Sitting at the kitchen table in her Southwest Philadelphia home, Vonnie Floyd flipped through the reams of paperwork she’s collected over the years. The piles of reports and documents and correspondence all contain information regarding one person: her significant other, Gary McWhorter.
McWhorter was sentenced to life in prison on June 26 in 1984 — and has been there ever since, despite the 1986 admission by a key witness that they’d given false testimony during his murder trial.
Over the past three and a half decades, Floyd and others in his family have been trying her best to get McWhorter released. But they struggled to find an attorney who would take the case full throttle.
“The lawyers that they did hire to try to take this case, they just took his family’s money,” Floyd said. “The last lawyer didn’t even tell [Gary] he was denied a new hearing for his new discovered evidence. I just had to get on the computer and go online to find that out myself.”
Floyd found new hope when she heard about Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and his progressive stance on incarceration. Krasner has pledged to reinvigorate the city’s Conviction Integrity Unit, the division in charge of investigating innocence claims. Floyd filed a request to review McWhorter’s case in March.
However, she has not yet heard back, so McWhorter’s exoneration efforts still have a ways to go.
He’s not alone. According to numbers provided by the DA’s Office, it has already received more of these requests since the beginning of the year than in all of 2017, but has only been able to look into around 10 percent of them so far, due to what spokesperson Ben Waxman called “staffing constraints.”
In McWhorter’s case, there has been a small step forward. A few weeks after Floyd filed a request with the CIU, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project sent a letter saying its attorneys would look at the case. But McWhorter, speaking over the phone from prison to discuss the subject, said he’s still holding out for an update from the Krasner administration directly.
“My only avenue now is that Conviction Integrity Unit,” McWhorter said. “This was back in the ‘80s and [the people in the District Attorney’s Office] were vicious back then, man. Our criminal justice system is a joke.”
One of many
Waxman confirmed to Billy Penn that McWhorter’s review request is still being processed.
Shortly after Krasner took office, he hired Patricia Cummings, a former defense lawyer, prosecutor and lecturer at UT Austin School of Law, to lead the Conviction Integrity Unit. He also gave the CIU more power — which it lacked under previous leadership.
The unit selects cases that have specifically gone through the Philadelphia County Court of Common pleas, along with being based on a non-frivolous claim of actual innocence or a wrongful conviction.
Last year, of 129 review requests filed with the DAO, roughly half of these were declined for not meeting standards laid out on the submission form. Only two resulted in exonerations. However, past performance doesn’t necessarily provide a clear picture as to what will happen now, since previous DAs ran their offices very differently from Krasner.
News of the different attitude toward investigating innocence claims has spread quickly through the incarcerated community, leading to an even bigger backlog.
The first four months of this year have already brought in 179 requests, 40 percent more than all of 2017. Of those, Waxman said, around 20 are actively being investigated. The rest are under review. So far, no requests this year have been rejected for not meeting standards.
To family, an obvious injustice
McWhorter’s case should definitely meet that standard, Gary’s older brother Steffan said, seeing as it was based on falsified evidence.
Steffan, who owns a barbershop in Point Breeze, is angry that a “corrupt” District Attorney’s Office led to the family spending thousands of dollars to obtain representation for a case that “should have been thrown out.”
It was on May 9, 1984, that Regina Smith, a witness, sat in a Philadelphia courtroom and acknowledged a testimony she gave during McWhorter’s trial for the homicide of John Baker was false.
In the affidavit, Regina Smith is quoted saying “I am not sure who I saw shoot John Baker and never have been sure of anything regarding the identification of the person who shot John Baker.”
Smith had initially identified McWhorter as the killer of Baker during a preliminary hearing on July 15 in 1982, and did the same again the following year in February of 1983. McWhorter’s was given a life sentence, and his post-trial motions were denied.
McWhorter also filed a failed appeal attempt to the court in 1986.
“A lot of guys are sitting in jail that are innocent,” Steffan said, “but they falsified records and threatened witnesses.”
Hope for future freedom
To many in the criminal justice community, Krasner’s ascension is a good sign, even if the CIU may struggle to address what may well be be a backlog of improper convictions.
“I really believe that a lot of these cases are going to be heard,” said Knesset David Klein, a social justice advocate who mentors many prisoners in the Philly region, including McWhorter. “It seems like it has been a long time, but now is the season that all of the stuff will come up.”
While he doesn’t think Krasner will be a “silver bullet,” Steffan is allowing himself to get his hopes up about his brother’s potential release.
“[Krasner] is getting rid of a lot of the corruption that is there,” Steffan said, “and I have no doubt about him — just for the first move he made is enough for me.”
Said Klein: “I think the problem is going to be solved.”