Posthumously innocent? The first prisoner to die of COVID-19 in Pa. was hard at work trying to clear his name

(Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

(*Updated at 5:01 p.m. to correct comments by Jane Roh, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. Roh could not confirm that Sutton’s conviction was also being reviewed by its internal Conviction Integrity Unit, which investigates legitimate claims of innocence and wrongful conviction.)

By the time Rudolph Sutton died last weekend in a Montgomery County hospital, where he succumbed to respiratory distress caused by pneumonia and COVID-19, the South Philadelphia resident had spent more than 30 years in state prison for a murder that he says he did not commit.

But one thing separates Sutton, the first incarcerated person in Pennsylvania to die of complications related to COVID-19, from other prisoners who maintain their innocence: his claims were strong enough to garner the support of a leading legal aid group, whose standards for such a review are known for their rigor.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which has exonerated 18 wrongfully convicted Pennsylvania prisoners over the last decade, is leading a team of lawyers seeking to overturn the convictions of Sutton and his co-defendants, legal director Nilam Sanghvi said Wednesday. 

*Jane Roh, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, could not confirm that Sutton’s conviction was also being reviewed by its internal Conviction Integrity Unit, which investigates legitimate claims of innocence and wrongful conviction.  

Sutton was one of three men convicted of first-degree murder in the death of 33-year old Dewey Mackey, who was fatally stabbed on Jan. 28, 1988, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time. 

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The prosecutor in the case said Mackey was selling fake drugs in an abandoned house normally used by a Jamaican drug ring, and that Sutton paid his co-defendants to kill Mackey after customers started complaining about the quality of the drugs. 

Sutton was convicted in a jury trial in June 1990 and later sentenced to life in prison.  

Roh and Sanghvi declined to comment on the details of Sutton’s innocence claims Wednesday. 

But the Innocence Project described Sutton as “factually innocent” in a statement it issued Tuesday, where it first identified Sutton as the state prison inmate who died over the weekend. 

The Innocence Project receives thousands of requests each year from inmates who say they were wrongfully convicted. Sanghvi said the group takes up just a tiny fraction of those cases, and only after putting them through a lengthy review process.

“We never begin any kind of representation or joint defense [team] unless we’ve thoroughly vetted an innocence claim,” Sanghvi told the Capital-Star, adding that the Innocence Project will only lend its “name and credibility” to prisoners whom they believe they can exonerate.

The vetting begins with Innocence Project staff reviewing case documents and police reports and interviewing potential clients. 

Sutton’s case had cleared a critical hurdle in the four-step process, Sanghvi said. A Case Review Committee, a rotating panel of outside lawyers, cleared the Innocence Project staff to move forward to investigation and potential litigation. 

Sanghvi said the outside experts, who include criminal defense attorneys and at least one former prosecutor, can bring an unbiased eye to the evidence compiled by Innocence Project investigators. Their vote determines whether the Innocence Project continues a case or scraps it.

The Innocence Project also asked the Philadelphia District attorney to have its conviction integrity unit review Sutton’s case.

Sanghvi said the Innocence Project will continue its effort to clear Sutton’s name posthumously. She urged state officials to take stronger action to release prisoners to avoid more fatalities in prisons and jails. 

“The fact that someone who has a substantial innocence claim can die in this pandemic, without having a chance to have that claim heard, is a tragedy,” Sanghvi said. “But maybe it can shine light on what can be done to keep prisoners safe and keep correction staff safe in this environment where they’re essentially in a tinderbox.”