On Aug. 31, 1995, Eugene Gilyard was just one of a group of young men hanging outside the bulletproof-glass-encased Chinese store at 17th and Venango, dealing crack. When Thomas Keal, a local businessman, was murdered early that morning, police did not initially suspect that the 16-year-old was involved.
“I was actually on the scene of the crime three minutes after it happened,” says Gilyard, sitting next to his lawyer at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Mahanoy, 100 miles northwest of the old block in Tioga. “I knew [Keal], seen him coming and going from his businesses. He was a regular face in the neighborhood.”
Keal was accosted by two men and shot dead as he exited his seafood shop, Kela’s Fish Bowl, a block north on 17th Street, carrying $2,258 in cash and the .357 Magnum he kept on him at all times. His daughter, Tonya Keal, witnessed the attack from her apartment above the shop. Like the police, she did not readily identify Gilyard.
“I looked out my bedroom window” and saw a black male walking “up and down 17th Street,” she told police, according to a statement taken two days later. The streetlights shone brightly on a dilapidated North Philly street that has in recent decades lost many homes, jobs and people. It was 2:30 a.m, and she heard her father in the store below, where he often stopped for a Tastykake after closing Kela’s Cafe, the bar he owned on the block. As Keal turned away, she later testified that she heard her father’s keys locking the door, then his voice — and then gunfire. She rushed to a window. Peering between the blades of a motionless window fan, she saw her father on the ground. A second man held a pistol against the back of his head.
“The guy was standing over my father, and point blank, and fired two more times into my father,” Keal told police at the time. She would later testify that she was in a state of panic. “I then ran for the phone and called 911.”
Officer Carl Benson arrived within minutes and found Keal, a parishioner at the church where the policeman served as associate minister, facedown in a spreading pool of blood. The right pocket of his jeans was pulled inside out.
The police questioned Gilyard, who was picked up along with other young men who hung out by the Chinese store. He recounts: “It was, ‘Were you out? Were you present on the block that day? What did you observe?’ So I answered those questions.”
Tonya Keal, who reviewed mugshots of potential suspects two days later, told police she did not recognize the killers from the neighborhood. The police investigation halted by mid-September.
But in December 1997, Detective Dennis Dusak showed Keal new pages of mugshots, called photo arrays. The Special Investigations Unit detective’s job was to solve cold murder cases. One photo array he presented to Keal included Gilyard; another included his friend Lance Felder. Defense lawyers say the photo of Gilyard, who had recently been arrested on robbery and drug charges, was taken at age 18. He’d grown two years older since the murder, and he looked it.
Keal identified Gilyard on Dec. 31, 1997.
“Yes. This one here,” she said, pointing to Gilyard’s photo. “He’s the one that I saw walking back and forth in front of my father’s house. He was pulling a red bandana up over his face. Right after that I heard my dad saying something and then I heard the shot.”
Gilyard was arrested nine days later in the early morning.
“I slept with my door open,” recalls his mother, Christine Gilyard, who was an addict at the time. She heard a racket downstairs, and when she got up, “I see all these cops running up the steps with black [on], and kick Gene’s door in.”
Christine Gilyard had also been at home the night of the murder. When she heard shots fired, she biked to the Chinese store looking for Eugene. She found him and his friend Kenyatta Felder, the brother of co-defendant Lance Felder, on the way. A crowd had formed near the crime scene, and mother and son watched the police for nearly an hour.
On March 15, 1998, Tonya Keal picked out Gilyard again, this time in a lineup. “I’m not sure,” she hesitantly told police.
At trial, neither Gilyard nor any of his friends or family testified to his alibi, perhaps because it would have placed him just one block from the murder.
“I didn’t know anyone who had been locked up for something they didn’t do,” Gilyard recalls. “I didn’t know that was a possibility.”
The police say they never showed Tonya Keal a separate 1995 photo array that was in their possession and included Gilyard — a skinny young man among eight other skinny young black men. At trial, Dusak contradicted himself as to whether police had showed her this photo in 1995.
In any case, Keal testified at the trial that she was “absolutely sure” that Gilyard had murdered her father.
“The only reason I said I was not sure is because I was being rushed” by police. “I will never, I would never forget his face.”
At the preliminary hearing, she had said she watched Gilyard for a “couple” of seconds before the shooting. At trial, Keal testified that it was 10 seconds: five seconds with his face uncovered, five more with it covered as he adjusted a red bandana. She revised the estimate upward after consulting with Assistant District Attorney John Doyle.
Gilyard was sentenced to life in prison based on Keal’s eyewitness identification alone.
