After serving nearly a quarter-century in prison, two Baltimore brothers were released Friday after an investigation by prosecutors and defense counsel concluded they were actually innocent of the conspiracy to commit murder for which they were convicted and sentenced to life in 1995.
Kenneth “JR” McPherson and Eric Simmons’ writ of actual innocence was granted Friday by Baltimore City Circuit Judge Charles Peters at the request of their attorneys and the city’s top prosecutor, Marilyn J. Mosby.
Peters granted the writ based largely on the prosecution’s in-court presentation that the state did not share with defense counsel before or during trial statements witnesses had made to investigators exculpating McPherson and Simmons. The judge concluded this unshared information constituted “new evidence” that if presented at trial likely would have led to a not-guilty verdict for both men.
The writ left open the possibility for a new trial. But Mosby’s office dismissed the charges against McPherson and Simmons related to the shooting death of Anthony Wooden just after midnight on Aug. 31, 1994, on North Washington Street in East Baltimore.
“We live in a world that can take 25 prime years” of a person’s life, Mosby said at a news conference with the two men. “I want to apologize from the bottom of my heart.”
McPherson and Simmons, their voices cracking, voiced gratitude for Mosby and their attorneys.
“I was drowning,” said McPherson, 45. “I was in the water and they reached in and pulled me out.”
McPherson also had a message for current prisoners he believes were wrongly convicted.
“Please don’t give up,” he said. “There are people out here who are willing to fight.”
Simmons noted the irony of an ex-convict speaking gratefully of a prosecutor.
“We can talk about you in a way we (in prison) wouldn’t talk about the state’s attorney,” said Simmons, 48.
The prosecution and defense counsel submitted a combined writ of actual innocence after their joint investigation confirmed McPherson and Simmons’ alibis for that summer night, namely that McPherson was on Chapel Street, and not on Washington Street, at the time of the shooting and that Simmons was at home sleeping. The investigation also found that a witness for the prosecution could not have seen the crime from her window two blocks from the shooting, according to the prosecution’s statement to Peters on Friday.
Defense counsel added in a statement Friday that the witness was paid for her testimony and that another witness had been threatened with homicide charges unless he named the brothers as having been involved in Wooden’s slaying.
“JR and Eric never should have been charged based on such unreliable evidence, let alone convicted,” McPherson’s attorney, Frances Walters, said in the statement.
“I’m so grateful that the state’s attorney is finally righting this wrong,” added Walters, of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
Simmons’ attorney, Brianna Ford, noted the brothers’ long-awaited homecoming in the same statement.
“Two and a half decades ago, this family lost not one but two brothers, not one but two sons,” said Ford, deputy director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Innocence Project Clinic. “Today, they’re finally getting them back.”
The brothers’ release follows the exonerations last year of Clarence Shipley and Jerome Johnson following similar joint investigations by the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, the UB Innocence Project Clinic and Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
Shipley was wrongly convicted in 1992 of killing Kevin Smith, 29, in a robbery in the Baltimore neighborhood of Cherry Hill the previous year. Jerome Johnson spent 30 years in prison after being wrongly convicted in the 1988 murder of Aaron Taylor at a Baltimore nightclub.
Mosby, who was a teenager when the brothers were found guilty, said the job of a prosecutor is to achieve justice, which includes exonerating those wrongly convicted.
“Justice is the only barometer of success for my office,” she said.