Philadelphia man incarcerated as a teen is freed after more than a dozen years in prison

ByJake Tapper, CNN
Monday, March 18, 2024
Philadelphia man incarcerated as a teen is freed after more than a dozen years in prison
C.J. Rice spoke to CNN's Jake Tapper

PHILADELPHIA -- C.J. Rice is a free man, and as of Monday morning the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania officially considers him legally innocent of the crime he was convicted of in 2013.

C.J. Rice is a free man.
CNN via CNN Newsource

This morning, Judge James Eisenhower, in room 805 in the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia, granted the motion offered by District Attorney Larry Krasner to drop all charges against Rice for a 2011 shooting that sent him to prison for more than a dozen years for a crime he insists he did not and could not have physically committed.

Rice's defense counsel - Karl Schwartz and Amelia Maxfield, who successfully filed the habeas petition to get Rice out of prison and have his conviction overturned - can now pursue having his criminal record expunged of attempted murder charges.

Philadelphia man incarcerated as a teen is freed after more than a dozen years in prison

"For me personally, I'm glad to see this wrong righted," Rice told CNN. "Can't call it a mistake. Because the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's judicial system had at least five separate times to correct this specific situation, and chose not to act in the interest of justice. Either the Court did not review the case as the public trust endowed the court the ability to do so, or the Pennsylvania Courts did review the case and chose to allow a clear injustice to stand for as long as no one else knew what was going on. For that, the Pennsylvania Court system is blameworthy and not worthy of any confidence. Nonetheless, my comment to any DA, state, prosecutor, commonwealth who has an innocent person behind bars, let them free!"

Rice's release was more than a dozen years in the making. CNN and The Atlantic covered Rice's story, which noted the many ways Rice did not have effective counsel when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sentenced him to prison for 30 to 60 years for the 2011 shooting.

CNN's Jake Tapper said he was first alerted to the Rice case by his father, Dr. Theodore S. Tapper, who was Rice's pediatrician in 2011 and who testified that he did not believe the then-17-year-old Rice was physically capable of carrying out the 2011 shooting, given that he was recovering from a separate shooting at the time and could barely walk, much less run, as the shooters were described as having done.

In 2016, Rice asked Dr. Tapper to help him obtain medical records from his shooting that were never introduced at trial, records that showed he had a shattered pelvis at the time he was supposedly running while committing the crime. A correspondence between Rice and Dr. Tapper began, one that resulted in Dr. Tapper hiring attorneys to help Rice and getting his son interested in covering the story.

"The ruling this morning was the correct one - except C.J. never should have been charged with any crime in the first place," Dr. Tapper said. "He's been locked up by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania for 12 years for a crime he had nothing to do with. The legal system churns on its own merry way and justice is seldom found. C.J. now has a chance to start building a life, 12 years of which were taken away from him without any compensation. As the title of a story about his case in The Atlantic says: This is not justice."

After we covered Rice's story, Rice's new attorney, Schwartz, filed a habeas petition in December 2022, which specifically argued that Rice's attorney incompetently stipulated to evidence that provided a motive for the charged shootings. Habeas corpus is a legal principle that allows people who believe they are being held unlawfully in prison or detention to challenge it.

One year later, Judge Nitza I. Quiñones Alejandro, United States district judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, granted Rice's petition for writ of habeas corpus, finding that Rice's "trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance," overturning his conviction and ordering that Pennsylvania decide whether to retry him or free him within 180 days.

Leading up to dropping his charges, Krasner's office in September acknowledged that Rice did not have adequate counsel. Krasner's sentencing review committee, after reviewing and investigating the details of the case, recommended that Pennsylvania drop the case against Rice, believing that they could not convince a jury to believe he committed the September 25, 2011, shooting beyond a reasonable doubt, a source with the office told CNN.

The DA's office has acknowledged in recent months that the case handled by prior prosecutors was weak from the start and that there wasn't much actual evidence tying Rice to the crime. "The thing that likely resulted in his conviction was that his defense council was so ineffective," the DA source told CNN.

It is extremely rare for a court to grant a habeas petition based on arguments dealing with a defendant's right to adequate counsel. Previous higher courts have denied many such efforts in other cases, effectively green-lighting defense attorneys who were asleep during part of a client's cross-examination, arrested for drunken driving on the way to court, mentally unstable, or even disbarred midway through the trial. In 2022, the US Supreme Court took steps to make it even more difficult for a defendant to claim inadequate counsel. Rice's case getting overturned is an anomaly.

"More than anything we are incredibly glad that this innocent fellow citizen has finally been granted his long-overdue exoneration and freedom," Schwartz said in a statement. "His indomitable spirit and resolute belief that he would be exonerated throughout his unjust incarceration was awe-inspiring."

How Rice was convicted

The basics of the story are as follows: Rice had been shot in September 2011, and after he was released, he saw his pediatrician, Dr. Tapper. Rice could barely walk. Days later, a separate family was shot at on a street in South Philadelphia, causing injury but thankfully no deaths or serious injury. Witnesses described one or two men who fired and then ran away.

