September 14-20, 2006
City BeatThe Exoneree
A one-time convicted axe-murderer becomes the local death-penalty-abolitionists' frontman.
: Michael T. Regan
On the second floor, he slips past the legal reference collection and into a corner of the Business and Science alcove. There, four rectangular tables make a square where a "reserved" sign perches. He sits down anyway, then gets down to business on a very unscientific topic, the death penalty.
"I've filed lawsuits to be in places like this," he says in a voice barely louder than a library whisper. "No administration ever wanted me to learn, or to read books."
When he was pent up on Pennsylvania's death row following a conviction for a 1989 triple axe murder in South Philly, he used to get a library hour, or two, a day. He had to bang on his cell bars until guards shackled and escorted him there. While other inmates watched the World Series, CNN or Fox News, he'd take their library hours. Others would listen to radios, or sit silently in the blue-black cold — taking refuge in "pacifiers," Wilson says. He made his bunk his desk. Grievances were his pacifiers. He studied, earned his GED and "did things most don't — and won't."
Prison changed him. Before it, he wasn't concerned with anybody or anything else. He had his own agenda. He was a free spirit. An adventurer. Three death convictions, one for each homicide, forced him to challenge himself. He weaned himself off cigarettes. "They were already going to kill me, so why kill myself?" he reasoned. "I became a fighter and struggled to do another day, a month, another year. Others would say, 'Mr. Wilson, why you spending so much time in that law library? It's not going to help you.' Well, they're all still there!"
Wilson, 48, who now talks freely about freeing others, is a free man. On Nov. 15, 2005, he became the 122nd exonerated death row prisoner in U.S. history after more than 16 years in the worst clinks in the state. He says rickety representation, racist jury selection and DNA evidence set him free. Wilson is the sixth death row exoneree in Pennsylvania since 1982, and the fourth in seven years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, 1,045 people — including three Pennsylvanians — have been executed. More than 3,370 inmates remain on death row.
Some may be innocent.
At the library, Wilson's salt-and-pepper hair matches a full beard. He's wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt, a white button-down, short-sleeved cotton shirt and a cell phone earpiece hooked on his right ear. He didn't know what a cell phone was when he first called for a ride home from the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center. The lightbulb went off on State Road outside the prison, like a scene from Star Trek. "You know, 'Beam me up, Scottie,'" he says. "I was like, 'Whoa!'"
Seemingly, it would be easy for Harold Wilson to get a job and put the past behind, but he couldn't "live a comfortable life" if he did. Or he could change his name, move to Hawaii or Haiti. Just hit the road and hide.
Instead, Wilson is using his freedom to help others. Speaking out everywhere he can, including at a conference this month in Germantown, he's also launching the Harold C. Wilson Foundation to convert now-abandoned properties into housing for ex-cons. This, even though he doesn't yet have a home of his own. He says he wants to provide medical care, transportation and jobs for released prisoners, and has joined the Board of Witness to Innocence and the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Now he can enter prisons as a guest, without restrictions.
Through his resolve, Philly's anti-capital punishment movement is growing and while others say he still belongs in jail, Wilson has become its poster boy.
"Since Harold has been out, he's leading the charge," says Peggy Sims, a community organizer for Family and Friends of Death Row, a member of the Prison Society and CEO of Reunification Transportation Services, which shuttles inmates' families to prisons for visits. "It's definitely centering around him."
The recent spree of Pennsylvania exonerations underscores the need for an immediate moratorium on executions while the system is examined, says Lisa Ziemer, co-chair of the Philly-based Southeastern Chapter of the Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty. (In 2003, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System recommended a moratorium, but neither the legislature nor Gov. Ed Rendell, who supports the death penalty, has acted on it.)
But this past May and July, respectively, Philadelphia and Harrisburg's city councils passed resolutions supporting the Innocence Commission Act, which would establish the Innocence Commission of Pennsylvania to study the state's DNA exonerations and wrongful convictions for trends. The bill is currently in the state House Judiciary Committee.
Four of the state's six exonerations are Philadelphia cases, but death penalty numbers, which hinge on race, wealth and geography, have always been Philly-heavy. Lynne Abraham's Philadelphia accounts for 53 percent of the state's condemned inmates; 108 of the city's 118 death row inmates are minorities.
So this month, Wilson expects to share center stage with fellow exoneree Nicholas J. Yarris, a Philadelphian who after his 2004 release moved to England, where he's writing a book. Wilson and Yarris, who declined an interview, plan to tag-team the issue in stops around the city. The focal point of their efforts is a Sept. 23 conference, "United by Love, Divided by Bars," at First United Methodist Church of Germantown. Free and open to the public, speakers include Marge Oliver, convener of the Philadelphia chapter of the Prison Society, who will present a nuts-and-bolts lecture titled "Introduction to Department of Corrections."
