Inside the Philly DA’s Fight to Free the Wrongfully Convicted
Larry Krasner’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which acts as the city’s in-house Innocence Project, is trying to fix sentencing errors past
By the time Chester Hollman III met with Patricia Cummings, in the spring of 2019, he’d lost all hope of ever getting out of prison. Even when Cummings assured him that he had a strong case, he was reluctant to believe her. And why should he? For nearly 15 years, a string of top-notch lawyers had been fighting, pro bono, to overturn his his 1991 murder conviction. Hollman, short and stocky with gleaming eyes, was 23 years old when he was sentenced; by 2019 he was 49 years old. Now Cummings, a Texan who worked for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office — the same entity that put him behind bars — was here saying, once again, that the evidence the commonwealth used to lock him up was suspect.
“I’m just like, okay, maybe this is going to happen,” Hollman told me recently, recalling those early meetings with Cummings. “But I also knew to prepare myself for another letdown.”
Cummings is the head of Philadelphia’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), a branch of the prosecutor’s office tasked with reviewing old convictions for error or malfeasance. Think of it like the city’s own in-house Innocence Project but with the institutional muscle of the prosecutor’s office. When Cummings came to the job in 2018, scores of innocence petitions from prisoners soon stacked up on her desk. Hollman’s case took a top priority for reconsideration because he had been incarcerated so long, and when his lawyers detailed aspects of the case they found troubling.
On an August night in 1991, eyewitnesses to the murder of Tae Jung Ho, a foreign exchange student, called 9–1–1 and reported that the shooter sped off in a white Chevrolet Blazer with YZA in the license plate number.
Hollman was driving a car that met the description in the general vicinity of the murder, and within minutes of the 9–1–1 call, officers pulled him over. He was driving with a friend, Dierdre Jones.
No other details matched eyewitness accounts — he didn’t share an appearance, the number of passengers in the car didn’t line up.
His conviction hinged on eyewitnesses identifying the car he drove that night — but police didn’t follow leads on another car that met the same description also in the area, driven by a person with a lengthy criminal record. Further, the only two witnesses to testify that Hollman was the perpetrator had since withdrawn their testimony.
“I was so absolutely blown away by the fact that there were other white Chevy blazers on the street in Philadelphia that night, with the license plate with the first same three letters,” she told me. What are the odds of that?
Philadelphia’s CIU is one of nearly 60 such units in local prosecutor’s offices across the country. The Dallas district attorney’s office established the first over a decade ago, but about half of the units were created just in the past four years as progressive prosecutors have taken office in jurisdictions large and small. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, CIUs were responsible for 58 exonerations nationwide, which translates to roughly one-third of total exonerations that year according to the national registry of exonerations.
Not all units are created equal. At least nine that have been established for at least three years have not had a single exoneration. The Philadelphia unit was officially created in 2014, but was sparsely staffed and criticized for being a CIU in name only. The unit had only one part-time staffer for its first three years, and overturned zero convictions. The office revamped in late 2016, expanding to three full-time staffers. (Earlier this month, Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro announced the launch of a statewide CIU. He did not say if the unit has begun to review cases, or when it would.)
Then, in 2018, Larry Krasner took office. Krasner, a former defense and civil rights attorney, is widely considered to be the most reform-minded prosecutor in the country. One of his first moves was to recruit Cummings from Dallas’s CIU to helm the Philly unit and pump the unit with resources. The unit went from three full-time attorneys to eight, and it now has five support staffers. The results came swiftly: Whereas the CIU exonerated only one man in its first three years, in the two years under Cummings the team has set free 12 men. The CIU is actively reviewing at least 50 cases, and several are nearing the latter stages of litigation, according to a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s office.
“I’ve done almost everything in the criminal justice system besides being a judge sitting on the bench.”
Across the country, voters are ushering in prosecutors who promise to jail fewer people. Seen as a much-needed corrective to our decades-long mass incarceration spree, these prosecutors and their CIUs are spending a good deal of time trying to undo past mistakes — a deceptively radical approach, as prosecutors of the past tended to be trepidatious to investigate errors that their offices made.
Cummings came to Philadelphia with unparalleled experience under her belt. In addition to leading the Dallas CIU, she also worked in her off hours for the Texas Innocence Project. “Patricia is the first free agent in conviction integrity,” said John Hollway, executive director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “She’s able to articulate both the prosecutorial and the defense perspectives in ways that convince people that we’re getting to actual truth.” In her early years, she worked as a trial attorney in a prosecutor’s office, representing the state in misdemeanor cases. “I’ve done almost everything in the criminal justice system besides being a judge sitting on the bench,” she told me.
Typically, CIUs use their power to exonerate people — uncovering new evidence or introducing new science such as DNA testing; showing thinness of cases that rely on now-debunked forensic science such as bite marks; or alleging misconduct by prosecutors or police past. But under Cummings the unit’s objective has expanded to include cases of over-sentencing. “We’re getting letters saying, ‘I got an 80-year sentence and my co-defendants got five,’” Cummings explained. Under Pennsylvania law there is little room for her to bring those cases to court; where she has been effective, though, is in supporting petitions for commutation, or a governor-sanctioned early release of a prisoner deemed safe for society. This past year Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, who is the head of the board of pardons, revitalized commutations after decades of dormancy.
