Pennsylvania death-row exoneree Christopher Williams (pictured) was released from prison on February 9, 2021, after being exonerated in a second murder case. The second wrongful murder conviction had kept Williams incarcerated after he was cleared of the murder for which he was wrongfully condemned to die.

Williams was exonerated with the assistance of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit. Unit chief Patricia Cummings admitted that “[t]here was some cynicism in me as a human being that one individual could be wrongfully convicted more than once.” But, she ultimately acknowledged, in Williams’ case, “lightning did strike twice.”

Williams was exonerated on December 23, 2019 of a 1989 triple murder in North Philadelphia. He and his co-defendant, Theophalis Wilson, were wrongfully convicted on the basis of false testimony from James White and David Lee. White was facing possible death sentences for six murders, but he struck a deal with prosecutors to name his accomplices in exchange for help applying for a reduced sentence after 15 years. He falsely identified Williams and Wilson. Lee was granted leniency for his testimony in two unrelated cases, and prosecutors deliberately withheld information about his history as an informant and cooperating prosecution witness.

Philadelphia prosecutors charged Williams with six killings. Juries acquitted him of two of the murders and he has now been exonerated of the other four. “Williams’ conviction was built on a house of cards that began to collapse in 2019 when the Commonwealth opened up its files to the defense,” the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit wrote in its filings. “Once the light was allowed to shine, the Commonwealth was forced to see that the basic structure underpinning the conviction was built on the unscrupulous behavior of several bad actors.”

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Tracy Brandeis-Roman called Williams’ experience “mind-boggling.” She offered an apology to the family of Michael Haynesworth, the 19-year-old murder victim in the case. Victor Abreu of the Philadelphia Federal Community Defender Office, which has represented Williams since 1998, also offered his apologies to Haynesworth’s family “that 31 years later, we still don’t have the answer to who killed their loved one.”

Upon his exoneration, Williams noted the unique nature of his case. “Never in the history of the Pennsylvania judicial system has someone been charged with six murders, acquitted of two and now exonerated of four,” he said. He went on to offer a warning about wrongful convictions. “If this was done to me,” he said, “the question remains: Who else was it done to?”

In the three years since Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner established the Conviction Integrity Unit, it has been instrumental in 18 exonerations, including Williams and former death-row prisoner William Ogrod. Philadelphia’s six death-row exonerations since Pennsylvania reenacted the death penalty in the 1970s is tied for the second most of any county in the U.S. All six cases involved police or prosecutorial misconduct. A seventh likely death-row exoneree, Fred Thomas, died before he could be released, while the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, knowing Thomas had terminal cancer, fought defense efforts to expedite the prosecutors’ appeal of the court order that had granted Thomas a new trial.


Samantha Melamed, Accused of 6 mur­ders, Philly man spent 25 years on death row. Now, his record is cleared., The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 92021.