Feb. 20, 2002 -- 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.
William "Greenie" Green and Charles "Countrie" Rowe, who said they were Thomas' friends, admitted they were near the corner drinking liquor at 9 a.m., huddling by a fire in a barrel. They told police, and later testified, that they saw Fred Thomas at the intersection before they heard a "loud bang." They said on the witness stand that they never saw Fred Thomas shoot Moyer. They said they heard a bang, and saw him run towards an alley, stuffing something in his coat.
Thomas told ABCNEWS he was in the neighborhood to visit relatives that morning, and at one point was just steps away from the where Moyer's body was discovered. He was there to get some booze — Nightrain, Thunderbird and a 40-ounce bottle of Old English malt liquor — from an illegal liquor store, a "speakeasy," he called it. He got his supplies and walked toward an alley.
A Drunk, a Convict … a Suspect
Prosecutor Roger King had few leads besides Countrie and Greenie. There was no gun, no motive, no delivery packages or any physical evidence to link Fred Thomas to the murder.
But Thomas was the local drunk, known as "Crazy Fred." A car accident in his youth, his lawyers say, left him mentally impaired, with little chance of ever leaving the Badlands. He had a criminal history going back to his youth, including convictions for assault and manslaughter.
After two trials, he was found guilty of first-degree murder for Moyer's killing.
He remembers his shock when the verdict was read.
"I didn't believe it was for real," he said. "I got a little dizzy. When they came back with the death penalty, I really didn't believe it."
He was sentenced to death on Feb. 28, 1995. That same day, in another courtroom, Philadelphia Highway Patrol Officer James Ryan was one of five cops indicted for corruption.
Ryan was charged with a range of crimes, including conspiracy, interference with interstate commerce by robbery, theft, violation of civil rights, obstruction of justice and aiding and abetting.
The Federal Defenders
The confluence of events would be meaningless, except Thomas' legal team believes this officer was largely responsible for Thomas' conviction for the murder of William Moyer.
One of Thomas' lawyers, Anne Saunders, a seasoned criminal defense veteran, says she smelled a rat almost as soon as she and three other attorneys got the case in the Federal Defender's office, or, as it's formally known, the Capital Habeas Corpus Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. That was in 1999.
"It's always troubling for a lawyer when they see a conviction with no physical evidence," she said.
They put their top investigator, Joe Thornton, on the case. Thornton is a salt-and-pepper-haired man in his 50s who looks like a gumshoe from central casting.
He's methodical, affable and shrewd. He honed his investigative skills in the country comfort of Maine for 25 years, but he walks the streets of the Badlands with no fear.
Says Thornton in his New England accent, "I don't represent a threat to the people. I'm trying to help somebody from the neighborhood. I'm a fact-finder."
In search of the facts, Thornton investigated the record and homed in on the star witnesses, Countrie and Greenie. He would ultimately find both men but they were not nearly as important to him as an eyewitness that the jury never heard about: a woman named Maria Fielding.
Woman Reported Three Young Men
Fielding, in a statement to police, said that she saw what happened to the FedEx driver. In the report filed the day after the shooting, Fielding, who is now deceased, told cops that she saw three black men in their 20s or 30s, and heard them say, "let's get him," shortly before the shooting.
The report says she saw "the delivery man with a package in his hands and he stepped out the truck and took maybe two (2) or three (3) steps; and the dudes walked right up to him. … I heard a 'pow' and then a second 'pow' and the delivery man fell backwards."
Fielding told her police interviewers that she and her girlfriend watched the three flee.
She identified one of the men she knew as "Tony" and another by the name "Black" or "Blue." Thomas' attorneys note that none of the descriptions resemble their client, who was 48 at the time.
Thornton wanted to know why the jury in the trial never heard Fielding's version of events.
He found her husband and an explanation. Mitchell Fielding, Maria's widower, told Thornton in an affidavit filed with the court that, "[o]ne of the officers approached her again at the time of trial." (She was subpoenaed to testify for Thomas.) "As she waited in the hall he told her that she might lose the children if she testified, 'if she did not take a hike.'"
Defense attorneys and investigators never found Maria Fielding. Five years later, Thornton says he showed Mitchell Fielding photos of police officers and Fielding identified Officer James Ryan as the cop who intimidated his wife. Several of Thomas' family members say in affidavits recently filed with the court that they were present when it happened and confirm Mitchell Fielding's story.
Prosecutors place little credence in the Fielding story and the statements of Thomas' relatives. In their own court filings, the prosecutors argue that Fielding never appeared in court because she was afraid of being arrested on an outstanding warrant, and they say that in any case, her story contradicts the physical evidence and testimony of forensics experts. (Thomas' lawyers counter with their own experts who believe Fielding's testimony actually explains the circumstances better.)
Prosecutors also allege that Fielding was a proven liar who used multiple aliases, and likely would have been disregarded by a jury. Her police statement was not admitted at trial in her absence because it was ruled hearsay.
Thornton says he later found James Ryan's footprints in other parts of the investigation, and he believes Ryan hand-delivered Countrie and Greenie to the detectives assigned to the case, even though the case was never his.
Thornton says that Countrie admitted that he made up what he told the jury. In a follow-up interview and in an affidavit filed with the court, Charles "Countrie" Rowe says that while he was drinking at his corner fire barrel about 20 yards away, he "did not observe Fred Thomas do anything that morning other than walk to and from the alley." In the affidavit, Countrie also states: "He was not running, did not seem to be upset and was not acting any differently than he had when he had waved to us earlier."
