On Thursday evening, James Figorski and Stephen Brown ’71 delivered a presentation on the flaws of the modern-day criminal justice system to an audience of students, faculty and Williamstown residents. The two presenters both work for the Innocence Project, a Philadelphia-based group that focuses on exonerating innocent people unjustly serving criminal sentences. Throughout their presentation, they compared their own work to that of Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of this year’s Williams Reads book, Just Mercy. “Today, our goal is to laser focus in on some of those same themes that Bryan Stevenson was talking about,” Brown said.
For Figorski, the road to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project was not straightforward. He grew up in Kensington, Penn., which he described as “the badlands of Philadelphia,” and started working without so much as a high school diploma. He was employed as a police officer at 19, and ultimately served 25 years in the force. “I grew up in the Philadelphia police department… It was the time of my life. I loved it. Being a police officer in a big city was like being part of the biggest show on earth,” Figorski said.
As he matured, however, Figorski started to see problems with the way the police force was run. He became increasingly concerned with their interrogation techniques, which sometimes included depriving subjects of food, water or sleep for up to 18 hours, and grew frustrated with the lack of accountability. Once, he saw police officers extract a blatantly false confession. “We did whatever we wanted. We had a powerful union, and City Hall wouldn’t dare go against us,” he said. Eventually, Figorski decided to pursue a legal career, earning a 3.97 GPA at night school while still serving full-time as a police officer. He became a lawyer in 2006 and began to work for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project in 2009. Since then, he has tried 40 prison civil rights cases to verdict in Philadelphia.
Brown appeared equally passionate about criminal justice. He began the presentation by asserting, “I love three things in life: I love my family, I love Williams and I love the US Constitution.” The Constitution became a central theme throughout the evening as the speakers bemoaned law enforcement officers, lawyers and judges who they believe have failed to give prisoners their constitutional rights. Though at times their critiques were broad, the two also focused specifically on the case of Shaurn Thomas, who was released from prison in 2017 after serving 24 years for a crime that he did not commit.
Shaurn Thomas was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole at age 19 following a deeply flawed trial. He was initially arrested for the murder of Domingo Martinez, who ran a community bank and was a local icon in the Puerto Rican community. After withdrawing $25,000 from his bank account and entering his car with the money in hand on Nov. 13, 1990, Martinez was reportedly cut off by a red and white car. According to multiple eyewitness accounts, he was then shot by a six-foot-tall, 200-pound passenger. However, Shaurn Thomas and his brother Moustafa, who were ultimately convicted, were approximately five feet, nine inches tall and each weighed 130 pounds. 16-year-old Shaurn also had a convincing alibi: he had been arrested for stealing a motorcycle the previous night and was held in police custody and later in a Youth Study Center throughout the morning that the crime occurred.
Thomas never got the opportunity to fully present his alibi, however, since his state-appointed defense attorney never properly filed the Notice of Alibi Defense. “The person who got these records wasn’t the defense attorney; it was Jim [Figorski], years later … The lawyer didn’t forget. He had nothing to forget because he didn’t know what he was supposed to do,” Brown said. “Shaurn never even spoke to his lawyer until he was picking the jury… he was never visited by anyone before me,” Figorski added.
The prosecution had coerced two other men into falsely confessing and implicating Shaurn and Moustafa in exchange for a reduced sentence, threatening them with the death penalty if they didn’t cooperate. Investigators also ignored the eyewitness testimony of a red and white car and instead framed the murder around a blue car (Shaurn Thomas had been seen in a small blue car in the past). “Voilá, as soon as they needed a blue car, they found a blue car,” Figorski said. Then, when evidence came up that the blue car in question was not affiliated with the incident, the prosecution refused to share that information with the defense. As this information was presented, one member of the audience shouted out, “So the truth doesn’t matter?” “Not at trial in Pennsylvania, it doesn’t,” Figorski replied.
Shaurn Thomas was convicted in Dec. 1994 and remained in prison for 24 years. Figorski estimated that he spent 900 hours working to free Thomas. In contrast, he characterized the lawyers and judges that he interacted with as refusing to admit that they made a mistake. He began to make progress when he got two of the alleged co-conspirators to retract their confessions and reveal that they had been coerced into making them. “They both were fed a script and testified it to save themselves,” he said. Additionally, a breakthrough came when he located the prosecution’s missing case file, which detailed their many abuses. Ultimately, the evidence was sufficient to free Shaurn Thomas on May 23, 2017. However, Moustafa is still imprisoned.
The audience was visibly shocked by the retelling of this story. “Why did [the investigators] do this? Was it mindlessness, incompetence, racism?” one attendee asked. “I think it was sociopathic. If you are willing to put someone in jail to look good, that’s sociopathic,” Brown responded.
Brown took specific aim at Detective Martin Devlin, who investigated this case and frequently styled himself as “Detective Perfect” due to his 95 percent clearance rate (the average rate is closer to 37 percent). “Normally, if things are too good to be true, they probably aren’t,” Brown said. Audience members were particularly frustrated about the lack of consequences that the officers ultimately faced, but Figorski contended that he was seeking justice by suing the city of Philadelphia on behalf of Thomas. Still, he emphasized that no amount of money would sufficiently repay the damage that had been done. “He lost 24 years of his life. His kids are all estranged from him now. He wasn’t able to say goodbye to one of his sons. How much money is that worth?” he asked.
The two presenters also frequently encouraged prospective lawyers to undertake pro-bono work with groups like the Innocence Project. “I’ve gotten most of my financial compensation from paying clients, but I’ve made 98 percent of my emotional compensation from non-paying clients,” Brown said. The two repeatedly emphasized that groups like the Pennsylvania Innocence Project are often understaffed and under-resourced; out of 900 applications from convicts across Pennsylvania, only 11 could initially be taken up by the group. “Getting your case taken by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project is harder than getting into Harvard Law School,” Brown said.
In response, an audience member remarked upon the number of innocent people who likely still remain behind bars. “I shudder to think about the truth of that,” Figorski said. “If these sort of acts happen once, then shame on the individual. But if these acts repeat themselves, then shame on the institution that allowed it.”