The plea was a stunning turnabout for a man whose claim of innocence had drawn a wide circle of supporters, including jazz musicians, prison officials and Philadelphia's sheriff. In 1991, former Mayor Frank Rizzo called on prosecutors to reopen the case.
"Mr. Ryder, are you agreeing that essentially this is what happened?" Savitt asked the defendant during a hearing at the Criminal Justice Center.
"Yes, sir, I am," Ryder answered.
"The court is satisfied that the admission constitutes the crime" of third-degree murder, Savitt said.
In 1974, Ryder, then 23, and three fellow inmates were convicted of first-degree murder in Molten's death. Ryder, who had been in Holmesburg on a robbery charge when Molten was killed, proclaimed his innocence for years and built a following that came to include Sheriff John Green and James McCloskey, a Princeton clergyman with a nationwide reputation for unearthing evidence to help free people wrongly convicted.
His supporters contended that Ryder was wrongly convicted based on a misidentification by a prison guard, false testimony by inmates who cut deals with the prosecution, and shoddy work by his defense lawyer.
In 1993, Acting Gov. Mark S. Singel commuted Ryder's life sentence to lifetime parole, and he was freed. Soon after, Ryder was feted by 100 supporters at a party at the Zanzibar Blue jazz club. In the crowd was the superintendent of Graterford Prison, where Ryder had served time for Molten's slaying.
Three years later, Savitt overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. The judge found that trial prosecutors had withheld crucial evidence from the defense, including eight witness statements that supported Ryder's version of events. The District Attorney's Office and Ryder's lawyers both appealed the ruling, for different reasons.
While waiting for that legal battle to be resolved, Ryder, a onetime jazz singer and trumpeter, worked intermittently at low-paying jobs and was in and out of prison for violating his parole. He has been in prison for the last year for parole violations.
Under the plea agreement, Ryder will be freed and will no longer be on parole.
His lawyer, Leonard Sosnov, depicted Ryder's guilty plea as a pragmatic step by a man weary of fighting the system.
"Ed Ryder, having suffered all these years, basically desperately wanted his freedom and to have this case over," said Sosnov, a Widener University law professor. "He pleaded guilty only because it means this case is finally and completely over. There's no parole and no more appeals."
Prosecutors cast Ryder's plea admission as a major victory.
"This is important, because after 25 years of him claiming his innocence, as well as a series of attorneys and many people in the public and the news media believing this guy was not involved, he stood up in court today and finally admitted it," said Deputy District Attorney Charles F. Gallagher, chief of the homicide unit.
"We knew it all along, and we proved it to the jury in the 1970s," Gallagher said. "We proved that he was involved with three others, who went in to the cell and assassinated this guy. They stabbed him 54 times.
"Now, finally, Sam Molten can rest in peace," Gallagher said.
Prosecutors said Sosnov approached them about a deal within the last year.
"We were in the middle of appeals when the defendant, through his lawyer, came to us asking for a plea agreement, a deal," said Assistant District Attorney Robin Godfrey. "We determined that if the defendant would admit his guilt, we would agree to a 10- to 20-year sentence."
Both sides said yesterday that retrying the case would have been difficult. Many witnesses have died or disappeared.
Savitt made clear yesterday that the guilty plea ends the case. The judge said Ryder will no longer be on parole, and the minor violations that have kept him in jail, such as testing positive for drugs and a shoplifting arrest in 1997, will no longer affect his freedom.
Savitt signed an order for Ryder to be released in the next several days.
During yesterday's hearing, Godfrey read a summary of the evidence she would have presented at the trial - that one of Ryder's codefendants stood watch outside Molten's cell on Aug. 17, 1973, while Ryder and two others stabbed the inmate to death with a sharpened metal rod.
Two days earlier, according to the prosecution, Ryder had a heated argument with Molten, who had made a remark that Ryder considered disrespectful to his sect of the Nation of Islam. Ryder allegedly threatened to throw Molten over the catwalk of the multitiered cellblock, but guards restrained him.
The night before the killing, an inmate saw Michael Grant and Kenneth Covil sharpening a metal rod in their cell, and moments before the stabbing, another inmate saw Ryder carrying a blue prison shirt, held against his chest, with his hand concealed under the shirt.
According to another inmate, a scuffle broke out in Molten's cell, and Ryder was seen running empty-handed out of the cell with Grant and inmate Theodore Brown while Covil stood guard outside.
After the stabbing, the blue prison shirt and metal rod were lying next to Molten's body.
Brown, Covil and Grant were convicted with Ryder. Brown and Covil are still in prison, serving life terms. Grant died in prison last year.
Ryder insisted for years that he knew none of the killers and was peaceably whiling away the afternoon in his cell when Molten was slain.