Court Overturns 1991 Philadelphia Murder Conviction

LegalImage by Mike Braun

PHILADELPHIA, PA — Following a remarkably succinct order from federal court, Curtis Crosland was released from prison on Thursday after serving more than three decades in prison for a murder he likely did not commit.

In a three-page order issued last week, the Hon. Anita B. Brody of the U.S. Eastern District of Pennsylvania wrote, “More so than any other party in our criminal legal system, the prosecutor has an obligation to do justice…. The responsibility of doing justice does not disappear once a conviction is achieved. In some circumstances, the duty to seek truth can and should extend to cases long closed.”

Citing the CIU’s “exhaustive and dedicated investigation” of this case, the federal court agreed that evidence regarding the lack of credibility of two prosecution witnesses was not turned over to defense counsel at the time of trial, as is constitutionally required, nor was evidence disclosed by the Commonwealth that showed the Philadelphia Police investigation initially focused on another suspect.

Prior to the federal court’s ruling in the case, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO) Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) had reviewed Crosland’s conviction and informed the federal court that his rights under Brady v. Maryland had been violated at trial in 1991. More specifically, the CIU noted in its filing that testimony of two key prosecution witnesses used at the time of trial was unreliable; one did not actually testify in court for Crosland’s second trial, after his first conviction was reversed on appeal, and the other witness disavowed to the court his earlier claim that Crosland was involved in the crime. And, there was no physical evidence or other evidence that tied Crosland to the crime.

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The lack of any other evidence connecting Crosland to the crime also led the CIU to concede that he may be very well be actually innocent of the crime altogether. The U.S. District Court concluded in its order, “The CIU’s thorough investigation and the Commonwealth’s subsequent admission is a fulfillment of the prosecutor’s enduring duty to seek truth and a prime example of doing justice.”

The CIU and the federal court also noted that the trial prosecutor was likely not aware of all of the available evidence, meaning there is no indication of knowing or intentional failure to disclose exculpatory and impeachment evidence.

Following U.S. District Judge Brody’s order issued on Tuesday, the CIU on Wednesday filed a motion to nolle prosse Crosland’s Second Degree Murder conviction for the shooting death and robbery of Il Man Heo in 1984. That motion was granted by a state court on Thursday and Crosland was released from prison a few hours later.

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Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said, “I am grateful to the federal court for recognizing that our oath as prosecutors is to seek justice in the future and to fix injustice in the past. The CIU’s work stands out nationally, but that is in itself an indictment of the American criminal justice system. The work of regularly reviewing sentences and convictions should be unremarkable, every day work in all prosecutor’s office throughout this country. I am incredibly proud of CIU Supervisor Patricia Cummings for building a team that increasingly is a model for other prosecutors to build upon. I also want to invite experienced attorneys who are as passionate about justice and integrity as our CIU team to join us — we’re hiring for two senior positions in the CIU!”

Qualified, experienced attorneys who are interested in senior positions in the CIU may email [email protected]

Crosland marks the 22nd exoneration supported by the CIU, created by DA Krasner when he took office in 2018. The groundbreaking work of the CIU is detailed in an accountability report released earlier this month, “Overturning Convictions — and an Era.”

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As they do in every investigation, CIU prosecutors made every effort to contact the surviving family members of the victim, Il Man Heo, in order to keep them appropriately informed and aware of opportunities to be heard by the court. Heo’s son, Charles Heo, and his daughter, Song Heo, expressed gratitude that the CIU was continuing to seek justice for their father’s murder, which to both of them means respecting every citizen’s right to a fair trial.

“Make us proud of the justice system by always questioning its integrity with respect to equity. I am deeply thankful for your hard work and continuing to do what is right,” Charles Heo said in the CIU accountability report.

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