Fourteen prisoners statewide had their life sentences commuted and were released in 2019 — more than under the past three gubernatorial administrations combined — nine of whom were from Philadelphia, all with the support of Cummings and Krasner.
On the night of the 1991 murder, Hollman and his friend Jones were questioned for hours, without counsel. Eventually Jones signed a statement written by the police the saying that she and Hollman pulled off the murder-robbery. (Years later she recanted, signing a statement saying she “confessed” under great duress from detectives who lied to her that Hollman had admitted to killing Ho, and that he was part of a gang that would harm her if he didn’t go to prison. The only other witness to testify against Hollman also recanted years later.)
“I grew up believing that the police were all good. And so when all this happened, I said, okay, you know, they’ll see I didn’t do this,” Hollman said in a recent interview.
However, based almost entirely on coerced testimony, a jury convicted Hollman of second-degree murder and sent him away to spend the rest of his life in prison. He was just 24 years old.
In his early years as an inmate, Hollman retained belief that the justice system would correct this wrong. “I’m watching the appeals get denied and denied. And I’m like, trying to understand them all in my head. How is it happening?”
Alan Tauber, who was a private defense attorney at the time and is now the first assistant at the Philadelphia public defender’s office, took the case in 2005 and would remain on it until Hollman was set free. Tauber and his co-council continued to badger the courts and the DA’s office, trying to get somebody to take another look at Hollman’s case. “You know, the concept of gaslighting? People made me feel like I was insane,” Tauber told me. “The culture of the DA’s office before Larry Krasner here was so was driven by preserving convictions.”
Hollman languished in prison as the years dragged on, eventually losing hope and slipping into despair. “Maybe five years ago, that’s when I lost it,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I kind of became a zombie in there.”
When Larry Krasner took office in 2018, Tauber immediately submitted a petition to the CIU. It was one of the first that Cummings looked into.
Hollman’s case exemplifies the pivotal role CIU’s can play. Prior to Cummings taking the unit on, Hollman and his attorneys had exhausted all of the avenues available to them. But the lynchpin to proving his innocence was that she was on the inside: Cummings and her team had access to police files that proved police perjury, witness coercion, and inadequate investigation — all which had been illegally withheld from the defense.
Further, she ordered DNA testing from the victim’s fingernails that had been preserved in evidence, but never tested. The results showed DNA from another man, not Hollman.
“Truly, this case, more than anything, was about that access,” Cummings said.“It was about somebody finally really taking the time to look through every piece of material we had on the case — and not only pay attention to it, but also provide it to the defense.”
Tauber remembers the first time he laid eyes on the files. “I open this box, I pull a file and I open it up and I stare at it like literally, like dumbfounded,” he said. For a moment he doubted himself, thinking that he was so eager to find proof of Hollman’s innocence that he was misreading the documents. “I put it down and I handed it to my investigator. I said, ‘I’m not going to tell you what I’m thinking about this. You look at it, tell me what you’re seeing. And she said she had the same reaction.” He even took pictures of several documents and sent them to trusted friends; years of obfuscation by the police made him paranoid he might never see the papers again.
Cummings submitted a petition to the court in June 2019—28 years after Hollman was arrested. A hearing was scheduled for the end of July. But after reading their case for Hollman’s innocence, on July 15th Judge Gwendolyn N. Bright ordered his immediate release.
Cummings is humble about her success. She played it cool in our conversation, insisting that she always expected the judge to release Hollman. “It was just so clear that he was innocent,” she said. The exoneration, like all victories in her line of work, brought mixed emotions: happiness for Hollman, yes, but also affirmation of “how horribly wrong the system got it” in the first place. Other entities, such as the Innocence Project and lawyers such as Tauber, are working to exonerate clients across the country. “But the bottom line is, more often than not, they’re not dealing with a counterpart, that is, a prosecutor who just says we’re going to open up our files and we’re going to give you access to it,” she said. “And absent that access, they really are hamstrung.” Indeed, without that access Hollman would still be behind bars.
“I’d been there so long that I was scared to leave because that became where I grew up.”
Hollman got the news as he returned to his block after his work shift at the prison gym. The block counselor took him into her office and told him he was going home. The reality didn’t sink in until a few minutes later when a correctional officer ran up to him and told him to pack his belongings. The rest of the day was a blur: Hollman shed tears and hugged both inmates and guards, an outpouring of emotion that packed extra meaning in an environment where it is generally prohibited. Joy turned momentarily to fear — “I’d been there so long that I was scared to leave because that became where I grew up” — then back again to joy.
A few hours later he was in his uncle’s car, driving over the old suspension bridge traversing the river that runs adjacent to the prison grounds — if this were fiction, the overt symbolic value of the stream would be cliché. Sure, there would be challenges ahead for Hollman: hours of therapy to help him unravel decades of trauma from incarceration and adjust to life in the community when no one around him understood what it was like to grow up in prison. But in that moment, Hollman was transfixed. “I had watched this bridge from my cell for decades,” Hollman said. He told his uncle to slow down. “I had always envisioned myself trying to get across this bridge. So to actually be on the bridge going home — ” He paused, trying to collect his thoughts. “I was just looking at the water.”