Pennsylvania Innocence Project/Dechert Client to be Freed after 24 Years in Prison

May 22, 2017

UPDATE: June 13, 2017 - The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office announced in court today before Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Judge Rosemarie DeFino-Nastasi that they did not plan to retry Shaurn Thomas. Judge DeFino-Nastasi previously vacated Thomas’ sentence and steps are in motion to expunge his record of conviction.

UPDATE: May 23, 2017 - Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Judge Rosemarie DeFino-Nastasi today vacated Shaurn Thomas’ conviction and sentence, paving the way for his release from SCI Frackville prison within the next 24 hours. A June 13 hearing before the judge will be held at which time the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office will advise if they expect to retry Thomas.

PHILADELPHIA - Dechert LLP and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project are pleased to announce that after 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Shaurn Thomas has a new chance at freedom. Thomas, 43, represented on a pro bono basis since 2011 by Dechert senior staff attorney James Figorski, is expected to be released from prison shortly after the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office makes a formal request to vacate his murder conviction in the interests of justice. The hearing is at the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center tomorrow at 9 a.m. in room 1107.

“We are so grateful to our partners in righting this terrible injustice,” said Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. “Dechert has been a champion for Shaurn, with the team tirelessly working on finding the truth and proving him innocent. We are all so overwhelmed by this result. While we cannot get back the last quarter century of his life for Shaurn, we can give him a future.”

Bluestine and Figorski met with the District Attorney’s new Conviction Review Unit in the fall of 2016, presenting documents and evidence they believed would prove Thomas’ innocence.

Thomas, who most recently was held in the State Correctional Institution at Frackville, was convicted in 1994 of the murder of Domingo Martinez, who was killed in 1990. Both Thomas, who was 16 years old at the time of the senseless murder, and his mother swore they were at the Youth Study Center on the Ben Franklin Parkway at 9 a.m. the day Martinez was killed. After his arrest the night before on attempted theft of a motorcycle, Shaurn was in court awaiting his initial appearance at the same time Martinez was killed in North Philadelphia. The sign in logs at the center had vanished by the time of the trial.

Despite other missing evidence, evidence concealed from the defense, and questionable and unreliable witnesses, Thomas remained in prison without hope until Dechert’s Figorski selected the case from several he reviewed for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

“Our firm has long been dedicated to giving back through pro bono work, it is part of our culture, part of our core values,” said Dechert chairman Andrew J. Levander. “We take pride in our many projects and certainly find them fulfilling, but it is difficult to match the feeling we have today of helping an innocent man go free.”

Since Figorski volunteered with Pennsylvania Innocence Project in 2009 the firm has logged nearly 900 hours to the matter. Now retired partner Thomas Lee provided advice and leadership during the matter while Helen Santoro, a senior staff attorney at Dechert -- a former public defender -- also assisted in the most recent filings.

“The bulk of those hours were all Jim,” said Suzanne Turner, the firm’s partner for pro bono. “He has been so devoted to this case and so caring about making it right for Shaurn.”

After some initial difficult setbacks, the defense of Thomas went steadily forward. In September 2011, one of the two witnesses who had claimed that Thomas participated in the murder, admitted to lying at trial. In 2014, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court dismissed the appeal, ruling that it was untimely and without merit. An appeal to Superior Court filed in 2015 was pending when the District Attorney’s office elected to vacate the conviction.

“Shaurn engaged in a decades’ long struggle to prove his innocence. I joined him in that struggle, and many times it seemed that we would never succeed and he would remain in prison for the rest of his life,” Figorski said. “It is gratifying to know that we were able to help Shaurn Thomas obtain his freedom after witnessing the injustice to which he was subjected. All of us are ecstatic that Shaurn Thomas will finally be free with his family. “

"We have never wavered in our belief in Shaurn's innocence," said Bluestine. "Jim's extraordinary devotion to finding the truth speaks to his commitment to seeking justice. And we are grateful to the Philadelphia District Attorney's Conviction Review Unit for their help and cooperation."

Figorski was a member of the Philadelphia Police Force from 1981 to 2006, during which time he also attended school at night, graduating from La Salle University in 2001 and then Temple University Beasley School of Law in 2005. He worked briefly in the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania office as a law clerk before joining Dechert in 2007. He currently works in the firm’s litigation practice.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project is an independent 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to freeing those convicted of crimes they did not commit and preventing innocent people from being convicted. Founded in April 2009, the Project has now helped to free or win new trials for nine Pennsylvanians convicted of crimes they did not commit.

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