Last week, I obtained the dismissal of all charges for a client who had been convicted of first-degree murder 33 years ago and sentenced to life without parole.
In 1989, Philadelphia Police arrested Kevin Bowman and charged him and his co-defendant with murder for a shooting incident that left one man dead and another injured. The only evidence against Mr. Bowman was supposedly the statements of the surviving complainant. At the preliminary hearing and at trial, that man denied that Mr. Bowman shot him and that he had ever told the police that Mr. Bowman was involved in the shooting.
Nonetheless, five police detectives, many of whom have already been sued for misconduct by other wrongfully convicted men, took the stand and each testified that the complainant had made five statements to them and identified Mr. Bowman as one of the shooters. The complainant denied making the statements, and four of them were unsigned. The detectives, however, swore to the jury that the complainant was physically unable to sign the statements at the time due to a hand injury.
Under the oft-abused Brady-Lively rule, the court permitted the prosecution to introduce the statements into evidence as substantive evidence of Mr. Bowman’s guilt even though the complainant denied making them. The prosecution then argued that the jury should believe that the complainant made the statements and told the truth at the time of the statements rather than at trial or the preliminary hearing. The prosecution had no other evidence, so the jury was left to guess as to whether the statements were true or the trial testimony was true. Without any corroboration whatsoever, the jury convicted, and Mr. Bowman was sentenced to life without parole. He had been in custody for 33 years. Last week, a Philadelphia judge ordered his release.
After learning from his co-defendant, who was also convicted, that the co-defendant’s lawyers had obtained access to the file and found potentially exculpatory material which was never disclosed to the defense, Mr. Bowman retained me to investigate his case. I also gained access to the District Attorney’s file, and I found medical records for the complainant and interviews with the hospital personnel that showed that the detectives’ story was impossible. On many of the same dates that the detectives claimed the complainant had a hand injury which prevented him from singing the statements, the complainant had actually signed medical treatment consent forms. The records also showed that his injuries would not have prevented him from signing anything, and one nurse even told the detectives that he had been communicating with the providers by writing notes.
Other doctors told the detectives that the complainant would have been under the influence of medication which could have impacted his ability to tell them what happened. The complainant also told a hospital social worker that he thought someone else might have been responsible for the shooting. And shortly before trial, the Commonwealth submitted the one signed statement for handwriting comparison against other known signatures of the complainant, showing that they had even begun to doubt the testimony of their own detectives. Unsurprisingly, the results were inconclusive, suggesting that even the signed statement may have been a forgery. Finally, and perhaps most outrageously, the file contained a statement from another man who had approached police a day or two later and told them that he had been involved in the shooting and might have hurt someone. Police records showed that they transported the man to the hospital, but it is unclear what they did after that. The prosecutor did not provide any of this critical information to the defense.
Despite the prosecutor having material in his file which showed that the complainant could sign the statements, that the complainant was on strong medication, that the complainant thought someone else might have been the shooter, that the signature might not be the complainant’s, and that someone else had confessed to the crime, the Commonwealth proceeded to trial. Each detective took the stand and insisted that the complainant was unable to sign the four unsigned statements because his hand was injured. And a jury quickly convicted Mr. Bowman. The Commonwealth sought the death penalty, but fortunately, the jury sentenced Mr. Bowman to life in prison.
After finding this material, I filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition arguing that Mr. Bowman should receive a new trial because the Commonwealth committed a Brady violation by suppressing exculpatory material that would have led to an acquittal. After two or three years of delays as we navigated the COVID shut downs and waited for the Commonwealth’s response, the Commonwealth did the right thing and agreed to a new trial. It then agreed that the charges against Mr. Bowman should be withdrawn, and Mr. Bowman was finally released last week. I went to meet him at SCI Chester and make sure that he was released the same day.
Mr. Bowman’s story is both unique and far too routine. It’s unique because he is one of the lucky few who received relief in a court system that is far too focused on upholding convictions even in the face of egregious error and misconduct. Mr. Bowman and his co-defendant had excellent defense attorneys at the time, but those attorneys could not overcome the Commonwealth’s complete failure to comply with its constitutional obligations and produce the exculpatory documents. It’s also unique in that he is truly an inspiring individual who had a perfect record at SCI Chester and prior institutions, helped create critical programming for other inmates, taught a class at Swarthmore College, and even after learning he was due to be released, went to work at his job in the prison.
It is too routine because people go to jail every day, sometimes for decades or even life, based on the testimony of a police officer that a witness who fails to even show up for court said something a few years ago. And in most cases, they don’t have the resources to investigate the case thirty years later or the good luck to find blatant evidence that the prosecution committed misconduct. Fortunately, Mr. Bowman’s criminal case is finally over, he is finally home with his family, and I know he is going to do big things.
Facing criminal charges? We can help.
If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. Our experienced and understanding Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys have successfully defended clients and obtained new trials after conviction in cases involving charges as serious as Aggravated Assault, Rape, Murder, and Fraud. We have also won criminal appeals and post-conviction relief in state and federal court. At the same time, our extensive experience in the Philadelphia criminal justice system and skills in the courtroom often allow us to obtain outcomes like this one even in relatively less serious cases in the Philadelphia Municipal Court. We offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with a defense attorney today.