More than 16 years after a Pennsylvania jury returned three death sentences against Harold Wilson, new DNA evidence helped lead to his acquittal. On November 15, 2005, Harold became the nation’s 122nd person freed from death row. During his 1989 capital trial, Harold was prosecuted by former Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Jack McMahon, a man perhaps best known for his role in a training video that advised new Philadelphia prosecutors how to use race in selecting death penalty juries.
After the 1988 murder and robbery of three people in South Philadelphia, Harold was convicted of three counts of murder and sentenced to death. Harold voluntarily answered questions posed to him by the police; he had no idea that his trip to the police station would be his final act of freedom for more than 17 years. “I was in shock for at least a month after the verdict,” Harold said. “When I heard the verdict, the only thought that ran through my mind was ‘how are they going to kill me three times?’ My life was gone and no one in the system cared about my innocence.”
In 1999, Harold’s death sentence was overturned when a court determined that his defense counsel had failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence during his original trial. A later appeal led the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to call for a new hearing because of evidence that McMahon used racially discriminatory practices in jury selection. In 2003, a trial court found that McMahon had improperly exercised his peremptory strikes to eliminate potential black jurors. Harold was granted a new trial, a decision that the district attorney’s office did not appeal. The court stated that in the new trial the death penalty could not be sought.
After new DNA evidence revealed that blood from the crime scene did not come from Harold or any of the victims, a finding suggesting the involvement of another assailant, the jury acquitted Harold of all charges. With his family in the courtroom, Harold wept as the jury read the verdict.
Since his release, Harold has been a passionate advocate against the death penalty and for reform of the criminal justice system. He often testifies before legislators, asking, “Is the death penalty worth killing one innocent person? Was it worth killing me?
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