The first person exonerated by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner pleaded guilty last month to a felony drug charge, marking yet another former inmate who, once exonerated, has fallen back into trouble with the law.
Dontia Patterson, 34, pleaded guilty July 18 in a Philadelphia courtroom for drug possession with intent to deliver, receiving a maximum of two years probation as part of the plea deal.
Police and prosecutors say Patterson was one of a four-person group selling drugs in May 2022 in the city’s open-air drug market at Kensington and Allegheny Avenues, an intersection long known as one of the seediest places in all of Philadelphia.
According to a transcript of the preliminary hearing, police said when they apprehended him that day after witnessing what they believed to be drug sales, Patterson had $1,800 cash on him and over 170 pills identified as alprazolam, more commonly known as Xanax.
The $1,800 in cash seems trifiling compared to the $1.7 million settlement Patterson took from the city for its allegedly wrongful conviction in the wake of an exoneration engineered by Krasner and others.
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Patterson is the first in a list of 32 persons who have been exonerated under Krasner’s term. Many of those exonerations have received withering criticism from judges, police, and former prosecutors. In many cases, Krasner’s critics have said the exonerations are nothing of the kind.
Patterson was convicted in 2009 for the 2007 murder of Antwine Jackson in the Summerdale neighborhood of Philadelphia. His first trial ended in a hung jury on an 11-1 vote, while his second trial ended in a conviction with a life sentence.
Even before Krasner was sworn in as district attorney, other players like the Pennsylvania Innocence Project argued that Patterson’s conviction had problems. But those arguments at that time focused mainly on the idea that Patterson’s counsel had been ineffective.
Just a short five months into Krasner’s term, in May 2018, his office made the extraordinary leap to forgo the ineffective counsel argument, and instead claimed that prosecutors and police had withheld evidence at trial that would have benefitted Patterson — commonly known as a Brady violation, named after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Armed with that argument, Larry Krasner and his team asked Judge Kathryn Streeter Lewis to approve a motion for nolle prosse, which literally translates from Latin as “decline to prosecute.” Streeter Lewis granted the motion, and Patterson, having spent eleven years in prison already, was made a free man. Richard Sax, the assistant district attorney who oversaw the second trial that ended in a conviction, called the outcome “nonsense.”
Assistant district attorneys who argued the nolle prosse motion said Patterson was “likely innocent,” stopping short of completely guaranteeing or proving his innocence. But that did not stop press accounts, such as from the New York Times, from declaring a “Philadelphia Man Freed After Serving 11 Years for Murder He Did Not Commit.” A headline from the local Fox affiliate said, “Innocent man freed from prison after 11 years.”
Krasner and his prosecutors routinely support exonerations by defaming former prosecutors, some of whom are deceased, by accusing them of horrible acts of dishonesty.
A week after Patterson was freed, the sister of the murder victim told the Inquirer that she and her family were never contacted in advance of the hearing that would set Patterson free.
“If they wanted to hear our side of the story, they could’ve found us,” Meka Jackson, the sister of Antwine, told the Inquirer. “She said that no one should ‘be put on the back burner when it comes to situations like this,’” the paper reported.
The district attorney’s office said it conducted multiple methods of outreach to the Jackson family, all of which failed.
After Patterson’s conviction was overturned, he sued the city, and took a $1.7 million settlement payment, according to Ralph Cipriano of Big Trial.
Former district attorney Seth Williams, who resigned his office under a cloud of scandal, and who has consistently been a Larry Krasner critic, seemed to have in mind several elements of potential overlap relating to the Patterson exoneration when writing an op-ed for Broad + Liberty last year, even though he was only generalizing.
“Almost none of the [then] 25 exonerations Krasner takes credit for were based on ‘DNA test results or other exculpatory evidence,’” Williams wrote. “Instead, they were based on allegations of gross misconduct by police and prosecutors and recantations by witnesses who decades later decided to change their sworn testimony. Krasner and his prosecutors routinely support exonerations by defaming former prosecutors, some of whom are deceased, by accusing them of horrible acts of dishonesty. They do so under the cloak of privilege in court filings which are quickly republished in the Inquirer or elsewhere.”
Other Krasner exonerees have also run afoul of the law recently.
In 2019, a court overturned the double-murder conviction of James Frazier. In 2022, Frazier would plead guilty to assault and firearm charges in an incident for shooting a man in the leg twice.
Jahmir Harris was exonerated for a 2012 murder, but now is a lead suspect in another murder that happened only months after he was freed.
Shaurn Thomas was exonerated for murder, and won over $4 million in a civil settlement with the city. He now stands accused of killing a man for a $1,200 drug debt.
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Meanwhile, several judges have vented from behind the bench about the tactics of Krasner and his team while pursuing these exonerations.
This February, Common Pleas Court Judge Scott DiClaudio berated Krasner’s office for how it had gone about the attempt to exonerate India Spellman from her conviction for the 2010 murder of George “Bud” Greaves.
DiClaudio, who has had a long-running feud with Krasner, verbally sparred with the assistant district attorney from Krasner’s office. Although DiClaudio had already agreed to vacate Spellman’s conviction, in a subsequent hearing he “suggested prosecutors had done little to investigate [Spellman’s] alibi, and said he had been the one coming up with ideas for how they could assess its validity,” according to a report from the Inquirer.
As previously mentioned, Jahmir Harris is another Larry Krasner exoneree who now stands accused of a murder subsequent to his release.
But when Harris’ case was originally being overturned, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi expressed her deep skepticism about what Krasner and team were doing.
“Instead, [Judge DeFino-Nastasi] admonished Patricia Cummings, chief of the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, for her handling of the case, calling her theory pointing to an alternate suspect ‘unsubstantiated’ and her filings ‘utterly inappropriate’ and designed to ‘harass and influence the court,’” an Inquirer report noted.
A request for comment to Krasner’s office on Patterson was not returned.
Update: The first version of this article incorrectly stated that former assistant district attorney Richard Sax oversaw the first trial of Patterson which ended in an 11-1 hung jury. Sax prosecuted the second trial that ended in conviction.
Update II: This article has been updated to include Patterson’s $1.7 million settlement with the city in his civil lawsuit alleging a wrongful conviction.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at email@example.com, or use his encrypted email at firstname.lastname@example.org. @shepherdreports