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(PHILADELPHIA – September 22, 2014) With the consent of the Philadelphia District Attorney, a Court of Common Pleas judge today granted Anthony Wright’s motion to overturn his conviction. Wright served 23 years for a rape and murder that new DNA testing reveals was committed by another man with a long criminal history. In addition, DNA testing of clothing alleged by police to have been worn by Wright to commit the crime now shows that the clothes were not, in fact, his.
“The DNA evidence conclusively excludes Tony Wright as the source of all of the critical evidence from the scene, including sperm found inside this elderly victim,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “By identifying another man as the real perpetrator — someone with no connection to Tony, and whom none of the prosecution’s witnesses ever mentioned in their statements– the DNA proves that the entire case against Tony was based on false evidence.”
Wright was convicted of the 1991 rape and murder of the 77-year-old North Philadelphia resident Louise Talley on June 8, 1993. Police claimed that after merely 14 minutes in custody, Wright voluntarily gave a full and complete signed confession to the crime. Wright, however, who was just 20 when he was arrested, has always maintained his innocence and testified that he only signed the alleged confession, which the police wrote out, after the interrogating detectives threatened him with bodily harm. Subsequent to securing the confession, police also claimed that they recovered from Wright’s home the bloody clothes Wright wore on the night of the crime. However, recent DNA testing reveals that the clothes were not worn by Wright and instead were the victim’s, which raises serious questions about where the police actually recovered the clothing.
All of the prosecution’s trial witnesses, two of whom were admitted crack dealers, claimed that Wright committed the crime alone, saying either that they saw him enter the victim’s home alone or that he described his actions to them. Not only did the witnesses provide conflicting details, but most importantly, none of them mentioned anything about the real perpetrator: Ronnie Byrd, a then 39 year old convicted felon whose semen was identified by DNA testing of the vaginal and rectal swabs collected from the victim at autopsy.
Wright testified in his own defense, telling the jury that he worked at his full-time construction job on the day of the crime and later went to a night club. His mother also testified that the clothes the police claimed that Wright wore were not her son’s and were not seized from her home. Wright was convicted of rape and murder, narrowly escaping the death penalty by a 7 to 5 vote of the jury.
Wright obtained the help of the Innocence Project, which sought to conduct DNA testing of the crime scene evidence. The former Philadelphia District Attorney objected to the testing for more than five years, and the case eventually went to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the lower court for a new hearing on DNA testing in 2011. At that point, new District Attorney Seth Williams agreed to permit testing. The testing of the rape kit identified spermatozoa recovered from the victim’s vagina and rectum that excluded Wright as the source, and was then identified as Byrd’s. Byrd was twice the age of Wright and almost half the age of the victim at the time of the crime and had a long criminal record, which included crimes in and around Philadelphia. Byrd died in South Carolina in early 2013 and was never able to be questioned about the crime or prosecuted for it.
What’s more, DNA testing of the clothes police claimed were worn by Wright to the victim’s home the night of the murder demonstrate that the clothing did not belong to Wright but in fact had been worn by the victim.
“We are pleased District Attorney Seth Williams has agreed that Mr. Wright is, at a minimum, entitled to a new trial,” said Samuel Silver of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP, co-counsel for Wright and Pennsylvania Innocence Project board member. “Given the proof of innocence that the DNA testing has provided, we’re hopeful that that the District Attorney’s office will quickly decide that no retrial is necessary and finally put an end to this miscarriage of justice.”
Wright was surrounded by his relatives when he received the news in court today that his conviction was reversed. The case was adjourned to give the district attorney’s office time to conduct further investigation and decide whether it intends to retry Wright for the crime.
In addition to Neufeld and Silver, Wright is represented by Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project and Rebecca Lacher of Schnader.