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Philly man has served 38 years for robbery of $1,200. Witnesses say he wasn’t even there

Prison security tower. (MaxPixel/Released)

The night that neighborhood kids robbed the Sweet Love Lounge, Jean Wilson was working behind the bar.

That was back in 1982, and she’s in her 70s now. But she remembers the ordeal vividly — from the moment they kicked away the brick propping open the door and said “This is a stickup!” all the way to the court proceedings in which she testified and four men were convicted.

No one was injured and no shots fired. A total of about $1,200 was taken. But the sentences were substantial, ranging from three years for one codefendant, up to a term of 55 to 110 years for Dennis “Solo” McKeithan, the only one of the four still in prison today.

One thing Wilson says has always been clear in her mind: McKeithan was not there. “I kept saying he wasn’t there,” she said recently. But, she said, police would not accept that. “They got on my nerves so bad, and I was pregnant. I just didn’t want to talk about it no more. So I just said, ‘Yeah, he did it.’ “

On Nov. 23, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge is expected to rule on whether to grant an evidentiary hearing based on Wilson’s recantation, as well as an exculpatory statement from one of McKeithan’s codefendants and other evidence dredged from the murky, decades-old case by a dogged team of investigators. They describe a tainted investigation with connections to infamous police scandals in which dozens of officers were implicated in extortion, false arrests, fabrication of evidence, and involvement in illegal gambling operations.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has asked Judge Susan Schulman to dismiss McKeithan’s petition without a hearing, calling it “untimely and meritless.” In a brief, Assistant District Attorney Cydney Pope also questioned the credibility of the newly obtained statements. “It is, of course, well settled that recantation testimony is extremely unreliable,” Pope wrote.

The robbery, on Oct. 26, 1982, was in a bustling bar in North Philadelphia. Seven witnesses identified McKeithan as one of the men who came armed with a gun and a knife, ordering them to get down on the floor, and surrender wallets, watches, and money from the till.

But McKeithan and his lawyers note that not one of those witnesses identified him immediately after the crime. He was implicated only after an unorthodox investigation that began when the bar’s owner, Marvin Nelson, who had been fired from the police force for conduct unbecoming an officer, teamed up with Philadelphia Police Officer John Fleming.

The lawyers say Nelson sought to frame McKeithan because the two ran rival gambling operations. And they note that Fleming, who would be implicated in the 39th District police scandal, was accused of providing protection for such establishments. Fleming was accused of falsifying evidence and some cases he worked on were overturned — but he was never criminally charged.

McKeithan, however, was convicted by a jury. At sentencing, Judge James McCrudden took into account McKeithan’s prior criminal record, including an assault case that was tried in McCrudden’s courtroom that same year. In that case, a jury had thrown out more serious charges and convicted McKeithan only of misdemeanor simple assault.

McCrudden, in a written opinion, questioned that verdict. “The defendant is dangerous and his chances for reform are nil. Accordingly, he should be removed from society,” he said. So, in the Sweet Love Lounge case, he ran the sentences for conspiracy and five counts of robbery consecutively, resulting in an unusual, but legally permissible, punishment.

The Innocence Project reviewed the evidence in the case and submitted a letter finding “very grave questions about the reliability of [the witnesses’] identification of Mr. McKeithan at trial.”

One codefendant, Derrick Harold, who now works at a recovery center outside Scranton, has also come forward, emphatically declaring McKeithan’s innocence. “He had no role in the case,” said Harold. He said that at the time he was pressured by police, who threatened him with decades in prison. “We all know what went down with the police back then.”

McKeithan argues the injustice is twofold. First, he points to new evidence that some witnesses have recanted and others (like a man who lied on the stand about being an ex-cop) are not credible. Then, there’s the sentence he received for the crime. “Had I been in regular court and sentenced according to my prior record score, I would have been home over 20 years ago,” he said.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit reviewed the case, but declined it — though CIU Chief Patricia Cummings emphasized that decision should not be factored into any evaluation of McKeithan’s case.

“This was one of the cases where we kind of learned the hard way that under Pennsylvania law, you’re very limited as to what you can do just because you think it’s an excessive sentence,” Cummings said.

In prison, McKeithan has been a relentless jailhouse litigator, suing repeatedly over prison conditions and, on several occasions, winning verdicts or settlements.

He spent years in solitary confinement, including at the Special Management Unit (SMU) at State Correctional Institution Greene, a supermax prison in Western Pennsylvania. “The hole within the hole within the hole” is how Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, describes it. When Holbrook was just 21, he met McKeithan in an exercise cage there. Living in the cell directly above Holbrook, McKeithan counseled and consoled him through the air vent.

“He was, for a year and a half, the only sane conversations I could have in the SMU,” Holbrook said. “Solo was the one who introduced me to deeper strands of prison activism. He taught me the law, enabled me to understand the legal system.”

Colin Starger met McKeithan through the SMU as well. Then, he was working for a nonprofit monitoring conditions in solitary confinement. McKeithan’s case is what inspired him to apply to law school. He’s now a law professor at the University of Baltimore and working with Abolitionist Law Center on the case.

“It’s an extreme example of the failure of the system and the inability of actors of good faith to correct it,” Starger said. “There are plenty of people who are convicted of homicides and aggravated rapes who don’t get sentences like that. But it ends up falling through the cracks because it’s not a death sentence or a life sentence.”

McKeithan’s brother Ray, pastor of a church in Northeast Philadelphia, said his family, including their 91-year-old mother, just want to see McKeithan, now 64 years old, come home.

“When you know you’re innocent of something and they lock you up for it, that’s hard on you. You fight against it,” he said. But after 38 years he’s hoping his brother’s fight is near the end.

A leader with the Gray Panthers, a group of imprisoned senior citizens, McKeithan said his hope is to establish a legal watch group to monitor and prevent injustices from going under the radar.

“I was raised to be a fighter, so it is in my nature not to give up,” he said in an email. “I was in my mid 20s when I came to prison. I am now in my mid 60s. Prison is no place to live, and worst of all, it is no place to die.”


(c) 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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