Evan M. Lopez
DAY IN COURT: Eugene Gilyard spent years writing to lawyers, trying to get help proving his innocence in a 1995 murder. Now, he could have a new trial.
Back in 1995, Kenyatta and Lance Felder were teenagers in North Philly. Their mother was dead, their fathers were gone, and an uncle who lived in the house was an addict. Rob Felder, their older brother, ran the house and a small crack-cocaine enterprise with which his younger brothers helped out. “He was our sole provider,” Kenyatta Felder, now 32 and the youngest, testified in court last week. Rob exercised authority “by giving beatings. He actually split my head open to the skull with a concrete flowerpot.”
Against that backdrop of fear, Kenyatta Felder kept silent for 15 years as his brother Lance served a life sentence for murder alongside co-defendant Eugene Gilyard, another kid from the neighborhood. But after reading about Gilyard’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition in City Paper [“The Wrong Man?” May 16, 2013], Kenyatta decided he had to speak up. On June 28, Kenyatta signed a sworn statement implicating his older brother Rob and two of his enforcers — and claiming Lance’s innocence.
It was the latest twist in a tortured struggle to clear the names of Lance Felder and Gilyard. Last week, lawyers for the pair called their witnesses in a PCRA hearing. It will be up to Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi to decide whether or not to order a new trial (at which the District Attorney, theoretically, could decline to bring charges). The DA’s office, which wouldn’t comment, is fighting to preserve its conviction, and will present its case today.
Gilyard and Felder have always maintained that they did not murder Thomas Keal, who was shot dead early in the morning on Aug. 31, 1995, near 17th and Pacific. Now, others have come forward to confirm their story, including Ricky Welborn, 34, who says he committed the murder. Welborn, whose street name was Rolex and who is now serving a life sentence for an unrelated killing, confessed to killing Keal and described in great detail the botched robbery, committed in collusion with a man he would not name. Others identified the second shooter as Tizz, who Gilyard’s lawyers believe is Timothy Tyler, 35, now also facing gun and drug charges.
The DA originally — and successfully — made the case that Gilyard and Lance Felder acted on their own to gun down Keal. But that case was based on questionable eyewitness identifications made two years later by Keal’s daughter Tonya. “About as thin a case,” says Gilyard attorney David Rudovsky, “as one can imagine for a first-degree homicide conviction.” Tonya Keal has signed a letter in support of reopening the case.
Last week in court, a different picture emerged, based on testimony from Kenyatta Felder and Michael Griddle, who was a young dealer also living in the Felder house: The day before Keal was killed, Rolex and Tizz had proposed robbing a bar across the street from the Chinese store where Felder’s crew dealt crack. Kenyatta testified that Griddle told them, “Y’all shouldn’t do that. Y’all drawin’.” That is, it would draw police attention to their corner. Rob Felder suggested Keal as an alternate target, his brother claimed. (Rolex’s confession also states he got the idea of robbing Keal from a man named Rob.) Later, Rob allegedly drove the getaway car.
“I couldn’t handle the burden anymore,” said Kenyatta, choking up on the witness stand, “knowing my brother was in jail for something he didn’t do while my other brother was out free.”
Jules Epstein, a civil-rights lawyer who has taken on Lance Felder’s case pro bono, asked Kenyatta if he understood that Rob could be sentenced to life without parole. “Yes,” he said. He said he didn’t want Rob to go to prison, but pledged to testify if necessary.
The DA has raised technical objections to the petition, arguing that Gilyard and Felder waited too long to present new evidence under the state PCRA, which requires that petitions be filed within 60 days of uncovering new evidence. Gilyard first heard that Rolex was prepared to confess in late 2010, but it took time for him to hire a private investigator, get a formal written confession from Rolex, file a pro se petition and then secure representation from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. The DA is arguing that the PCRA clock should’ve started from the moment Gilyard got wind of Rolex’s jailhouse confession, even though it was then merely rumor.
Judge DeFino-Nastasi seemed unimpressed by that technical argument. But prosecutors asked repeated questions about why the convicted men “made a choice to remain silent” until 2010, and when witnesses discovered different pieces of evidence. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project says DA Seth Williams has been using technical arguments to challenge many of their cases.
There have been other setbacks in court. Kenyatta testified, “Until Monday, [Rob] said he was going to confess. He was supposed to be here yesterday and he didn’t show up.” Welborn, meanwhile, has invoked his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, and will not testify. The DA unsuccessfully moved to have his signed confession excluded.
After 18 years, it’s not clear whether the old hierarchy of the block will withstand Gilyard’s and Felder’s calls for justice.
Back in the ’90s, Gilyard says he was “the help, or the young bul, so to speak,” at the crack-dealing operation. A man named Rodney Swain was his supervisor. Rolex and Tizz, who shared a reputation for gunplay, were the muscle.
The night of the murder, Rob Felder was driving a white Pontiac that belonged to a crack addict named Mr. Jimmy. Kenyatta next saw Rob at 3:30 a.m. back at home. Outside the Chinese store the next day, Kenyatta testified, Swain was angry, complaining, “It’s fucked up that Rob brought the buls down here and let them do that.”
But the message from Rob was clear: Don’t talk. “I was, reasonably, scared of him,” said Gilyard. Plus, “Rolex and Tizz were shooters. I heard about the work that they did.” When Gilyard was arrested in 1998, Rob visited him a few times in jail. He kept asking the same questions: “Is anybody talking? Am I keeping my mouth shut? Basically trying to feel me out, taking my temperature.”
Kenyatta Felder later wrote numerous letters to Welborn in prison, telling him, “You know my brother is locked up for something he didn’t do.” He never received a reply, but apparently the message got through.
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