1:36 PM PDT, August 1, 2021
After spending over three decades behind bars for a crime he did not commit, a Philadelphia man has been exonerated and released from prison.
In 1984, Il Man “Tony” Heo, a grocery shop and deli owner, was shot to death by a masked shooter, moments before closing his store for the night.
Three years later, Curtis Crosland was arrested for the crime, and later found guilty of second-degree murder, robbery, and possessing of an instrument of crime. This was based on testimony given by Delores Tilghman and Rodney Everett.
The Philadelphia Conviction Integrity Unit, established in 2018 by the office of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, advocated heavily for Crosland’s case.
The team worked for months, resulting in Crosland’s case being their 22nd exoneration, according to a press release.
Crosland’s conviction was based on testimony from two witnesses who later recanted their statements. The case was overturned in June.
Tilghman claimed that she’d heard Crosland speaking with others about the murder, but later recanted.
Everett was incarcerated at the time of his testimony, and claimed that he was pressured to implicate Crosland. “It was just very brutal. They threaten you. They will use your family and they will tell you what they will do to your family, taking your kids,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Additionally, the lawsuit filed on behalf of Crosland stated that documents in regard to the reliability of the witnesses and an potential alternate lead — all of which could have helped acquit or exonerate him — had been in files at the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office from the beginning of the case, according to CNN.
Even though this information was vital, it was suppressed and there was no other evidence that connected Crosland to the crime, according to the CIU.
“Most people serving life in prison without parole in Pennsylvania are Black men. Probably most of these police officers involved are white. It’s a system saturated with systemic racism at every step. From the way crimes are investigated, to jury selection, to the fact that most prosecutors and judges are white,” said Claudia Flores, Crosland’s lawyer.
Heo’s son agrees that race played a role in the trial when it came to Crosland, as well as how his own family was treated.
Heo shared that his mother did not speak much English. “I think the prosecutor took advantage of my mom’s inability of understanding all the complications of the legal matter. They didn’t feel responsible to explain all the legal details to us,” he said to CNN.
“There was no translator during court proceedings, they were using Latin words. I didn’t know what was being said, I didn’t have a phone with Google, a lot of things slipped by.”
Crosland said his case illustrates how the criminal justice system is broken and unconstitutional, and maintained his innocence while in prison.
The Philadelphia resident advocated for himself, studying law books and filing multiple petitions. Crosland said that prison was still a “hellish” struggle every day, his faith in God kept him going, according to the outlet.
“I feel exceedingly joyful, happy, that finally, you know … after 30 or more years, after constantly knocking on the door for somebody to please hear me, that day finally came,” 60-year-old Curtis Crosland told CNN.