Willie Veasy, behind bars for 27 years for a 1992 murder in North Philadelphia, was finally freed Wednesday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, a judge ruled that Veasy, now 53, be released immediately following years of appeals. Many of his family members watched in Judge Leon Tucker's courtroom as his freedom was granted shortly before 11 a.m.
Around 4 p.m., Veasy walked out of a Philadelphia courthouse a free man.
"It feels wonderful," he said. "I get to spend the rest of my life with my family the way it's always been. I get to walk out of here the same way I walked in - as an innocent man."
The Philadelphia District Attorney's office said there was not enough evidence for a new trial following recent analysis of the case and supported dropping the decades-old murder charge.
"Patience is a virtue. Patience is a skill," Tucker told Veasy as some family members cried with joy. "How long have you been patient?"
"Twenty seven years," Veasy responded.
"You're a free man," Tucker told him.
Veasy, who was represented by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, is the eighth Philadelphia man sentenced to life in the late 1980s and early 1990s freed this year.
Veasy has been in prison since his arrest in June 1992 for a shooting six months earlier on West Russell Street in the Franklinville section of North Philadelphia.
Two men, John Lewis and Efrain Gonzalez, were shot Jan. 24 of that year, and Lewis eventually died from his wounds. Veasy's conviction was due in large part to a signed confession and an eyewitness account.
One of Veasy's attorneys, James Figorski, said Veasy and several other former lifers freed have cases with links to city homicide detectives during a time period three decades ago. Figorski added that more appeals of murder convictions from that time period are pending.
Four fellow former lifers came to Judge Tucker's courtroom on the 11th floor of the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia to lend support to Veasy and his family.
Tony Wright, who was freed in 2018 after his murder conviction was vacated, said he served time with Veasy and that Veasy is probably "numb right now."
"He's a great guy," Wright said. "And he's got a great family. He's going to be alright."
Wright said other wrongfully convicted men are still in prison, so the fight is not yet over. "Ain't none of us free until all of us are," Wright said.
Veasy’s boss at the time he was charged, Seth Schram, was in the courtroom and said he was "overwhelmed."
Schram has said Veasy was at work at the time the fatal shooting occurred.
“Willie and I are the same age. I’ve been able to live my last 27 years free. Willie hasn’t,” Schram said.
Over the years, the case against Veasy has been dissected by attorneys from the Innocence Project and found to have discrepancies, according to court filings. They include:
- The eyewitness has since allegedly confessed to being legally blind.
- The detective who interrogated the suspect allegedly kicked the young man repeatedly in his testicles before getting a signed confession.
- The suspect, according to his former boss, was working miles away when the slaying took place.
Still, Veasy remained behind bars. But he remained adamant that he's an innocent man.
"You have to wake up to that realization that you're actually in here, which you really can't believe," Veasy told NBC10 in a phone interview from Graterford State Prison in Montgomery County in 2018.
"I can't believe I'm actually incarcerated for something I didn't do," Veasy said.
The Veasy family credits that interview with NBC10 for helping to shed light on his case.
"When channel 10 came to my mother's house, it was like a weight lifting," his sister, Ketra Veasy, said. "Somebody heard him ... and look we're [standing] now."
Their challenges are rooted, in part, in tactics by Philadelphia homicide detectives whose approach is now being scrutinized not only in local courts, but also in federal lawsuits.
In a 2016 federal lawsuit filed by Wright, the former lifer, against the City of Philadelphia, and which was settled in July 2018, the Veasy case was mentioned as part of a rundown of numerous accusations against a group of detectives and their supervisors who worked in the city homicide unit three decades ago.
It claimed that a now-retired detective who interrogated Veasy may have forced him into signing a confession. Eleven detectives, along with the City of Philadelphia, were named in the Wright lawsuit.
The detective "smacked him around and kicked his testicles several times until Mr. Veasy agreed to sign the 'confession,'" the lawsuit alleged.
As for the lead witness, she said seven years after Veasy's conviction in a sworn statement taken as part of an investigation by a University of Pennsylvania law professor and his law class that her vision is, and always has been, poor.
"My vision is very poor and I'm virtually legally blind," she said. "My vision was like this at the time of the crime."
Following new evidence and disclosures in filings this year, the District Attorney's office declined to challenge an appeal to Tucker.
At the hearing Wednesday, following a newly filed statement of facts in the case, Patricia Cummings, assistant district attorney in charge of conviction appeals reviews, told Tucker that evidence did not support holding a new trial for Veasy.
Tucker accepted the DA's position and declared the murder charge against Veasy "nolle prossed," or dropped.