by Valerie Kiebala
It was Dec. 12, 1992. Jerome “Hoagie” Coffey, a 22-year-old up and coming heavyweight boxer from North Philadelphia, stayed cooped up in his sister’s house that night, awaiting her and her newborn baby’s arrival from the hospital, according to the testimony of Coffey’s twin sister and mother. The baby’s crib had arrived that evening, so Coffey spent the night building the crib.
For reasons unbeknownst to the Coffey family at the time, that night would forever alter the course of their lives. While the new addition to the family brightened their souls, an incident ensued on 24th and Seybert Streets in North Philadelphia that culminated in the death of 24-year-old John Moss.
Now, 30 years later, Coffey remains locked in a dank prison cell at State Correctional Institution Pine Grove for the murder of John Moss, despite mountains of evidence not only demonstrating his innocence but also incriminating the state for blatant violations of Coffey’s constitutional rights.
Coffey was convicted of second degree murder in 1994, which in Pennsylvania carries a mandatory life without parole sentence, also known as death by incarceration. Coffey’s wrongful conviction and sentence to die in prison echoes the centuries of executions that innocent Black men have faced in the U.S. from the time of slavery through the Jim Crow years into the era of mass incarceration.
The racialized roots of wrongful convictions in the U.S.
Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Hugh Colihan, under the notoriously vengeful District Attorney Lynne Abraham, prosecuted Coffey solely on witness testimony. Not one shred of physical evidence tied Coffey to the murder of John Moss. Abraham, known as the “Queen of Death” and the “Deadliest DA” for her passionate love of the death penalty, oversaw 108 death sentences in Philadelphia during her tenure and sought the death penalty in Coffey’s case, though he was ultimately sentenced to death by incarceration instead.
In 1996, a reporter confronted Abraham about the racial disparity in the Philadelphia jail. At the time, the percentage of African Americans in the jail had hit 85 percent, while the entire city’s population of African Americans only hovered around 40 percent. The reporter asked Abraham if she believed that 85 percent of the city’s crime was committed by African Americans. She answered, “Yes, I do. I really do”
When New York Times reporter Tina Rosenberg asked Abraham if she had ever seen a death sentence given to someone who didn’t deserve it, she said, “No I have not seen that.” Rosenberg named a man who spent four years on death row based on testimony from Philadelphia police that was later exposed as lies. “He wasn’t executed,” Abraham said. “The system worked.”
Between 1877 and 1950, the Equal Justice Initiative has documented 4,425 “racial terror lynchings” in 20 states. Nearly 25 percent of all racial terror lynchings were based on claims of sexual assault and 30 percent were based on allegations of murder. Numerous lynchings have been proven to be sparked by false allegations, but of course, this actual number will forever be unknown.
In the present day, the brutality of lynchings remains shrouded by a normalized criminal legal system. Police shootings on site, state-sanctioned poisonous injections, and sentences to die in cages have effectively become the methods of choice for white supremacy’s genocidal machine.
The National Registry of Exonerations reported in 2017 that innocent Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of a murder than innocent white people. And in 2019, 52 percent of people on death row in the U.S. were Black, despite constituting only 13 percent of the country’s overall population. In Pennsylvania, according to a 2018 Abolitionist Law Center report, Black people are serving death by incarceration sentences at a rate 18 times higher than that of white people. And of the 2,694 Philadelphians serving death by incarceration at the time, 84 percent were Black.
From Ed Johnson in 1906 to the three Duluth men in 1920 to the Scottsboro Boys in 1931 to Roosevelt Williams and Willie Calloway in 1945 to Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in 1967 to the Central Park Five in 1989, wrongful convictions have condemned to death innumerable people whose only crime is being Black in America.
In Willie Calloway’s case, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, Detroit police cornered a 15-year-old child, who was facing time in the juvenile facility. They offered leniency on his case if he gave a statement on the murderers in a 1944 robbery homicide case specifically implicating two men: Roosevelt Williams and Willie Calloway. He signed the statement. Police then tortured Williams into confessing to the crime and implicating Calloway. Though Williams subsequently recanted his statement, his confession was still used as evidence in court.
On top of the coerced statements, police showed an eyewitness a photograph of Williams and named him as the murderer before ushering her to a lineup. Unsurprisingly, the eyewitness picked out Williams from the lineup and later identified Calloway in court, despite her initial denial of his involvement. Neither Williams nor Calloway matched the eyewitness’ original description of the assailants on the night of the murder.
No physical evidence linked Williams or Calloway to the robbery homicide. And credible alibi witnesses on behalf of Calloway were never brought into the court. Solely based on coerced testimony and eyewitness misidentification, Calloway and Williams were both convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to die in prison in 1945.
Nearly 50 years later in 1994, Jerome Coffey was sentenced to die in prison in a plot that bore striking resemblance to the chain of violations that landed Calloway and Williams behind bars.
Torture tactics and lies laid bare
Coffey’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition delineates how several of the leading causes of wrongful convictions occurred in Coffey’s case, including false confessions, eyewitness misidentification, prosecutorial misconduct, officer misconduct, jailhouse informants and ineffective assistance of counsel. Even just one of these violations would demand the state vacate his sentence – the presence of all of these factors demand immediate relief for Coffey.