Keal identified Lance Felder as the man with the handgun, something she had failed to do from photo arrays in both 1995 and 1997. Keith Williams also identified Felder as one of the shooters from a mugshot in 1997. Two years earlier Williams stated he knew Felder, but that he was not one of two armed men he saw run by his house.
Inconsistencies abounded: Keal’s description of the shooters’ skin complexions changed, as did the number of shotgun blasts she heard. Williams testified that he would see Felder two or three times a day before the murder but he didn’t see him at all over the next two years because “I travel. I go places.”
Dusak testified that the idea that Felder was involved in the murder came to him immediately after he reviewed Williams’ 1995 statement. It seems this is when he began to suspect Gilyard, recently arrested for robbery and drugs, as well. Dusak used a randomized computer system to create photo arrays built around images of both men. “People don’t happen to recognize descriptions of clothing, heights or weights or ages,” Doyle told the jury. “They recognize faces. They recognize people. That’s how people make an identification.”
Research shows that eyewitness identifications are vulnerable to the frailty of human memory and to even the most subtle police suggestion. Everyone in the arrays was black, young and male, but the arrays may have included no one else who lived near Tonya Keal. Asked why her memory captured things in 1997 it had not in 1995, Keal responded, “Maybe it’s better now.”
Today, Gilyard is going on 15 years in prison for a murder he has always denied committing, and of which he now believes he can conclusively prove he is innocent. “I’ve had times when I felt little hope,” he says. “I believe that I will get out of here one day. I believe that the courts will eventually see the truth.”
“My neighborhood, I wouldn’t say was a good neighborhood,” says Gilyard. Many of his old friends have spent time behind bars. “I was hanging out with the wrong individuals. I didn’t have too much guidance at that time.” His jailhouse connections, however, have provided Gilyard with several surprising rays of hope.
The first of those came in late 2010, when Christine Gilyard received letters from Lance Felder and from a friend named Sheldon Odom. The latter had been locked up with a violent West Philly stickup man named Ricky Welborn, aka Rolex. Felder and Odom both wrote that Rolex was ready to confess to killing Thomas Keal.
On Feb. 3, 2011, Eugene Gilyard sent a letter to private investigator Robert Dash describing Rolex’s confession as he understood it. “I pray that you can be of assistance to me,” he wrote.
Dash interviewed Rolex the next month at SCI Frackville and gave Rolex a copy of Gilyard’s letter. “Rolex read the letter,” Dash wrote in a summary of his visit, “and acknowledged the facts presented in the letter were accurate.” There was, Rolex told the investigator, only one discrepancy: Gilyard had heard that Rolex took Keal’s gun out of his holster before fleeing. Actually, Rolex “took the .357 handgun out of Keal’s hand.”
Rolex provided Dash with a short written statement: “My reason for Coming forward is Cause I Always Knew that these two men where [sic] incarcerated for a Crime they didn’t commit. And this crime that I committed has Always been on my Consience [sic], And I Just Want to own up to my Wrong doing. I mr. Welborn Am willing to Testify to these facts.”
Gilyard wrote to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, with which he had been in touch since its founding at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in 2009. Lawyers visited Rolex that June and took a detailed three-page statement. After years of lonely pro se filings researched in the prison library, trained lawyers would finally take up Gilyard’s case.
Gilyard has filed a new petition under the state’s Post-Conviction Relief Act, laying out Rolex’s confession and new evidence that corroborates it. Exhibit D includes Gilyard’s two mugshots, along with a 1995 mugshot of Rolex. It is striking: The 18-year-old Gilyard looks more like Rolex than he does his own 16-year-old self. Gilyard’s lawyers also have fresh witnesses, prepared to testify regarding Rolex’s likely guilt.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, however, is fighting the reopening of his case and has, unlike DAs in other cities, so far declined to cooperate with the Innocence Project.
Gilyard has filed other petitions over the years, raising questions about eyewitness testimony and pursuing relief following U.S. Supreme Court rulings barring mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. But his claim of innocence may be his most compelling chance. Christine Gilyard is hopeful the justice system will give it a fair hearing. “They already took 14 years away from him. Don’t take his whole life away from him for something he didn’t do.”
The way Rolex tells it, he and a friend got the idea of targeting Keal from a neighborhood man they knew named Rob, whom they ran into outside the Chinese store. Word was that Keal kept $50,000 in cash at home. The two had driven across town to 17th and Jefferson to buy marijuana, Xanax and “syrup,” and stayed to commit an armed robbery. As he recalls it, Rolex walked up to Keal carrying a double-barreled sawed-off shotgun. His friend approached from behind holding the .22.
“I ain’t givin’ you shit,” Keal declared, pulling his .357. Rolex’s shotgun blast to the leg knocked Keal to the ground. His friend, standing above, shot him three or four times in the head.
