Daniel Gwynn

Courtesy of Gretchen Engel

On February 27, 2024, Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara A. McDermott approved a motion from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to dismiss first-degree murder, arson, and aggravated assault charges against 54-year-old death-sentenced prisoner Daniel Gwynn. Mr. Gwynn is the 197th person exonerated after being sentenced to death since 1973, according to DPIC’s Innocence Database. “Today is mostly for us a day of tremendous relief and sadness, a guy like him, an innocent soul spent that amount of time waiting for his execution languishing in jail,” said Mr. Gwynn’s defense attorney Karl Schwartz to CBS News Philadelphia. Pennsylvania is now the fourth state with 13 exonerations and Philadelphia is now the second county to lead U.S. death-row exonerations since 1973.  

“[T]he exoneration of Daniel Gwynn today frees a man who is likely innocent. Sadly, it also exemplifies an era of inexact and, at times corrupt, policing and prosecution that has broken trust with our communities to this day,” said District Attorney Larry Krasner, whose office has supported the exoneration of 41 wrongfully convicted people. “The public expects the right consequences for those who commit violent crimes, and wants the innocent to be free. When law enforcement wrongly arrests, prosecutes, and imprisons the innocent, the guilty go free and are emboldened to do more harm.”

Mr. Gwynn’s wrongful 1994 conviction for the death of Marsha Smith was based on false confession and mistaken eyewitness testimony. Assistant District Attorney David Napiorski, who led the federal habeas relief investigation, explains that key details of Mr. Gwynn’s confession contradicted physical evidence, including how and where the fire started and which exit of the house was used. Mr. Gwynn has also explained that his confession was coerced, writing on Art for Justice that “During the interrogation, as I was withdrawing from cocaine, the Detectives took advantage of my addled brain. They lied, manipulated information and made gestured threats to hurt me. Beaten by the police in the past, I felt their threats were real.” The photo array police showed to witnesses did not include a photo of Mr. Gwynn, according to the DA’s office, and were never disclosed to defense counsel. Prosecution also failed to disclose additional evidence pointing to a different suspect.  

“This is a pretty crazy case. Mr. Gwynn has been in prison for 30 years for something we don’t have any confidence that he did. There was a lot of evidence that was undisclosed accidentally we believe that points to a compelling alternative suspect for this crime – a man who is himself is convicted of murder and serving a life sentence,” told ADA Napiorski to CBS News Philadelphia. In the DA’s office’s statement, ADA Napiorski identifies Mr. Gwynn’s wrongful conviction and “unjust imprisonment” as “a cautionary tale of tunnel vision in policing and prosecution.”   


DA’s Federal Litigation Unit Secures Exoneration of Former Death Row Prisoner Daniel Gwynn, Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, February 28, 2024; Jesse Bunch, Philly judge has dis­missed charges against death-row inmate Daniel Gwynn in 1994 arson mur­der, The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 28, 2024; 6abc Digital Staff and TaRhonda Thomas, Judge throws out man’s con­vic­tion for dead­ly 1994 fire in West Philadelphia, February 29, 2024; Raymond Strickland, Adam Fox, Philadelphia man exon­er­at­ed after near­ly 30 years of impris­on­ment for dead­ly 1994 arson, CBS News Philadelphia, February 28, 2024; Daniel Gwynn, My Story, My Art, Art for Justice, Date Unknown;