case, the federal court agreed that evidence regarding the lack of credibility of two prosecution witnesses was not turned over to defense counsel at the time of trial, as is constitutionally required, nor was evidence disclosed by the Commonwealth that showed the Philadelphia Police investigation initially focused on another suspect.
Crosland told CNN that his case is another sign that the country’s criminal justice system needs reform.
He maintained his innocence while in prison and filed multiple petitions, acting as his own lawyer, which he says he learned to do while studying law books in the prison’s library.
“You have poor, indigent men that have no access to have a good defense. The system should be designed that every man be treated equally,” Crosland said.
Crosland said he went to court every year during his time in prison to assert his innocence, but faced closed doors from the courts. “I don’t think I ever had a full night’s sleep, but I always told myself the day I’m exonerated I’m going to get my full night’s sleep,” he said.
Crosland said his faith in God kept him strong — but that prison was still a “hellish” struggle every day.
The CIU said Crosland’s case was the 22nd exoneration the unit has supported since its creation in 2018. Data from the National Registry of Exonerations shows that he is among 67 others who have been exonerated so far in 2021.
According to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, government misconduct and false testimonies from informants are two of the six most common reasons behind a wrongful conviction in the United States.
Rodney Everett and Delores Tilghman, the informants who provided the false statements that led to Crosland’s conviction, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that they felt the police coerced them into lying.
From the Inquirer:
“It was just very brutal. They threaten you. They will use your family and they will tell you what they will do to your family, taking your kids,” said Everett, who testified at Crosland’s preliminary hearing but said he repeatedly tried to recant. “When you tell the truth, they don’t care. They’ll accept the lies, but they won’t accept the truth.”
Everett refused to testify at Crosland’s trial, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but his earlier statement was read into the record. After Crosland’s conviction was overturned, Everett was granted immunity to testify at the second trial but recanted on the stand.
Yet Crosland was convicted again by a second jury.
As for Tilghman, she said detectives came to her home and woke her up, threatening to arrest her if she didn’t testify.
“It was him or me,” she said. “They were threatening me with putting me in jail. ... They can make that happen. I seen them make his life disappear with one witness.”
She said she’d long regretted her role in the case and was glad to learn of Crosland’s release.
The Inquirer reports that the evidence found by the CIU putting the credibility of the informants in question included a failed polygraph test and a statement from Everett’s wife saying he had identified someone else as Heo’s killer.
More from the Inquirer:
“To me, it’s a case that has all the telltale signs of a wrongful conviction,” CIU supervisor Patricia Cummings said. “You have a case that was cold. Then you have snitches involved wanting something in their case, and then the historical lack of understanding and appreciation of [disclosure requirements].”
It’s a sad truth that there are likely countless other wrongfully convicted people incarcerated in the country’s penal system. Over 2,800 have them have been exonerated since 1989, according to the data from the National Registry of Exonerations, with an average of nine years of their lives lost behind bars.
But Crosland told CNN that he’s not wasting any time in getting caught up with his loved ones after being away for so long:
He has now returned home to his five children, fiancée and 32 grandchildren. “It’s a great feeling to still be dad, to be wanted and desired, and open arms to receive you, that’s been the greatest part of being exonerated, that I come home to a loving family that wants and needs me,” said Crosland.