“What the fuck did you do that for?” Rolex asked.
“Man, you shoot everybody,” his friend responded. “I want to shoot somebody, too.”
A woman screamed across the street as Rolex rifled through Keal’s pockets. He took Keal’s .357, his friend tossed the .22 into a nearby abandoned house, and they fled back to West Philly.
“I had to pry [the .357] out of his hands,” Rolex recalls. “I gave the .357 revolver to a friend named Chink whose grandmother lived on 57th and Catherine.” He says that Chink, who is now in prison, used the .357 in another robbery. In their haste, they never got the $2,258 in cash later found on Keal’s body.
Rolex also confessed to shooting a man named Anthony Stokes that afternoon near 58th and Christian streets in West Philly, “with the same gun I used to shoot the man on 17th Street.”
The Innocence Project located Stokes at SCI Camp Hill. He confirmed that Rolex had indeed shot him that day. In fact, he says that Rolex shot him on two separate occasions. “Rolex was a robber and drug dealer,” said Stokes, who has never met Gilyard or Felder. “He robbed anything and anyone.”
Rolex says he used the same shotgun to rob people at 46th and Walnut that fall, a crime to which he plead guilty.
The first time Stokes was shot, an injury confirmed by hospital records, was about 12 hours before Keal’s murder.
Really, the old neighborhood feud being intensely violent — “I stabbed him four to five times,” Stokes stated — he refused to tell police who shot him at the time. But Rolex’s confession was a sign that a code of silence could be broken, and corroborating statements poured in.
“I know that Eugene Gilyard did not participate in the shooting of Mr. Keal because I was with him,” a friend, Michael Griddle, told Innocence Project investigators. Griddle was standing with Gilyard, Lance Felder and others in front of the Chinese store. “I told the police this at the time.”
What Griddle did not tell police, but says that he told Gilyard’s lawyer, is that he met Rolex and a man who went by the name Tizz that night. They approached the Chinese store and announced they were planning to rob the Bee Hive, a bar just across the street. Griddle objected to a robbery so close to “where we hang out.” Ten minutes later Keal was shot one block to the north, and the two hopped into a car and drove away with a third man.
“I know who this third person is,” Griddle stated, “but I do not want to say unless that is the only way to get Eugene out of jail, because Eugene is innocent.”
Kenyatta Felder, the brother of Gilyard’s co-defendant, confirms most of this account. Gilyard maintains that he did not hear what Rolex and Tizz said that night. But he does say that he knew the two were involved in the killing, though he did not know their real names.
Rolex is serving a life sentence for a separate murder and has little or nothing to lose by confessing. But police had evidence implicating Rolex and Tizz from the very beginning. It is unclear what they did with it.
Donita Mickeals was sitting on her stoop at 2:30 a.m. and “heard a loud blast from 17th Street, followed by two or three smaller pops.” She recognized the three men running down the street. They were, she said, the “same three guys I had talked to earlier outside the Chinese restaurant.”
The afternoon prior to Keal’s murder, Mickeals walked into the Chinese store and caught a man’s attention. “He told me his name was Tizz,” Mickeals told police after the murder. “He asked me for my phone number, and I gave it to him. And he told me that because I drive, I could come by where he hangs out at, in front of the Chinese restaurant at 54th and Baltimore.”
Mickeals, who heard Tizz call out to a man named Rolex before walking off, told police she could readily identify the pair. In 1997 Dusak never showed her Gilyard’s or Felder’s photos.
“We eventually spoke to [Mickeals],” he testified. “Didn’t put anything down on paper.”
Gilyard’s lawyers planned to call Mickeals to the stand in 1998 but were unable to locate her. She says she is now prepared to testify.
In July 2011, an inmate approached the Innocence Project with another piece of jailhouse gossip: Tizz had confessed to the Keal shooting to a man named Donnell Wiggins in the late 1990s when the two were locked up together at Graterford state prison. It took investigators three months to find Wiggins in a Philadelphia halfway house.
Wiggins, a onetime acquaintance of Gilyard’s, also knew Tizz. The two had met in North Philly — Tizz, Wiggins says, was actually with Eugene Gilyard at the time. The two were buying Xanax and syrup. Today, Gilyard cannot recall whether he was with Tizz, but says it is possible: He was using drugs at the time.
Tizz told Wiggins that he had killed the “old head,” and, “I told Tizz it was messed up that Lance and Gene are doing life for his work.”
“It is what it is, man,” he recalls Tizz saying. “That’s what happens when you play the game.”
But the evidence suggests that Gilyard was played not just by the justice system but by his friends as well. Many seem to have had information that could have cleared him. “I believe so,” Gilyard acknowledges, though he is not angry that others waited for Rolex to speak up. “I also know that individuals aren’t going to put their lives on the line to help me,” he says. There is a “no-snitch mentality in my neighborhood.”
