Innocence Project Responds to Recent Factual Misstatements in Anthony Wright Case
04.14.21 By Innocence Staff
The following statement may be attributed to the Innocence Project (New York, NY) which is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. The Innocence Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that seeks to exonerate the wrongly convicted and reform the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Innocence Project does not endorse or oppose candidates for any elected office. This statement is issued solely in our capacity as longtime counsel for Anthony Wright in order to provide accurate factual information regarding the history of Mr. Wright’s case.
In October 1991, 20-year-old Anthony Wright was arrested and charged with the rape and murder of Louise Talley, a 77-year-old widow who was brutally murdered in her North Philadelphia home. From the date of his arrest and for the next twenty-five years, Mr. Wright maintained his innocence. He specifically maintained that detectives forced him to sign a false “confession” under threats of physical violence, and that detectives also lied when they claimed to have found bloody clothing from the crime in Mr. Wright’s home which was not his.
At Mr. Wright’s first trial, in 1993, DNA technology was in its infancy. Mr. Wright was convicted by a jury despite his protestations of innocence. The Philadelphia District Attorney sought the death penalty, but Mr. Wright was sentenced to life in prison. In 2014, after years of litigation by the Innocence Project, Mr. Wright’s 1993 conviction was overturned based on new DNA test results which (1) proved that his “confession” was false; (2) revealed that the clothing falsely attributed to him was not his; and (3) identified a deceased man with no connection to Mr. Wright as the source of the male DNA found inside the victim at autopsy.
Despite the DNA evidence, then Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams decided to retry Mr. Wright. Then ADA’s Bridget Kirn and Carlos Vega were assigned by DA Williams to jointly handle the retrial. The Commonwealth sought the death penalty a second time, but prior to trial, dropped the death notice and brought charges carrying a second life sentence upon conviction. The case was retried to a jury in August 2016 (with the Innocence Project and Samuel Silver of Schnader LLP as Mr. Wright’s counsel). The trial ended with Mr. Wright’s prompt acquittal (on the jury’s first ballot and in under one hour) on all counts, and he was freed on Aug. 23, 2016. Mr. Wright was subsequently awarded nearly $10 million in damages for his wrongful imprisonment in a historic settlement with the City of Philadelphia.
In recent months, former ADA Carlos Vega, now a candidate for Philadelphia District Attorney, has made several statements regarding his role in Mr. Wright’s 2016 re-prosecution. When Mr. Vega was asked about his role in Mr. Wright’s re-prosecution in a February media interview, he said, “My only participation in that case was calling civilian witnesses and I think the crime scene personnel. With respect to the rest of the case, I was not involved at all. It was not my case.” Earlier this week, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that when speaking at a candidates’ forum in March, Mr. Vega characterized his role in the Wright trial as follows: “I was brought in at the 11th hour, two weeks before trial, just to question three witnesses.”
These statements are false. Mr. Vega was co-counsel for the Commonwealth throughout Mr. Wright’s 2016 trial, which spanned nearly three full weeks. In that capacity, he questioned fifteen different trial witnesses. They included: (1) presenting the testimony of the three lead detectives, whose claims to have extracted a truthful confession from Mr. Wright and to have found evidence from the crime in his home were the key disputed issues in the case; (2) cross-examining Mr. Wright himself (at great length – over 59 pages), during which Mr. Vega repeatedly challenged Mr. Wright’s integrity, veracity, and his claims of innocence; and (3) cross-examining the defense’s expert pathologist, who testified that the forensic evidence from the victim’s autopsy was inconsistent with Mr. Wright’s police-authored “confession.”
Mr. Vega also testified at his post-trial deposition in 2017 about the specific role he played in Mr. Wright’s pretrial proceedings. Mr. Vega recalled that he was assigned to co-counsel the case with ADA Kirn approximately four to six weeks before trial. He met on numerous occasions with the lead detectives to prepare their testimony. He personally consulted with the head of the DAO’s homicide division about whether the case should proceed to trial, in which he expressed his view that the Commonwealth had a strong case against Mr. Wright. He made recommendations to his superiors regarding plea deals(s), which ultimately led to an offer — presented to the defense by Mr. Vega personally — that Mr. Wright plead guilty to a minimum term of 40-to-80 years (meaning that he would not be eligible for parole for another 15 years), which Mr. Wright promptly declined.
To this day, Mr. Vega has not apologized to Mr. Wright for the role he played in seeking his return to prison on a second life sentence, nor publicly acknowledged Mr. Wright’s innocence. In fact, during his deposition, Mr. Vega said that he believed Mr. Wright was guilty, and further stated that even if he had proof in 2016 that the detectives had knowingly fabricated Mr. Wright’s confession or planted physical evidence against him, he would have still recommended that the District Attorney’s Office proceed to trial.
The Innocence Project takes no position on the merits of Mr. Vega’s campaign for District Attorney, nor on that of his opponent, District Attorney Krasner. We are issuing this statement on behalf of our client simply to set the record straight about the history of Mr. Wright’s case — one that both candidates have put at issue and commented upon during the campaign.
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