WILMINGTON, Del. – Chester Hollman III sat at a picnic table in a park down the street from the house where he grew up.
He took in the tennis and basketball courts and the overgrown field where, as a kid decades earlier, he’d spent days and nights playing ball. Now 49, he watched a shorts-clad mailman walk from door to door Tuesday afternoon and wondered whether any of the neighbors he once knew still live in those brick and stone houses.
It had been 28 years since Hollman could even sit in a park, since his arrest, conviction, and a life prison term for a Philadelphia murder he always swore he didn’t commit. And barely one day since a judge finally took his side, accepted prosecutors’ concession he was “likely innocent,” and ordered him freed.
Through the decades behind bars, Hollman had thought about what it would be like if he were ever released: How would he feel? Where would he go?
Now given the chance, he struggled for answers.
“I feel like I’m crushed inside,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m really me. It took every ounce of strength to make it to this point.”
The Hollman case is the latest example of old murder prosecutions being examined by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and his Conviction Integrity Unit - especially prosecutions from roughly the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s - at a time when the city was battling a high rate of homicides. In his case, the unit concluded that prosecutors and police had hidden evidence that pointed to more viable suspects.
These reviews come amid a national reckoning of sorts for the criminal justice system. It was unleashed by DNA testing advances that have helped prove guilt and innocence but also fueled by a growing recognition that eyewitness identification is fallible; that suspects sometimes give false confessions; and that some cases are plagued by outright ignorance, incompetence, and even corruption by police and prosecutors.
“We’re seeing this all over the country,” said Marissa Boyers Bluestine, the former head of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project who worked with Hollman’s longtime appeals lawyer, Alan Tauber, on the case.
Hollman’s case is the eighth murder conviction that the Conviction Integrity Unit has helped to reverse since Krasner took office last year. More are expected.
Hollman was accused of being one of two men in the botched robbery-turned-murder of Tae-Jung Ho, a University of Pennsylvania student, a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square in the early morning hours of Aug. 20, 1991.
Prosecutors contended Hollman struggled with Ho while an unknown accomplice fatally shot the 24-year-old exchange student from South Korea.
Hollman, who had a job and no criminal record, was arrested blocks from the scene driving a white SUV that matched the description of the killer’s getaway vehicle, down to the first three letters of the license plate, YZA. At the trial, two witnesses implicated him: A homeless man who said he saw Hollman at the scene, and a neighbor of Hollman’s who said she had been riding in the SUV with him and others when Hollman and another man got out and she heard a gunshot.
On the advice of his lawyer, Hollman didn’t testify at the 1993 trial. The jury found him guilty of second-degree murder, which in Pennsylvania carries a mandatory life term. The state prison in Luzerne County became his new home.
Hollman’s family never stopped fighting. “Don’t let them defeat you. Stay strong,” his mother would tell him. In 1999, she died of kidney failure. He wasn’t allowed to leave prison for the funeral.
“She said, ‘Someday, you’re going to be free,’” Hollman’s 76-year-old father, Chester Hollman Jr., recalled. “And we all thought that.”
But in the beginning, “nobody would hear us,” said his sister Deanna, 45.
In 2004, a decade after Hollman’s conviction, Tauber agreed to join his appeal effort. The deeper he probed, the more convinced he grew that Hollman was innocent. But the odds looked bleak.
In 2001, one of the trial witnesses who implicated him - Andre Dawkins, the homeless man - had recanted, saying that he had been addicted to drugs at the time and that police had pressured him to identify Hollman as one of Ho’s assailants. But it wasn’t enough to overturn the verdict.
In prison, Hollman tried to keep busy. He learned to draw and sketched portraits of his family - including his sister’s son, who died of cancer at age 8 while Hollman was inside - and the family members of fellow inmates. He taught himself to play the keyboard. He mentored others; staffers called him a model inmate.
But Hollman also thought about the news accounts that portrayed him as a killer, and about the family of the 24-year-old Penn student who must’ve seen him that way. And he kept losing his appeals.
“You wake up every day thinking, ‘I’m gonna die in here,’” Hollman would later say. “It kills you slowly.”
In 2012, the other key trial witness, Deirdre Jones, also recanted. In tearful testimony in a Center City courtroom, she told Philadelphia Judge Gwendolyn N. Bright that she also had lied about Hollman in the hours after the shooting because of pressure from police to implicate him. Jones told the judge that lie had haunted her for two decades.
But the detective on the case, David Baker, denied that Jones had been coerced into signing a statement and testifying. “I don’t think she really thought she was involved until she thought about it,” the now retired detective testified.
Bright didn’t take long to decide. Within hours of hearing the testimony, the judge sided with Baker’s version of events and rejected Hollman’s bid to reopen the case.
For Tauber, the appeals lawyer, the setbacks were “incredibly frustrating.”