His mother is frustrated that Rolex held his tongue. “What took ’em so long? Why did they let him sit for all these years?”
Today, the man who lives next door to where Gilyard sold crack, a newcomer residing in one of the block’s few inhabited houses, has never heard of the murder. The Chinese store where Eugene Gilyard sold crack still stands.
Tonya Keal no longer lives on the block and did not respond to City Paper requests for an interview. But she did sign a letter asking the DA and police to reopen their investigation. “We see nothing wrong with the way this case was investigative or prosecuted,” Keal and Innocence Project lawyers wrote. “We are simply concerned that an innocent man is being punished while a guilty man is not.”
Seth Williams’ 2009 candidacy for district attorney appealed to Philadelphians eager to turn the page on iron-fisted Lynne Abraham’s controversial, nearly-two-decade-long reign. What Eugene Gilyard found most appealing, however, was Williams’ campaign-trail suggestion that he might create a Conviction Integrity Unit.
“He was talking about opening up an office to investigate wrongly convicted inmates,” says Gilyard. “I don’t think that ever happened.”
Unlike district attorneys in Dallas, Houston, Brooklyn and Manhattan, Philly’s first African-American DA has refused to move forward on an idea he said he was “seriously considering” just three years ago. Indeed, Williams has surprised advocates by opposing the Innocence Project at every turn.
“In every case, motions to dismiss based upon procedural barriers have been filed,” says Marissa Bluestine, legal director at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. Her organization is currently litigating its first batch of cases, 10 of which are from Philadelphia. That, she says, is “including cases where we have identified — and obtained confessions from — a person who has admitted being the true perpetrator of the crime. Including cases where we have discovered critical evidence had been withheld from the trial.
“Rather than engage with us in trying to learn the truth, we have been met with simple rejection.”
Nationwide, the number of people cleared of crimes with prosecutor assistance skyrocketed last year. But of the 1,089 people exonerated nationwide since 1989, the Philadelphia DA has helped clear only three, none of them under Williams.
In Gilyard’s case, the DA is making a technical argument for dismissal, claiming Gilyard missed the deadline to file his petition. The Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) allows defendants 60 days to file a petition after discovering new evidence, and prosecutors say that window began closing the moment Gilyard heard that Rolex confessed.
That would, however, put Gilyard in an impossible position: If Gilyard had filed a petition based only on the jailhouse rumor when he first heard it in late 2010, it would likely have been dismissed as hearsay. But by the time he was able to dispatch Dash to interview Rolex in prison, and then to file his own pro se motion less than two weeks later on March 18, 2011, it would have been too late.
Williams, who declined an interview request and would not answer questions about Gilyard’s case, sent CP a message defending his efforts. He noted that he’s made an unprecedented investment in ensuring that the right people are conflicted. He has “tripled the number of prosecutors assigned to the charging unit to review all arrests and warrants.” The “appeals and PCRA units constantly review cases post-conviction, to do exactly [what] ‘conviction integrity’ units do elsewhere.”
Bluestine says that’s laudable, but does “absolutely nothing, zero, to deal with people who are already in prison. … We have seen absolutely no movement from this office.”
In March, the Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit helped a man named David Ranta walk free after serving 23 years for the high-profile 1991 murder of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger. Ranta, like Gilyard, was convicted based on eyewitness testimony that was eventually called into question. Later, another man was credibly identified as the killer. Last week, the Brooklyn DA announced they would review about 50 convictions that involved one particular detective who often relied on a single eyewitness.
In June, Gilyard will likely have a hearing where a judge will consider both the new evidence and the DA’s timeliness objection.
Earlier this month, Christine Gilyard married a man she met in recovery, and she now lives in a tidy apartment in Logan, two miles and a world away from the half-abandoned rowhome blocks that devoured her son. Eugene Gilyard began to sob when I asked if it was difficult to be absent for her successes. “I’m happy for her,” he told me.
Gilyard hopes that, if he is successful, co-defendant Lance Felder can use his case as a road map out of prison. Felder has filed his own PCRA petition.
Unlike other states, Pennsylvania provides no restitution to the wrongly convicted, who often can end up destitute after being set free. David Ranta suffered a serious heart attack two days after his release. Gilyard is nonetheless hopeful that he will soon return home to see his mother and the woman he married from prison, whose son he has adopted.
To Gilyard, the prospect of freedom seems close. But he reminds himself that Rolex’s confession and Tonya Keal’s letter will not matter if the DA succeeds in having his petition dismissed. Eugene Gilyard could still die in prison.
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