Speaker shares personal experience of innocence on death row

By Rachael Renz
November 12, 2009

Shannon Keough

There are more than 130 people freed from death row in the United States. Harold Wilson was on death row for a crime he didn’t commit when he was the sixth person in Pennsylvania to be released from prison, nearly four years ago.

Wilson’s experience with the death penalty and the justice system was the fourth seminar of a four-part lecture series on the death penalty held on Wednesday, Nov. 4 in the Mansion. The series was presented by Cabrini’s criminology honor society, Alpha Psi Sigma.

On April 10, 1988 three people were brutally murdered in south Philadelphia. The next day the police contacted Harold Wilson asking him to come down to their station for questioning.

“Little did I know that it would be 17 and a half years until I would experience freedom again,” Wilson said.

The police had enough evidence to put Wilson behind bars. There was a woman who said she saw him commit the crime and evidence was found, which included a jacket covered in blood.

Wilson was charged with three first-degree murder charges and robbery. Eventually Wilson and his family ran out of money, which caused him to have no legal representation.

“How can someone go to law school, agree to the civil rights and then give up on their client?” Wilson asked.

From the very beginning Wilson was the underdog; he was only given one defense attorney when he was supposed to be appointed two, he had no way to pay a lawyer and he didn’t know anything about the court system.

“I didn’t have experience so I would sit in the library and read law books that I thought would help my case, but the legal terms and language were unknown to me. When I learned to digest the language, it was breathtaking; I loved it,” Wilson said.

Back at home Wilson had a loving family and two children. The prosecutor gave Wilson pictures of his children and told him that would be the last time he ever saw them again. Eventually, he was transferred to Pennsylvania’s death row and was housed in isolation.

“I remember this clearly when I walked the hallways of the condemned, barefoot and pale. I thought, ‘When am I going to get to see television and watch Chuck Connors every Sunday with my parents?’ I was in shock and had to abandon everything I knew,” Wilson said.

Wilson wanted and gained control over his case by getting copies of his transcript and reviewing them. This is when he found a new admiration for the Constitution of the United States.

“I wrote to over 50 law firms looking for help. Every single firm sent back letters and all of them had the same closing: ‘Good Luck.’ I couldn’t believe it. If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all,” Wilson said.

Being in prison not only emotionally damages and drains a person, but also causes physical damages. Wilson’s eyes and bones were affected due to the lack of sun. He also developed chronic arthritis because of the lack of fresh air and exercise.

“The worst part of my suffering was me having to watch others suffer. People were sick with hepatitis and cancer and were denied medication,” Wilson said.

Within 90 days of Wilson’s case reaching the Supreme Court the governor signed his death warrant. The governor sent a letter to Wilson and expected his “John Hancock” in return.

In 2003, Wilson was granted a new trial. In 2005, it was a mistrial and then, on Oct. 31, 2005 the final trial began. Wilson hired two “hardball” attorneys who were very helpful with the case, sacrificing time with their family for the well-being of Wilson.

“One day my lawyers suggested that we review the evidence from the first trial to see what we could come up with. I thought it was a bad idea, but I told them to go for it. Turns out, the substance from the jacket that was covered in blood didn’t match my DNA. Thank God for DNA,” Wilson said.

On Nov. 15, 2005 Wilson was acquitted of all charges and was released at 9:30 p.m. out the back door of the prison with 65 cents and a bus token.

“You students can make a difference and do great things. The sky is the limit. I cannot stress enough the importance of the Constitution. I am here today because I applied myself and if you do too, you can make a change and make this justice system work. I stand before you as the exonerated. Be the voice of the voiceless,” Wilson said.

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Rachael Renz

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