Coffey did not match the initial descriptions given by an eyewitness on the night of the shooting. On top of that, police tampered with the suspect lineup. One witness stated, “I heard the police tell [the eyewitness] which person to pick out,” referring to Coffey.
Four witnesses – including some of the key “evidence” used to convict Coffey – later admitted that their sworn statements were utterly false. These affidavits paint a picture of a concerted, targeted effort by police to convict Jerome Coffey of the murder, on false statements..
In a statement signed in February 2022, one witness – whose coerced 1993 testimony provided probable cause for the arrest of Jerome Coffey – recalled: “I was brought to the roundhouse, I was held in a small windowless interview room. I was kept there for hours. I could not go to the bathroom. I was threatened. They were brutal. I was repeatedly told, ‘If you don’t put the murder of Johnny Moss on someone, we are going to put a murder on you.’”
The man informed the officers that he was not present at the scene of the crime. In fact, he was staying with his relatives in Florida when the murder occurred. Yet, the man wrote, “They wanted me to say I saw Hoagie (Jerome Coffey) on the night of Dec. 12, 1992, out on the street when Johnny Moss was shot and killed … I just wanted to get out of there, so I signed the statement they typed out. I was young. I was scared.”
Another “eyewitness” later described the conditions under which he gave his statement accusing Coffey of involvement in the murder. “The police returned me to an interview room and left me alone, waiting. They would come back and pressure me. They tried to get me to say that Jerome Coffey did it,” he said. “They told me they would return to my house and arrest my mother … That threat scared me the most. They told me if I just signed the statement they put in front of me, I could go home.” He signed the statement that night but later wrote his own, absolving Coffey of any involvement.
When this witness refused to testify against Coffey at trial, police arrested him and incarcerated him under a “material witness bond,” and made threats to encourage him to falsely testify at the trial. Ultimately he did.
The prosecution’s failure to hand over witness’ recantation violates the court ruling Brady v. Maryland , 373 U.S. 83 (1963), which requires the prosecution to disclose all evidence that could impact the decision of the jury on the guilt or innocence of the defendant. The prosecution also never handed over a five-page statement, in which a witness claimed that someone else committed the murder. And he claimed that this person asked him to help frame the murder on Coffey, shattering the lies placing Coffey at the center of the crime. This was evidence of Coffey’s innocence that was never turned over to his attorney.
In another violation of Brady, the prosecution failed to turn over notes from an eyewitness on the night of the shooting. The notes stated that he did not know the identity of the shooter, which directly conflicted with his testimony at trial – where he claimed that he knew Coffey from around the neighborhood before the shooting.
Additionally, the ADA Colihan had obtained medical records confirming that Coffey’s sister indeed did give birth that night, in alignment with Coffey’s alibi. But Colihan never presented this evidence, and Coffey’s attorney was never made aware of it. This is yet a fourth violation of Brady.
Ultimately, eight statements from six people cast grave doubt on Coffey’s culpability and reveal vile police misconduct. This evidence chillingly parallels the case of Troy Davis, who was convicted of murdering a police officer in 1989 in Savannah, Georgia. The prosecution’s case solely relied on witness testimony, with no physical evidence linking Davis to the murder. Later, seven out of the nine witnesses recanted their testimonies, some claiming that the police had coerced them. Despite the complete unraveling of the case against Davis, the state of Georgia assassinated Davis on Sept. 21, 2011.
Falsified witness testimony, eyewitness misidentification, and violent police interrogation methods are outrageously common tactics used to convict innocent Black people. The Death Penalty Information Center’s 2020 report Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty found that “exonerations of African Americans for murder convictions are 22 percent more likely to be linked to police misconduct.”
Halting a modern-day lynching
In 1953, Willie Calloway was afforded a retrial. After presenting sworn affidavits revealing police misconduct and false testimonies as well as evidence to bolster his alibi the night of the murder, Calloway was exonerated and released.
Now 70 years after Calloway’s exoneration, on Sept. 11, 2023, Jerome Coffey will return to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas for an evidentiary hearing, giving his lawyers an opportunity to expose the grave miscarriage of justice that took place in his wrongful conviction. Coffey hopes that he too will be exonerated and released home to his family.
“I’ve been waiting for 30 years for someone to investigate my case – a real lawyer, people who care, people who have humanity – to help me expose my innocence,” Coffey said in an email. “For years, I’ve been fighting. I just needed proper representation. The trial prosecutor used unconstitutional tactics to win a conviction. I am humbly grateful to have the Abolitionist Law Center attorneys Bret Grote and Rupalee Rashatwar not only represent me but believe in my innocence. I am also grateful to attorneys Noelle Hanrahan and Martha Conley. Their collaborative brain power helped unravel this unconstitutional conviction.”
Valerie Kiebala is a writer, organizer and artist. She is the managing editor of Solitary Watch and co-founder, with Jarreau “Ruk” Ayers and Dwayne “Bim” Staats, of Rebellious Hearts. Her writings have appeared in the Root, the Appeal, Truthout, the Chicago Reporter and Shadowproof. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.