Six years passed. Then, in January 2018 - nine months after Hollman’s case was the subject of an an extensive Inquirer story on lying by witnesses and police in the court system - Krasner became district attorney. The former defense lawyer had pledged to bring an entirely different culture to an office that had been especially aggressive in prosecuting murder cases and recalcitrant in ceding any ground on appeals. That included new looks at past convictions.
Tauber formally asked for a review of Hollman’s case. Patricia Cummings, whom Krasner had recruited from Texas to head his Conviction Integrity Unit, began her investigation in April 2018. Among her first steps was to get the police file on Ho’s killing, which Tauber had never been able to access and which he thought might have a trove of information to help clear his client.
Within minutes, he found something tantalizing: a handwritten note of an anonymous tip that had been called into police the day after the shooting in 1991. The caller said that two unnamed participants in the killing were at a home on North Natrona Street in Strawberry Mansion.
“It was like I was hit with a clap of lightning,” Tauber said.
At that address had lived a woman named Denise Combs, who on the night of Ho’s murder, records showed, also had a rented white SUV with a license plate that - like the one Hollman was driving - began with the letters YZA. Combs returned her rental around 5 a.m. the day after Ho was killed.
Hollman’s lawyer during the trial knew about the coincidental SUV rental by Combs but didn’t know police had been tipped off about her, a piece of potentially exculpatory evidence that prosecutors were required to share with the defense.
In court papers filed last month, Cummings also noted that Combs had rented a vehicle used by her brother in a fatal shooting the year before Ho’s killing. Court documents also disclosed that Combs told Pennsylvania Innocence Project investigators in 2018 that she had once gotten rid of a 38-caliber gun - the same kind of weapon used to kill Ho - because it “might have had a body on it.”
The court filings stated that police seemed to have suspected Combs in the Ho murder at the time, because they included her photo in an array they showed witnesses after the killing. And Dawkins, the homeless man police called as an eyewitness, actually identified Combs as the possible getaway driver.
But she has never been charged in the case, and Krasner this week declined to say if his office would consider prosecuting anyone else for Ho’s death.
In an interview with The Inquirer at her apartment on Thursday, Combs denied involvement in the killing. She also said she rented a lot of vehicles back in the early 1990s.
Tauber said he had always wondered how Combs’ photo came to be part of the photo array shown to witnesses. The anonymous tip was “a big revelation,” he said, proof that police had once considered her a suspect.
In the court filings, Cummings said police had quickly stopped their investigation of Combs “after discovering there was no link to Hollman and Jones.” Had they pursued the alternate suspects, she said, Hollman may never have been brought to trial.
Cummings also told Bright in her motion that prosecutors at the time failed to alert the defense before the 2012 appeals hearing that Baker, the detective who took Jones’ statement after the murder, was found to have once denied a suspect his right to a lawyer. That information could have been used to challenge the detective’s credibility on the witness stand.
In sum, she wrote, Hollman’s lawyers had proven “numerous constitutional violations” during his prosecution and appeal.
Bright made no reference to any of that on Monday, when, after a hearing that lasted just a few minutes, she accepted the prosecutor’s motion and ruled that Hollman should immediately be freed.
Tauber thought it might take a day to arrange his release. In the end, it took only hours.
Amid the hugs and handshakes from guards and corrections officers on his way out of prison Monday evening, an officer told Hollman: “What you lost, you’re never going to get that back. So savor every moment.”
As he prepared to leave, Hollman said, he felt almost a “weird” sense of loss after leaving the prison that had been his home for a quarter century.
In the hours after his sister, father, and uncle drove him home, Hollman began to realize what being out means: Going to sleep in silence in his own room. A soft mattress. Calls from people he hadn’t seen or heard from in decades. Making plans to mow his dad’s too-long grass. Sitting out in the open without fences or time restraints.
Still, he’s struck by what release hasn’t brought him. The morning after he got out, he said: “I still felt heavy. I thought, ‘Why do I still feel heavy?’”
Some of the weight, he realized, was people’s expectations.
“Not wanting to fail the people who got me out and the people I left in there,” he said.
Whatever he chooses to do, he said, he is determined to make everyone proud and to make his time in prison mean something.
And as he shapes his future, he has another fan in his corner.
Working in the prison gym, Hollman had watched guys training rescued dogs for adoption as part of a program for inmates. He fell for a cute little French Bulldog-pug mix. About a month ago, as the Conviction Integrity Unit wrapped up its re-investigation and Hollman allowed himself to hope, he asked his sister to apply for him to adopt the puppy.
“I wanted to bring a life out with me,” he said.
Hollman’s release occurred so unexpectedly quickly that he had to leave the 7-month-old puppy behind in Luzerne County. The next day, his sister drove up from Delaware to get her. Now he’s looking forward to taking the puppy to the park where he spent his childhood.
At the prison, they called the dog Buttons, but he’s renaming her.
He’s thinking he’ll call her Freedom.