28 January 2021 :
Anthony Fletcher has been released from prison, 28 years after he was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder and sent to Pennsylvania’s death row by false medical testimony.
In a virtual hearing in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas on January 21, 2021, Fletcher entered a plea of no contest to charges of third-degree murder, and Judge Lillian Ransom resentenced him to 12½–25 years. Because he had already served more than the maximum term, the court ordered Fletcher’s immediate release.
Fletcher was convicted in January 1993 and sentenced to death for what prosecutors claimed had been the execution-style shooting of Vaughn Christopher over a supposed drug debt. Fletcher claimed the shooting had been in self-defense, after the two struggled over a gun Christopher had pulled on Fletcher. Dr. Hydow Park, the assistant medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, had concluded that the physical evidence was consistent with Fletcher’s version of the shooting. However, instead of presenting Dr. Park, homicide prosecutor Marc Costanzo substituted the testimony of Philadelphia deputy medical examiner Dr. Ian Hood, who told the jury there was no evidence of a struggle. Costanzo then told the jury in his closing argument that Hood’s testimony “is absolutely important to this case, because it refutes the defendant’s version of what happened.”
The trial court overturned Fletcher’s conviction in 2004, holding that trial counsel had been ineffective for failing to interview Park and present his testimony in support of Fletcher’s self-defense claim. In April 2006, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, saying that counsel’s failure had not been prejudicial. Litigating the remaining issues in the case in Pennsylvania’s state courts took another six years. On December 11, 2020, the federal district court (U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick) accepted a joint stipulation filed by the parties overturning Fletcher’s conviction because of trial counsel’s failure to interview Dr. Park or hire an expert to review the autopsy report and to present expert testimony in support of his claim of self-defense. The prosecution in these latter stages was represented by Larry Krasner, 59, white, Democrat, in office since January 2018, who is opposed to the death penalty. One month later, Anthony Fletcher was freed. Fletcher, who earned the nickname “Two Guns” because of his boxing prowess with both hands, won the Pennsylvania lightweight boxing championship in March 1989. Later that year, he was shot by drug dealers five times as he was sitting in his car near a South Philadelphia playground. A friend who was with him in the car was killed in the shooting. After successfully defending his state championship in February 1990, Fletcher’s boxing career ended one year later with two consecutive knockout losses. Struggling financially, Fletcher began selling drugs for rent money. In 1992, he shot Vaughn Christopher twice in the side in what Fletcher consistently maintained had been a struggle over Christopher’s gun. Christopher died 12 hours later. Police reported that three people claimed to have seen Fletcher walk up to Christopher and shoot him. Two later admitted that they did not see the shooting and said that the statements attributed to them in the police reports were false. The third purported eyewitness, Natalie Grant, was a fugitive who had six outstanding bench warrants against her when, more than three weeks after the shooting, she implicated Fletcher. Her statement to police and her testimony to the jury was contradicted by the physical evidence as to how the shooting occurred.
Police claimed to have lost Christopher’s clothing, which would have shown where in his body he had been shot. And, despite having received the autopsy report, Fletcher’s court-appointed counsel never interviewed Park or secured his testimony at trial and presented no medical testimony to contradict Grant’s testimony.
When post-conviction counsel later interviewed Hood, the assistant medical examiner recanted his trial testimony.
Fletcher’s case is one of a growing number of Philadelphia wrongful murder convictions in which police or prosecutors presented a version of the murder that was contradicted by the autopsy evidence; presented false eyewitness or informant testimony; mishandled, lost, or planted a victim’s or the defendant’s clothing; made false argument to the jury; coerced false confessions; and/or withheld potentially exculpatory evidence. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit has helped to exonerate 17 people since its creation in January 2018, most involving significant police or prosecutorial misconduct. All six Philadelphia death-row exonerees — Neil Ferber, William Nieves, Harold Wilson, Christopher Williams, Walter Ogrod, and Kareem Johnson — were victims of official misconduct, as were Frederick Thomas, who died on death row while Philadelphia prosecutors appealed a court ruling that would have exonerated him, and Jimmy Dennis, who like Fletcher entered a no-contest plea to obtain his release.