Willie Stokes, a Black man from Philadelphia who has spent the last 37 years in prison for murder, is now free, according to NPR.
The primary witness in the investigation, Franklin Lee, was allegedly offered sex and drugs by detectives in exchange for false witness testimony in 1983.
Per the story from NPR, a few days after Stokes was convicted of the 1984 murder of Leslie Campbell, Lee was charged with perjury. But, Stokes did not learn about the perjury plea until 2015, 31 years into his life sentence.
Stokes, 61, walked out of a state prison near Philadelphia eager to get a hug from his mother and a corned beef hoagie. His mother was too nervous to come after several earlier disappointments, so he greeted other family members instead.
“Today is a tremendous day. We’re all very thankful,” said his lawyer, Michael Diamondstein. “However, it’s also a sad day, because it reminds us of how lawless, unfair and unjust Philadelphia law enforcement was for so long.”
If you’re mad at the detectives who allegedly bribed Lee to help close a 1980 murder case, don’t hold your breath on those men getting their day in court because they’re dead. Lee , the inmate who allegedly lied on Stokes, was also in custody for an unrelated murder and rape at the time and was told he would get a light sentence, according to NPR.
Lee told a federal judge in November 2021 that he felt “weak,” during a preliminary hearing in May 1984 when he testified that his neighborhood friend, Stokes, confessed to murdering a man during a dice game.
But wait, it gets worse.
According to NPR, during Stokes’ August 1984 murder trial, Lee recanted the story he previously told, but it was ignored. Stokes was still convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
That’s some foul shit.
More from NPR:
Days later, Philadelphia prosecutors charged Lee with perjury — not over his trial testimony, but over the initial testimony he’d given at the preliminary hearing. Lee pleaded guilty, admitting he’d made up the confession, and was sentenced to a maximum seven-year prison term.
“The homicide prosecutors that used Franklin Lee’s testimony to convict Willie Stokes then prosecuted Franklin Lee for lying on Willie Stokes. And they never told Willie Stokes,” Diamondstein argued at the November hearing in federal court.
Stokes’ family had been praying for years that he’d be released, but there was always something.
Again, from NPR:
Stokes’ mother, now elderly, has been planning for his homecoming as his appeals gained traction, only to face repeated setbacks, she told The Philadelphia Inquirer, which first reported on the case.
But Lee’s mother also played a role early on.
In federal court testimony last November, Lee said his girlfriend — who detectives summoned to have sex with him at police headquarters back in 1983 and who was allowed to bring marijuana and a few dozen opioid pills — told his mother about the deal he’d struck.
His mother told the woman not to go down to the station again. Instead, police secured him a sex worker the next time, Lee said.
“Once I talked to my mother, she told me, ‘I didn’t raise you like that, to lie on a man because you got yourself in a jam,’” Lee testified, according to the transcript. “She said, ‘I couldn’t care if they give you 1,000 years. Go in there and tell the truth.’ And that’s what I did.”
The alleged lengths the detectives went to bribe Lee just get worse.
Lee, who was bribed by detectives to lie, ended up serving 35 years in prison on rape, murder and perjury charges and was released from prison two years ago and apologized to Stokes in court “for the problem I caused,” according to NPR.
The U.S. magistrate who heard the appeal called the omission a violation of Stokes’ constitutional rights and a district judge agreed, who eventually overturned his conviction last week.
Per the story from NPR, the Philadelphia Police Department has no comments on the case and the Philadelphia District Attorney, Larry Krasner, has not come to a decision on whether they should retry Stokes, but it will come before the Jan. 26 hearing in state court.