A man slowly dying on Pennsylvania's death row, where he says he was put by a corrupt cop, was granted a second chance to prove his innocence today.
Philadelphia Judge Willis Berry ordered a new trial for gravely ill Pennsylvania inmate Fred Thomas, who was convicted in 1995 in the shooting of Federal Express driver William Moyer.
Thomas' lawyers argued that a cop later convicted of shaking down drug dealers, Highway Patrol Officer James Ryan, was responsible for Thomas' conviction, and that the officer scared off a witness who could have exonerated him.
Berry agreed the woman's testimony would have been key, and set a July 1 status hearing for the prosecution to formally announce whether they will appeal. Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham said after the ruling her office would.
Prosecutor Andrew Gibson had argued that the witness, Maria Fielding, who has since died, did not testify at Thomas' trial because she had an outstanding warrant against her and didn't want to get arrested. And in any case, prosecutors described her as a liar who couldn't be believed.
Berry ruled that if the jury had heard Fielding, who named someone else as the killer, they likely would not have convicted Thomas.
"I think his rights were violated," Berry said. "He did not get a fair trial, it does not appear to be fair."
He continued that if the jury knew what he knew now, "There's no way they would not find reasonable doubt in this case."
Inmate’s Family Knows Joy
The ruling brought joy to Thomas' supporters and family, who have organized protests and proclaimed his innocence for years.
"I'm so happy," said Thomas' sister Mildred. "I'm glad [the status hearing] is coming up soon. I prayed, I prayed, I did a lot of praying. I believed my brother was innocent all along."
Abraham said her office would appeal the ruling, and reaffirmed her belief that Thomas is a killer. In particular she attacked the credibility of Fielding.
"Substantively, Maria Fielding's statement about the killing is incredible," she said in a statement that detailed alleged inconsistencies in Fielding's claims, and those of her husband, whom the defense presented in its case for Thomas.
"We are gravely disappointed by the ruling of the … court granting this defendant a new trial," Abraham said. "We remain confident in our belief that this defendant is guilty of the cold-blooded murder of William Moyer Jr."
Click here to read the entire statement.
'Disturbing' Lack of Evidence
The prosecutors' case hinged on two witnesses who testified in the trial that they saw Thomas running from the scene of the killing four days before Christmas in 1993 in North Philadelphia, in an area known as the Badlands.
The witnesses, William "Greenie" Green and Charles "Countrie" Rowe, were reputed to be neighborhood drunks, and were warming themselves around a fire in a barrel near the intersection were Moyer was killed. They testified they saw Thomas at the intersection before they heard a "loud bang." They said they never saw Thomas shoot Moyer. They heard the bang and saw him run towards an alley, stuffing something in his coat.
Police never found a murder weapon, or any physical evidence to connect Thomas to the shooting, which Berry said he found disturbing.
Berry also said today that he would have instructed the jury that evidence of Thomas' alleged flight from the scene was not enough to convict him of first-degree murder.
He described Maria Fielding as the "lynchpin" of his decision, and cast doubt on prosecutors' assertions that Fielding would not have testified. Berry said Thomas' lawyer at the time did everything he could to produce the woman. And he said that he found it suspicious that it turned out that Fielding had been taken into custody, and that even while prosecutors said she could not be found, she was in fact in the same court building at the time she was needed.
"If she was allowed to come into the courtroom … my brother would never have been found guilty," Mildred Thomas said.
Likely to Die Before He Gets His Day
Fred Thomas, 56, is deathly ill with end-stage liver disease, diabetes and hepatitis C, his lawyers say. His pancreas barely functions, and he has been diagnosed with encephalopathy because his liver can no longer process toxins.
Thomas' doctors say he may have a couple of years to live but make no guarantees he will last that long. Thomas says prosecutors realize they have wrongfully convicted him but are unwilling to clear his name. Instead, he says, they've been throwing roadblocks to his appeal through various court filings and motions, hoping that he will die before having a chance at a new trial.
Thomas' attorneys predicted that prosecutors would appeal the judge's decision, which could begin a lengthy series of court hearings before Thomas ever gets a new trial. He was not freed today because it is still a capital case, and he is still serving up to 15 years in an unrelated case.
"It conceivably could take a long time for him to get to a trial," said James Moreno, one of Thomas' lawyers. "He's very sick."
Thomas, in an interview with ABCNEWS in prison earlier this year, said he feels like the prosecutors know they are wrong, but are trying to stretch out the process as long as they can.
"The DA's office is waiting for me to die," Thomas said.
The man who perhaps is the most responsible for advancing Thomas' case this far, private investigator Joe Thornton, said he doubts Thomas will make it, but today's ruling may be enough.
"I don't think Fred Thomas will live through a new trial; this is his victory right here today," said Thornton, whose efforts produced two witnesses who backed Fielding's version of events.
ABCNEWS' Eddie Pinder, Bryan Robinson and Michael McAuliff contributed to this report.