The family of wrongfully convicted, soon-to-be Philadelphia resident John Miller cried Wednesday morning as his exoneration started to sink in after more than two decades.
His lengthy legal battle cost Miller 21 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
“Today is the day I finally get to hug my brother,” Lamont Washington said as tears streamed down his face outside a Philadelphia courthouse. “This has been a long time coming.”
The world has changed considerably in that time. Miller’s younger sister became a mother and his own mother a grandmother. Miller’s first stop after leaving prison will be to share a meal with his legal team at The Capital Grille, a restaurant that did not exist when he was incarcerated.
Miller is the second man freed this week after a Philadelphia judge overturned his murder conviction. On Tuesday, Chester Hollman III started his new life following 28 years in prison.
The two men now belong to a grim fraternity whose members overcame decades of imprisonment despite their innocence. This year alone, seven people were exonerated in Philadelphia. Nine such cases have been thrown out since Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner came to office last year, according to the district attorney’s office.
“Larry is keeping his promise … to correct the mistakes of the past,” Assistant District Attorney Patricia Cummings, who heads the DAO’s Conviction Integrity Unit, said. “We’re dedicated to taking a hard look at these cases.”
Miller was convicted in 1997 of fatally shooting a man outside 30th Street Station in October of the previous year. The key witness against him, David Williams, confessed multiple times to being the real shooter and even sent a letter to Miller’s mother apologizing for lying on the stand.
“I can’t live with this on my conscience,” Williams wrote in the 2002 letter, according to court documents. “Your son had no knowledge of this crime. He wasn’t even there.”
For years, none of it mattered, according to Miller’s attorney Tom Gallagher of Pepper Hamilton LLP.
Desperate, Miller contacted the Pennsylvania Innocence Project about eight years ago. Seth Williams was the district attorney at the time, and Miller’s lawyers filed an appeal hoping the DA would review his case.
The DAO declined, arguing that Williams was an unreliable witness. Miller remained behind bars for nearly one more decade.
That all changed when Miller’s legal team appealed to a federal court, which issued an order granting relief if Krasner’s office agreed to review the case, Gallagher said.
The DAO accepted and handed Miller’s case to the Conviction Integrity Unit, which spent the last several months carefully reviewing it. The unit ultimately decided there was insufficient evidence to retry Miller.
“It was quick once they decided to take it,” Gallagher said. “We’re very appreciative there is a robust Conviction Integrity Unit.”
That unit was beefed up in February 2018 shortly after Krasner became district attorney. He brought Cummings from Dallas, where she headed a similar unit. Currently she has eight lawyers and additional satellite staff reviewing old cases. The unit is now seeing “a lot of submissions and requests” from people such as Miller, according to Cummings.
“We have to look at the impact [these cases] have on the community,” she said.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which helped both Miller and Hollman, are representing at least one other client that could be exonerated this year.
Robert Outlaw was just 16 years old when he was convicted of murder in an East Germantown shooting. He has already served 16 in prison and will be released on bail this week pending the DAO’s decision whether or not to retry the case.
A spokesperson for Krasner said his office is still reviewing Outlaw's case.
Like Miller, Outlaw was convicted despite evidence pointing to another shooter. In this case, the victim identified his killer with his dying breath, according to Nilam Sanghvi of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.
“All witnesses recanted at trial, but he was still convicted,” she said. “[Outlaw] maintains his complete innocence.”
As did Miller.
He was one of the first people to contact the Pennsylvania Innocence Project after the organization opened, Sanghvi said. She spent countless hours with him and the family, sitting in court, talking to other lawyers and getting “denied time after time.”
On Wednesday, it only took minutes for Common Pleas Court Judge Lillian Ransom to hand down her decision. It’s the same judge that will oversee Outlaw’s appeal.
“It’s really a great day to get good and quick news for once,” Sanghvi said.