Fred Thomas is a dead man dying.
Every day, Thomas lives with this thought in a 7-by-9 prison cell on death row at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, Pa. The state sent him there for a murder he says he didn't commit — the killing of a Philadelphia Federal Express driver four days before Christmas in 1993.
But Thomas may never get a chance at exoneration.
He is deathly ill. His doctors say he has end-stage liver disease, out-of-control diabetes and hepatitis C. His pancreas barely functions and he has been diagnosed with encephalopathy because his liver can no longer process toxins. He survives on a shot of insulin and four pills a day.
Doctors have told Thomas that he might have a couple of years, but they can't make any promises — he stopped breathing recently, and had to be revived with a defibrillator.
There are few, if any, comforts for this dying 56-year-old — no TV, radio, chair or books — just a toothbrush, some toothpaste, a spoon and a knee-level bed with a thin twin-sized mattress and some blankets.
"Ain't nothing in this room but cold; I stay in this bed all day long," he said in his slurred, slow speech recently.
Death in the Badlands
Protestations of innocence are a common refrain in prison, but his lawyers are convinced Thomas is telling the truth. They believe a dirty cop, who himself was indicted for corruption in other cases the day Thomas was sentenced, is largely responsible for Thomas' fate.
Thomas' lawyers have cried, agonized, stayed up late and argued vigorously for a new trial. Nonetheless, it may ultimately be a power higher than the courts that determines if Thomas lives.
"I know I'm getting ready to leave here but I'm not worried because the man upstairs is waiting," he said.
Thomas was convicted in 1995 of killing Willam Moyer, who was found beside his parked delivery truck, shot in the face in a rough section of North Philadelphia, near the corner of Ninth and Clearfield Streets.
The area is known as "the Badlands." It's a community rife with drugs, junkies, guns and murder. Eight years after the killing, blank-eyed people still wander the streets in mid-afternoon, strolling aimlessly among the litter — old car parts, spare tires, fallen leaves, garbage and newspapers.
No packages were missing or stolen from Moyer's truck. Only one package was opened. The only remaining contents of that package were foreign newspapers.
The parcel's sender was listed as Colecciones Biblicas International Incorporated. It was mailed from Santurce, Puerto Rico, to Roberto Perez at 3052 N. Ninth St. A person who answered the door recently said that no Roberto Perez lives there, or has ever lived there in their memory.
Thomas' legal team says the contents of the package were valued and insured at $100 — a high price for old newspapers, which in themselves are an odd thing to be express-delivered to this economically depressed community.
Police began their investigation with very few clues. Prosecutors say a highway patrol officer, Chris Werner, who was familiar with the area, contacted two men who were known to hang around that intersection.