Meagan Redman/ABC(PHILADELPHIA) — When Tony Wright walked out of the prison where he had spent 25 years of his life for a brutal crime he didn’t commit, he raised his hands in a sign of victory, grateful to be free.
“God is good, God is good, God is good,” he said, surrounded by his family and his lawyers.
This past August, a Philadelphia jury acquitted Wright of the 1991 rape and murder of a 77-year-old woman.
He had been just 20 years old when he was arrested — a father with a young son and a full-time construction job. When he found himself in handcuffs, Wright said he felt “numb” and couldn’t stop crying.
“My whole body shut down,” he said.
He said Philadelphia police questioned him about the crime and a detective came in with papers for him to sign.
“I wanted to look at the papers and see what I was signing,” Wright said. “They said, ‘Just sign the paper and you’ll go home.’ … everything they told me to do, I did.”
The papers contained a detailed confession, written in longhand by the detective. It even noted the clothing he had allegedly worn to the crime scene, with great detail: the “black sweatshirt with Chicago Bulls” logo and a “pair of blue jeans with suede on them,” that detectives say they later found in Wright’s apartment.
Wright was tried and convicted, sentenced to life in prison. It was years later that DNA evidence would tell a different story.
A team of lawyers, including Peter Neufeld and Nina Morrison with Innocence Project, fought for years just to get permission to conduct DNA tests on the rape kit and clothing that had been entered into evidence at Wright’s first trial.
When the DNA evidence came back supporting that Wright had not committed the rape, he said it was one of the happiest days of his life.
“I wanted my family to know that I was innocent,” he said. “I wanted [the victim’s] family to know that Anthony Wright didn’t commit a heinous crime against their loved one.”
But even with DNA evidence supporting Wright’s claim of innocence, his fight wasn’t over.
“The prosecutor decided, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to take it to trial. I’m going to invent a whole new theory of guilt, even if I have no evidence to support it,’” Neufeld said. “That’s so offensive, it’s so immoral. Cost Tony a lot more years.”
Wright’s case went to trial a second time. Six weeks ago, a second jury found Wright not guilty after deliberating for less than an hour.
“I almost passed out,” Wright said, recalling how he felt when he heard the verdict. “I think I let out the loudest scream in the courtroom. I think my son let out the second loudest one.”
Jurors embraced him after his retrial. The jury forewoman said at a news conference afterward that they found the evidence so compelling that “there really could have been no other verdict.”
In statements to ABC News, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office stood by the evidence and witness statements collected by detectives and said, “Prosecutors could not blithely have dropped the matter without even going to trial, not in the face of the still-compelling evidence of guilt. This was a murder … The verdict only shows that the jury did not find that (Anthony Wright’s) guilt was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Nationally, nearly two-thirds of all the people exonerated through DNA evidence are African-American, according to Innocence Project.
“It’s hardly unreasonable to conclude that there is some racial bias at work,” said Innocence Project senior staff attorney Nina Morrison. “Whether that’s in who gets targeted, who gets prosecuted, why cases don’t get dismissed earlier in the process, bias on the part of the judges or juries that end up convicting these individuals — we don’t know, but certainly there are questions that need to be answered about why Tony was wrongfully prosecuted in the first place.”
Since his exoneration, Wright has been trying to get a toehold in a new life. His freedom comes with something he hasn’t had in a quarter century: choice, in everything from what to eat to which eyeglasses to pick. He’s also been learning how to use a cellphone for the first time. The cost of these things have been mostly paid by Innocence Project.
“Cell phones didn’t exist 25 years ago. All this is new to me,” he said, holding one in his hand.
But even after spending more than two decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, Wright seems happy just to be out, not angry.
“If you angry, you’re angry all the time,” he said. “It’ll ruin you.”
“I always try to find the good out of every situation,” he continued. “For every person that points the finger at me, it’s two persons that give me the thumbs up. That’s what I focus on… They locked my body, but my mind was always free.”
Wright said he drew strength from his faith and family visits. He also practices yoga and meditation, something he said he learned behind bars.
A few weeks after his release, Wright learned that one of his lawyers helped him land a job at a federal courthouse.
“Every day, suit and tie, every day,” he said, excitedly.
Wright is looking forward to his first day on the job, and has been savoring every moment of his new freedom. He refers to his time in prison as the “inside,” and even just taking his shoes off to stand barefoot in the grass is something he cherishes.
“Inside, you couldn’t do this,” he said. “You go take a shower with your boots on. And to be outside with your shoes off, it’s unbelievable, man.”
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