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Black man released after 19 years in jail amid series of exonerations in Philadelphia

A Black man in Philadelphia was exonerated on Wednesday and released after 19 years in prison for a rape that a new division in the prosecutor's office ultimately determined he did not commit. 

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) agreed with Termaine Joseph Hicks, 45, and his lawyers that the case against him was contradicted by forensic evidence and based on false statements, according to court documents submitted Tuesday.

Hicks, who goes by Jermaine Weeks in court documents, was responding to a woman screaming in an alley when police arrived and shot him three times in 2001. Hicks and his lawyers had asserted that the actual rapist fled the scene before Hicks arrived. Hicks was convicted and sentenced to 12 1/2 to 25 years in prison. 

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Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Tracy Brandeis-Roman vacated his conviction on Wednesday and gave a “bittersweet congratulations” to Hicks, The Philadelphia Inquirer reportedShe also offered an apology to the unnamed victim.

“I am quite cognizant of the pain and the trauma of the victim, and then more pain in realizing that the wrong person was convicted,” Brandeis-Roman said. 

Hicks, who wrote and directed 12 plays while in prison, told the Inquirer “I feel 100 pounds lighter,” but he added, “It’s unfortunate and sad that it took how long it took for me to clear my name.”

In the case against Hicks, Philadelphia police officer Marvin Vinson told the courts that on Nov. 27, 2001, he saw Hicks attacking a woman and reaching for a gun, prompting him to shoot Hicks in the "chest area," according to court documents. Hicks has maintained he was reaching for his phone to call 911. 

But forensic analysis of his medical records and his clothing found bullet holes in his back and none in the front, the chief medical examiner said, according to the Inquirer.

Surveillance tapes — that were not given to Hicks or his lawyers before his trial ended or shown to the jury — also showed a man in a gray hoodie dragging the victim before fleeing after headlights flashed into the alley. Witnesses had said the suspect wore a gray hoodie, which was not found among Hicks’s clothing. 

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The gun recovered at the scene ended up being registered to a Philadelphia police officer not involved in the arrest, officials concluded.

Hicks’s attorneys applauded his exoneration, saying he will get to meet his 2-year-old grandson, the child of his son, who was 5 years old when Hicks was imprisoned. 

Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin told the Inquirer that “He is going to be returned to something that he should have had on Nov. 27, when police encountered him, but he didn’t: the presumption of innocence.”

Potkin, who is the director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project, told The Hill in a statement that Hicks's case highlights "the pervasive problem of police perjury in the criminal legal system."

"The cover up of shooting an innocent man required the false testimony of three officers and the acquiescence of a dozen more," she said. "Deep-seated police misconduct and institutional protections are too often the source of wrongful convictions and injustice in the system. For far too long the police have willfully lied with impunity; we need accountability."

Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Eric Gripp said the department learned of Hicks's exoneration on Wednesday and launched an internal affairs investigation into the "allegations of police misconduct" on Thursday. 

The two officers involved in Hicks’s arrest, Vinson and Sgt. Dennis Zungolo, are on active-duty status but have been placed on restricted-duty status because of the investigation. 

The department also put a third officer on restricted-duty status but did not share their name with The Hill.

The Police Advisory Commission's executive director, Anthony Erace, told The Hill that the misconduct allegations will spark an internal review that the commission will "monitor and stay on top of."

"Obviously justice coming late is better than it not coming at all, but it's a shame," he said.

Hicks became the 16th person that the CIU exonerated since District Attorney Larry Krasner took his position in 2018. He is the first to be exonerated of rape. 

CIU chief Patricia Cummings told the newspaper her office does not plan to retry the case saying the “false testimony” led to the conviction. The victim suffered a head trauma during her attack and could not identify the assailant. 

Updated at 2:57 p.m.