That night, no suspects were identified, even though the victims had known Rice for years. The next day, however, after police claimed they had received an anonymous tip, the police re-interviewed the victims and suddenly one picked out Rice as one of the shooters in a photo lineup. There is no recording or even detailed notes of the conversation in which she picked out Rice. The Philadelphia police have since changed procedures regarding police lineups.

The court appointed Sandjai Weaver to represent Rice. Weaver, our investigation discovered, was an overworked, underpaid defense attorney who behaved incompetently and made mistake after mistake in her inadequate defense of Rice, who was convicted in 2013 and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison for a crime in which no one was even seriously injured. Rice's co-defendant, who had a different attorney, was acquitted in the same trial. Weaver died in 2019.

Weaver "allowed things to come into evidence before the jury that shouldn't have," the DA source said, "namely the idea that Rice was participating in retaliation because he had been shot a couple weeks prior."

Neither the DA at the time nor the Philadelphia police had evidence connecting those two crimes, the source noted. Nor is there any evidence that Rice was a member of a local Philadelphia gang, as had also been admitted into evidence, though "any competent defense attorney would have fought vigorously against allowing that information to be put before the jury," the DA source said. "Even the judge wondered about admitting it."

But Weaver did not object.

"It was definitely prejudicial," the source said. "We think it resulted in his conviction as opposed to his co-defendant, who was acquitted."

The only evidence against Rice was eyewitness testimony from one of the shooting victims, who since the 2013 trial has proved to be uncooperative with the DA's office, also making any new prosecution of Rice unlikely to succeed.

Though the witness knew Rice, she didn't identify him the night of the shooting in three separate conversations with police. Weaver did not point that out in trial.

Even there, however, the witness' testimony would likely not stand up to any decent defense attorney, the DA's office believes. The witness claimed Rice's long braids were visibly popping out in front of his face from under a hoodie when he attacked them. But when Rice turned himself in to police at the end of September 2011, his hair was in tight, but fraying, cornrows. The DA's office consulted with individuals who had had such hairstyles and certified hairstylists, and concluded that from photographs, his hair had been in cornrows for roughly 3 to 4 weeks when he turned himself in, the DA source said. Therefore, the witness' memory of his long braids did not match what he looked like. (He did have long braids in the photo from the police lineup, from a months-earlier booking photo for a drug charge, it might be noted.)

"If we retried him, all that evidence would come in and the jury would likely have doubts," the DA source said.

Crucial phone records that were never pursued

Another part of the DA's investigation helped them arrive at this decision. Rice says that when he turned himself into police, he also turned in his cell phone, and assumed police would investigate phone records and see that he was in West Philadelphia at the time of the crime, not South Philadelphia where the shooting took place. There are no records that the police ever subpoenaed the phone records.

Rice said he repeatedly asked his attorney, Weaver, to pursue such records. But she never did. But the district attorney's office, listening to old, recorded courthouse phone call conversations, heard Rice on tape beseeching his mother to get Weaver to pursue the phone records so as to prove his alibi for the crime he did not commit.

Krasner's office also noted that Rice's mother, Crystal Cooper, worked at the DA's office at the time and was essentially shown the door and given another job once her son was arrested.

Had this happened today, the source said the office would have offered indirect support, by making sure Rice had access to decent defense counsel, and would have reviewed the case for conflict, possibly sending it to the Pennsylvania attorney general.

"That's not how we would treat an employee today," the source said. "Rice would of course have the presumption of innocence and we would not terminate her."

The final 180 days

There were any number of mistakes Weaver made, but Schwartz's petition focused on Weaver agreeing to stipulate "to an otherwise inadmissible fact that established a motive for Rice to commit the crime."

"The prosecution's theory was that the shooting was retaliation against one of the victims for shooting Rice three weeks earlier. However, neither the police nor the prosecutor could offer any concrete evidence supporting the victim's culpability for the earlier shooting, and the trial court was prepared to exclude the motive evidence for being more prejudicial than probative," Schwartz wrote.

"Instead, on the morning of trial, Rice's counsel stipulated that the evidence could come in. Trial counsel's decision to agree to that stipulation was objectively unreasonable, as the evidence was otherwise inadmissible and only could have hurt her client."

In addition to Schwartz, Maxfield and Nilam Sanghvi of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, former Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, and attorney Ginger Anders of Munger, Tolles & Olson, LLP all joined the effort to free Rice.

In response to the petition, Assistant District Attorney Peter Andrews acknowledged last fall that Rice was not provided the rights afforded under the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees a defendant's right to counsel. He said that the inadequate counsel meant Rice was "due habeas relief" - a fundamental right elsewhere in the Constitution that protects against unlawful and indefinite imprisonment.

Because of this, Andrews wrote, "the Commonwealth respectfully requests that the Court grant a conditional writ of habeas corpus and order that Rice be retried within 180 days or released from custody."

Those 180 days are now up, and Rice is no longer in prison after more than a dozen years.

"The problems that led to C.J.'s wrongful conviction - unreliable eyewitnesses, ineffective assistance of counsel, and a poor police investigation - infect so many cases in Philadelphia and across the country," said Maxfield, now an attorney at the Exoneration Project. "We are so happy that C.J. is home and free, and we look forward to continuing to fight for those who are not."

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