And he added that he was frightened by the officers who interviewed him, a detective, Charles Brown, and Officer Ryan.
Countrie intimated in the affidavit that the officers coerced his testimony, adding that detective Brown, " had told me that we were suspects and our testimony could clear us. I did not know what to do and just went along with it."
Thornton says the other witness, William "Greenie" Green, told him almost the same thing in a death-bed recantation, which Thornton described in his own affidavit filed with the court. Greenie didn't live long enough to sign an affidavit himself.
The Ryan Connection
There's only one link, according to Thomas' lawyers, between Maria Fielding, Countrie and Greenie — convicted felon and former officer James Ryan.
Ryan pleaded guilty to an array of charges in an unrelated indictment, and began serving a six-year sentence in 1996 for misconduct and illegal activities on the job, including searching premises without probable cause, conducting armed illegal detentions, stealing money and property, and falsifying police reports, affidavits and arrest and search warrants.
Three incidents among the many that Ryan pleaded guilty to included illegally stopping and searching people outside of his assigned district. His indictment describes street encounters where officers would "beat, assault, intimidate and threaten false prosecution in order to find and steal drugs and money, and to persuade individuals to cooperate against their sources of supply in order to provide the opportunity to make additional arrests and steal more money."
Saunders, Thomas' lawyer, believes there is a similarity between how she thinks Fred Thomas was framed and Ryan's admitted crimes.
"That conduct is remarkably consistent with the allegations we raised in the petition," she said.
Brian McMonagle, James Ryan's attorney, firmly denies his client had any involvement, saying, "I'd be interested in seeing what evidence they have to support those allegations. The only thing [Ryan] was involved in was bringing a guilty man to justice."
Prosecutors describe the defense's claims against Ryan in Thomas' case as "fanciful," and say Ryan's crimes were committed elsewhere, five years earlier. They say he had a "minuscule" role in arresting Thomas, and that his lawyers are merely relying on Ryan's status as a corrupt cop to make their case.
Drugs and Shakedowns
The Federal defenders, though, say it's a lot more than a ploy, and point to one of the lingering mysteries in the murder: No one knows exactly why Moyer was killed.
The lawyers say that William Moyer was delivering FedEx packages to a phantom recipient in a bad neighborhood. Three days after the murder, according to court papers, an anonymous man who described himself as a Federal Express worker called police and claimed that Moyer had "taken some weed and had recently 'ripped off' a couple of kilos of cocaine from a package that he was to have delivered."
An autopsy report found traces of cocaine and methamphetamine in Moyer's system. Moyer's widow, Joan, declined to answer questions about her husband.
Other members of the community, more friends and relatives of Thomas, have filed affidavits saying Ryan was known to shake down drug dealers and protect those he worked with. In one affidavit, Thomas' cousin, Bobby Evers, recalls witnessing a shakedown by an officer who he says other cousins identified as Ryan. He says he saw the officer pull up in a highway patrol car, forcing dealers to scatter except one.
According to the affidavit, Ryan threw the dealer him up against the wall, handcuffed him, reached into his pockets, took out a roll of bills, un-cuffed him and told him to "Get the f--k out of here." Evers says in the affidavit that he asked the dealer why he would allow that, and the dealer said it wasn't a problem, smiled, and just kept walking.
Who Killed Moyer?
Some of the most valuable evidence in any legal appeal is new evidence that wasn't presented during the first trial. Thornton, who goes to the Badlands sometimes weekly, uncovered a new eyewitness.
James Wilkerson has filed an affidavit with the court, naming the man he thinks is the killer. The document reads, "I know that Fred Thomas did not shoot the FedEx driver, William Moyer." Wilkerson's statement points to a man identified by Thomas' lawyers as a dealer in the neighborhood with a long criminal record.
Thornton believes his discovery of Wilkerson solved the murder. "The evidence suggests that somebody other than Fred ... shot and killed William Moyer," he said.
Thornton's investigation also finds reason to believe that the dealer is an associate of a second man who matches the description of the "Tony" — who Maria Fielding said she saw running from the scene. That second man is also a relative of star witness, Charles "Countrie" Rowe.
While that information is included in Thomas' latest court filings, none of it apparently impresses the prosecutor who is arguing against a new trial for Fred Thomas. Philadelphia District Attorney, Lynne Abraham, refused a request for an interview, and has not responded in court yet to Wilkerson's affidavit.
Citing ongoing legal hearings, she issued a statement saying: "I have NO interest in innocent people being in jail. If the right person is convicted for the right crime, justice has been achieved. In the Thomas case, I am confident that the right man was convicted."
Also unimpressed is Joan Moyer, who believes Thomas is responsible because "his own friends testified against him."
She also knows she must live without her husband, who had her name tattooed on his body, and be reminded of her loss every year. "Christmastime is always a difficult time for us," she said, eight years after the killing. "My 14-year-old daughter is still having a tough time with it."
Time Is Expiring
Thomas' relatives, friends and lawyers are struggling, too. They fear he will die having spent the final years of his life in his cold cell, never getting the chance to clear his name.
"I hope he stays alive long enough to see us put his case on," said Anne Saunders, pausing to wipe away tears. If not, she says, "I will be disappointed as will a lot of other people."
Thomas thinks prosecutors are trying to end an embarrassing case through what he perceives as intentional delays and a motion to dismiss his appeal.
"The DA's office is waiting for me to die," Thomas told ABCNEWS.
The wait may not be long.
Michael McAuliff contributed to this report.