Former death row inmate Kelvin X. Morris: Justice delayed is justice denied

According to the Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition, a federal district court’s vacating of Kelvin X. Morris’s death sentence in July 2007 marked Pennsylvania’s 200th reversal in a capital punishment case since its reinstatement in 1978.  An American Civil Liberties Union press release noted this milestone.

Unfortunately for Morris, who was unjustly convicted of murder in 1983, his struggle to win freedom took until June 3, when he was released from prison after agreeing to a plea bargain for a reduced sentence.  Morris told Workers World, “I figured that if I could not get a new trial after 30 years it was not going to happen.”

The odds of finding justice in the state’s injustice system are stacked against African-American prisoners like Morris, particularly when the lawyers, prosecutors or judges involved are politically connected.

Morris’ ordeal started in October 1980.  At age 20, he was charged with murdering a Philadelphia store owner.  Police initially issued a warrant for his brother, Artie Morris, whom two eyewitnesses positively identified.  After Artie’s spouse provided an alibi, police put out a warrant for Kelvin.

Although four youth eyewitnesses told police it was Artie Morris, not Kelvin X. Morris whom they saw, police threatened to charge them as accessories to the crime to coerce them into changing their accounts, since they admitted breaking a store window that night.

When police issued Kelvin X. Morris’ warrant, he was in Virginia working for an uncle.  He was arrested and brought back to Philadelphia.

Morris’ court-appointed lawyer, Leon Tucker, failed to call Joseph Flowers, one of the young witnesses who refused to buckle under to police coercion.  He also neglected to call Kelvin X. Morris’ alibi witnesses — his companion, Christina Clark, and her mother, Margaretta Wise Frazier.

The state’s informant “witness,” James Willie, claimed that Morris confessed to him in Virginia.  Tucker neglected to investigate the allegation. Willie had been arrested for forging Morris’ uncle’s checks.  A handwriting analyst could have refuted Willie’s false accusation claim, yet none was called. During Morris’ 2011 appeal process, Willie’s lies were confirmed.

During the appeal process, a federal jury found that Tucker failed to present or even investigate mitigating circumstances that would have allowed a jury to consider a life sentence over death.  After Morris’ conviction, Tucker was appointed as a judge in Philadelphia.

Case rife with conflicts of interest

Morris learned after his 1983 conviction and death sentence that Tucker was simultaneously representing his brother, Artie Morris, on a civil case involving an eye injury that he alleged suffered after the shooting. Years later, two of the young eyewitnesses stated in affidavits that police photos of Artie Morris shown to them immediately after the 1980 shooting revealed an injured eye that distinguished him from Kelvin.

Artie Morris’ lawsuit would have been dismissed if Tucker’s representation of him had come to light.  Kelvin X. Morris maintains that Tucker stood to gain financially from that case.

Following his 1983 trial, Morris spent years working his way through the state’s appeals process.  One support for his 2007 federal habeas corpus relief was Judge Alfred Sabo’s improper jury instruction in his post-verdict sentencing — that their decision on a mitigating circumstance must be unanimous. The late, notorious Sabo sentenced world renowned political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal to death in 1982, and Morris, in 1983.

In 1999, then Gov. Tom Ridge signed Morris’ death warrant for the first time.  In 2001, the Eastern District Court granted a stay of execution.  Judge Jan E. DuBois allowed Morris to proceed with federal appeals.  Litigation proceeded under DuBois from 2003 to 2005, and was awaiting his ruling in 2006 when he stepped down.  DuBois claimed that since Tucker’s spouse, Petrese Brown-Tucker, had been appointed a federal judge in his district, he couldn’t try the case and transferred it to U.S. District Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez.   Brown-Tucker was also a Philadelphia assistant district attorney during Morris’ 1983 trial.

Although Rodriguez vacated the death sentence in 2007 and Morris was granted a federal writ of habeas corpus in April 2008, the district attorney appealed. In 2008, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Rodriguez’s ruling claiming they needed to hear from Tucker, who alleged that Kelvin X. Morris told him that he (Kelvin) wanted to protect his brother.

After years of waiting and with new legal briefs filed, in 2012 Rodriguez finally granted Morris’ request for a new evidentiary hearing set for December 2012.  It was delayed until June. As the hearing date neared, the state proposed a plea bargain to third- degree murder, which carried a maximum sentence less than the time Morris had already served.

Morris explained that he accepted this deal knowing that the alternative could mean years more of appeals while he remained in prison.  His brother had died and key witnesses were not accessible. “The state has all the money in the world.  They could buy the experts who could have refuted Willie’s claim but they kept denying my appeals.  They wanted to legally lynch me.”

As of Jan. 1, the U.S. prison system includes 3,125 prisoners on death row. Since 1976, a total of 1,343 executions have occurred.  Up to half of death penalty appeals involve claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. In Pennsylvania, it’s a main reason for overturning death sentences, as 90 percent of its death row inmates have been represented by public defenders or court-appointed counsel usually lacking adequate funding to support their defense.

Morris is a survivor of Pennsylvania’s death row.  He endured an injustice system where for more than 30 years all the odds were stacked against him, but now his story can be told.