Anthony Wright is a well-known man in Philadelphia. He spent nearly 25 years in prison on murder and rape convictions although he was actually innocent. Even though compelling scientific evidence—that he and the Innocence Project had to fight for years to access—proved that someone else was responsible for the terrible crime, the former Philadelphia District Attorney, Seth Williams, decided to re-try the case in 2016. The State’s hapless effort thankfully did not result in a second wrongful conviction. According to one report, the jury “took five minutes” to acquit Mr. Wright.
Lesser known than Mr. Wright is the prosecutor who led the effort at his second trial, Bridget Kirn. Late last month, Mr. Wright’s defense lawyers, who also successfully represented him in a civil suit against Philadelphia police that the City settled in June, filed a bar complaint against Ms. Kirn. If the State’s Disciplinary Board was unfamiliar with the concept of “low-hanging fruit,” it should be no longer because the complaint leaves no doubt that Ms. Kirn violated her ethical and constitutional obligations. It shows she presented false testimony at Mr. Wright’s second trial and failed to inform the judge, jurors, and defense counsel about her witnesses’ perjured statements.
The false testimony at the 2016 trial came from two detectives who also testified at the first trial: Detective Manuel Santiago and Detective Frank Jastrzembski. Mr. Wright’s first conviction turned largely on their testimony. Santiago claimed that Wright gave a detailed and voluntary confession while he was in police custody in 1991; Mr. Wright always maintained that he never confessed but was coerced by the police into signing the “confession” under the threat of bodily harm. Jastrzembski testified that he located many blood-stained clothes in Mr. Wright’s bedroom at his mother’s home.
The DNA testing eventually done in the case was profoundly exculpatory. Semen located in the victim’s body pointed to someone else altogether: a recently deceased man named Ronnie Byrd who had a felony conviction. Additional testing showed that the clothing and shoes that Detective Jastrzembski claimed he collected from Wright’s bedroom actually belonged to the victim. These damning results strongly suggest (1) that Santiago fabricated Mr. Wright’s confession, and (2) Jastrzembski lied about the location of the bloody clothes.
At Mr. Wright’s second trial, both detectives testified that nobody in the law enforcement community had ever informed them about the DNA testing or its results. Perhaps because the scientific evidence was so damning to the State’s case, the jury did not believe the detectives’ insistence that Wright was guilty, and they voted to acquit. However, prosecutor Bridget Kirn knew that both detectives lied because she had personally informed them about the DNA testing in preparation for the second trial.
Mr. Wright’s Innocence Project lawyers obtained voluminous and undisputed proof of her knowledge during the civil suit they filed after exonerating their client. Indeed, Santiago freely admitted in his civil deposition that Kirn had met with him and provided him with the relevant case information before the second trial. Jastrzembski also said at his deposition that Kirn briefed him on the DNA results before the second trial. Kirn acknowledged as much in her own deposition. When confronted with her ethical duties and asked why she had failed to disclose that her witnesses presented false testimony, she said, “I didn’t correct the record because it didn’t seem inaccurate to me.”
Shortly after taking over Seth Williams’s sinking ship of an office, current DA Larry Krasner fired Kirn. According to the bar complaint, Ms. Kirn is now working for the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office on a contract basis. It may be time for the DA there to revisit that arrangement. And, one can only hope that the Disciplinary Board acts appropriately and meaningfully punishes a prosecutor who clearly violated her ethical duties. Prosecutors have immense power, and they must be held accountable when they abuse it. Consider this eloquent excerpt from the conclusion of the bar complaint; it says it all:
Anthony Wright spent nearly a quarter century of his life behind bars – and narrowly escaped the death penalty – after being tried, wrongfully convicted, and tried again for crimes he did not commit. During his incarceration, he [was] stripped of his freedom and dignity; his beloved mother passed away; he was deprived of the ability to raise his only son, who was just four years old when he was arrested; and he missed the birth of his first grandchild, who was born in 2016, while Mr. Wright was in jail awaiting his second trial. Neither his complete vindication upon his acquittal, the overwhelming support of the Philadelphia community to which he returned, nor the sizable civil settlement agreed to by the City can restore what was taken from him.