"People are starting to reason," she says, "but we have to break through so much prejudice, bias and fixed mind-sets."
National voices will include keynote speaker Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, who says "there's a great deal of energy and commitment" in Philadelphia.
Wilson will coordinate an at-risk-youth workshop and a panel on the impact of the death penalty on families. He calls the conference a "unification" and "awareness" effort.
"It's a start," he says. "We have to wake up the dead. A lot of people are dead to what's actually going on."
It took Wilson, who grew up at 18th and South streets — what's now Graduate Hospital — a while to wake up. The youngest of seven, he was running the streets, doping and dropping out by junior high. He was 17 when his pop passed. He'd cautioned Harold about an almost feral, street-corner existence but Wilson would still bag homework, climb out his bedroom window and head to the playground. His friends played hoops, but he'd scale the walls and rooftops on buildings in Fairmount Park.
"I always had a date with death," he says. "Then I ended up on death row."
In October 1989, Wilson was convicted of the murders of Dorothy Sewell, 64, her nephew, Tyrone Mason, 33, and Mason's girlfriend, Cynthia Goines, 40. He was prosecuted by former Philly Assistant District Attorney Jack McMahon (now a private defense attorney), whose jury selection tactics fell under scrutiny in 1997 when Abraham leaked a training video of him advising new city prosecutors how to keep poor blacks off juries to the media. (She was waging a tight re-election campaign against McMahon.)
Ultimately, the video got Wilson another trial; a 2003 appeal found McMahon's jury selection violated a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision barring the elimination of jurors based on race. A second trial ended in a mistrial, but after a third that began on Oct. 31, 2005, a jury armed with new DNA evidence acquitted him of all charges. The decision still rankles McMahon.
"It's a crock," he says. "Harold Wilson caught a break when he got caught up in what was going on with me, then he got lucky. Now, he believes he's vindicated, but that doesn't, in any way, mean he's innocent."
But on Aug. 9, Wilson's civil attorney Richard F. Ostriak refiled a 2003 civil suit that lists the city, McMahon and former District Attorney Ron Castille as defendants.
"The DA's office maintained and sanctioned a policy that would so obviously have violated a defendant's rights, that it should be liable for the end result of that violation," Ostriak says. "Mr. Wilson was, unfortunately, a victim of just such a policy."
A jury could decide the case in six to nine months.
"It's corruption, an abuse of morals that keeps them controlling people's minds and spirits," Wilson says. "We try to recruit people, but they're all in fear."
It's nearly 5 p.m. on a Friday, and the library's closing. A uniformed security guard warns Wilson it's time to go, then ushers him through the turnstiles past a trio of guards. He walks out a free man, then reflects on what that means.
Wilson remembers when he was let loose with only a copy of his release papers, 65 cents, a bus token and a trash bag of belongings.
"This is where I used to come," he says, "and I've been coming here ever since."
In those first weeks of freedom, while Stanley Tookie Williams and his flock were resisting his eventual execution by lethal injection in California, Wilson was across from the library in Logan Square. At 4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays last winter, volunteer college students fed the homeless, and offered a $10 registration for a nondriving photo ID. His feet were freezing, but Wilson remembers being warmed by a sense of hope. "Vans were lined up along the curb here filled with people leaving the prisons, all trying to get their lives rebuilt," he says.
He had no idea then that he'd be starting a foundation, but in February he made application through City Hall. He's looking for board members and asking for $10 and $15 donations for a CD of an interview he did with Washington, D.C.'s Democracy Now! last December. He also takes time to write inmates, sometimes including a $20 money order, sending them money he could use to help himself.
"There may come a time when I can only include $10," he says. "Right now, I'm just fresh, and I have such remorse and sorrow for those left behind."
He's also begun a home goods business, Quality Merchandise at Your Finger Tips, with a partner in Virginia. A percentage of each sale goes to the foundation.
"You can't keep a good man down," Wilson pledges.
Why share? Why rebuild his life by taking his freedom and running with it —and not away with it?
"It's the hardships I've lived coming from the ghetto," he says. "It's because I never did what was right before. It's because my parents always told me the reefer would get me sick or get me in a situation,then it happens. Now, even though I'm at peace with myself, there's still this force that keeps me fighting."
Sims, a Germantown conference organizer, says the first time she visited Wilson she sensed his determination, energy and resolve. Now, she knows he's also dependable, prepared and committed.
"His life is a prime example," Marge Oliver agrees.
Wilson is inspired by hundreds of letters he's received commending him for his strength and spirit. Most fulfilling, he says, is when people tell him after one of his speeches, "Mr. Wilson, that was a great story. I'm sorry it happened, but I didn't know the city of Philadelphia was in that kind of business."
And then add that they're no longer in favor of capital punishment.