A Philadelphia man is now free from prison after spending 28 years behind bars for a murder prosecutors now say he likely didn’t commit.
Chester Hollman III was sentenced to life in prison for the 1991 killing of University of Pennsylvania student Tae-Jung Ho. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this week that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office found that police and prosecutors “had hidden evidence that pointed to more viable suspects.” There was no physical evidence indicating Hollman was involved in the crime, yet the testimony of two witnesses — who later recanted — helped get him convicted.
“It was pretty clear to us,” said Assistant District Attorney Patricia Cummings, “that unfortunately the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office actually had evidence in their possession back at the time of trial [that], had they disclosed it to the defense that they’re constitutionally and ethically required to do … Mr. Hollman might not have ever even stood trial.”
Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Gwendolyn N. Bright made the recent ruling that freed Hollman, concluding he was “likely innocent” of the crime for which he was serving a life sentence. As the Inquirer reported, this was a “stunning reversal” from her ruling in 2012, in which she said Hollman would not receive a new trial. That ruling came after Deirdre Jones, a key witness for the prosecution, admitted that she lied to jurors in 1993.
“Jones had told them she had been riding in an SUV with Hollman and two others that night in 1991 when she watched two of them get out and heard a gunshot,” the outlet reported. “Jones, who was then a neighbor of Hollman’s, has since said that police had pressured her to incriminate Hollman. David Baker, the now-retired detective who took Jones’ original statement, denied in the 2012 hearing — and again in a 2017 interview with The Inquirer — that he had coerced her testimony.”
Another witness — a man — also recanted his testimony years after Hollman’s conviction, claiming police pressured him to point the finger at Hollman.
Hollman’s case was helped in 2017 by the Inquirer when it mentioned his case in an article about “the pervasive practice of lying in the criminal justice system — by suspects, witnesses, and law enforcement.” The “Undisclosed” podcast also highlighted Hollman’s case, which his appeals attorney, Alan Tauber, said helped his client.
“This is a glorious day,” Tauber said after Hollman was released from jail. “We have a flawed system and innocent people do go to jail. But we have a great system, because there is a means for correcting that.”
The Inquirer also reported that Hollman’s release “is the eighth murder conviction that the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has helped to reverse since Larry Krasner took over the office in January 2018.”
Not every police department has something like the Conviction Integrity Unit, and the process to overturn a conviction — especially one for a serious charge — is long and arduous. Yet Hollman’s case shows that it is possible for innocent people to get the justice they deserved. Hollman was 20 years old when he was sentenced to life in prison. He is now 48 and just getting to start living the life that was previously taken away from him.