PHILADELPHIA – The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed parts of a lawsuit filed against the city of Philadelphia, two former police detectives and a former police officer by Shaurn Thomas, a man who “was convicted of a murder he did not commit,” according to an opinion entered Feb. 2 by U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter.
The former detectives whose cases were dismissed are Martin Devlin and Paul Worrell. The officer who worked with Devlin and Worrell on the murder investigation was James Gist, whose motion was granted in part and denied in part.
According to the opinion, Thomas was one of four people convicted for the Nov. 13, 1990, murder of Domingo Martinez, who was shot and killed in his vehicle “after making a large cash withdrawal from a North Philadelphia bank.”
The others who were convicted of Martinez’s murder were Shaurn Thomas’ brother Mustafa Thomas and brothers John and William Stallworth.
“Three pieces of evidence pointed to Mr. Shaurn Thomas’s guilt at trial: a rumor that he had participated in the murder, evidence of the blue car that detectives said he drove and the centerpiece of the detectives’ case – coerced confessions from two of his alleged co-conspirators,” the opinion said.
Specifically, the opinion said when Gist was on patrol at the Abbotsford Homes housing project following Martinez’s murder he “heard a rumor that eventually became the story told at trial.”
In addition, the opinion said Gist told the detectives that “Shaurn Thomas drove a blue car,” even though “the rumor did not specify the color of the car used in the murder.”
According to the opinion, Shaurn Thomas’s blue Mercury “had broken down months before the murder,” but “the investigators developed a story in which the murderers used a different blue car…whose owner and origins were unknown.”
After a forensics expert ruled out the confiscated car, the opinion said Gist “had taken Polaroid photos of a different blue car – a stripped blue Chevrolet sitting in the Abbotsford courtyard,” which were used as evidence against Shaurn Thomas.
In addition, the opinion said the detectives “knew Shaurn Thomas was arrested the day before the murder and would have been at the Youth Study Center at the time of the murder.” However, Shaurn Thomas alleged that “they failed to investigate this alibi because it did not fit with the story to be told at trial.”
Similarly, the opinion said the investigators also ignored four eyewitness accounts related to the make and color of the car.
After one of the Stallworth brothers admitted that he had lied in his testimony in an effort to avoid a death sentence, “Mr. Thomas’s conviction was vacated in May of 2017,” the opinion said.
In her ruling, Pratter said none of Gist’s arguments as to why the claims of malicious prosecution or fabrication of evidence should be dismissed “has merit.” Also, Pratter wrote that “Mr. Thomas has alleged enough to show that Officer Gist contributed to the false story about the murder, which was then used to arrest and convict Mr. Thomas, and, hence, was part of a civil rights conspiracy.”
The judge ruled that Thomas did not prove that any of the three individual defendants withheld evidence, and that “there is no independent constitutional cause of action for ‘failure to investigate.’”