His reputation is still in police custody

Kenny Woods (left) at his Mantua home. He was arrested last fall for a fatal hit-and-run that did not involve him and has since had trouble finding a job. Another man, Donnie Sayers, (right), was subsequently charged. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Curt Hudson/Staff)
Kenny Woods (left) at his Mantua home. He was arrested last fall for a fatal hit-and-run that did not involve him and has since had trouble finding a job. Another man, Donnie Sayers, (right), was subsequently charged. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Curt Hudson/Staff)
Posted: July 14, 2011

THEY CALLED Kenny Woods a killer and threw him in jail.

They were wrong.

But nine months after the real killer confessed and cops freed Woods from prison, the West Philadelphia father of two still can't get a job.

Nobody wants to hire a "killer."

"I applied everywhere; hotels, the airport, mental health, SEPTA, auto-body shops, [grocery and convenience] markets, [retail] stores. Nobody will call me back. Or they say, 'Aren't you that guy who was on the news?' " said Woods, 22, whom Haverford police initially and erroneously identified as the drunk, police-fleeing car thief who smashed into Villanova University senior Daniel Giletta's car Sept. 29, killing him.

No one tracks how often erroneous arrests occur, or how often they result in wrongful convictions. But they happen frequently enough that the National Institute of Justice has funded a major study, now under way at American University in Washington, in which researchers will create a database of wrongful arrests and convictions and recommend ways authorities can avoid them. Woods' case is part of the study.

A similar study has been in the works in Pennsylvania since 2006, when the state Senate approved a resolution by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, to create an advisory committee on wrongful convictions.

Even without the data, experts know the main causes of erroneous arrests and convictions: Eyewitness misidentification, unvalidated or improper forensics, false confessions, lying snitches or informants, bad lawyering and government misconduct.

The results are railroaded justice and skyrocketing costs, from both detangling the innocent convict from the system and finding and punishing the real culprit.

Such system snafus also tend to have crippling, long-lasting repercussions for the individual involved, whether the wrongfully accused spends just two days in jail, as Woods did, or decades.

Although Giletta's killer already has pleaded guilty and been sentenced, Woods remains stained by the stigma of having been arrested for murder. The Delaware County District Attorney's Office says it can't help him expunge his record without a lawyer to represent him in court. But without a job, he doesn't have the money to hire one.

Expungement matters little anyway as a simple Google search spotlights the skeletons in everyone's closets. And as Woods can attest, what's online isn't easily erased.

"Before this happened, you run my name and . . . nothing, I was nobody. Now, I'm all over the Internet" as a killer, said Woods, whose name appears nearly 100 times in Google mentions linking him to Giletta's death.

Rush to judgment

Sometimes you do nothing wrong, and the worst happens.

Giletta and his roommate, Frank Patrick DiChiara, spent the night of Sept. 28 hanging out with friends. Just after midnight, they were just a few miles from home when the worst happened.

A drunk and high driver fleeing police in a stolen Range Rover roared from out of nowhere, at more than 100 mph, ramming the rear of Giletta's silver Volkswagen Jetta at Haverford and Rugby roads. As the deadly driver ran away, Giletta lay dying in his mangled car, DiChiara gravely injured beside him.

Before the next day dawned, police had Woods in custody and a list in hand of evidence they vowed indisputably incriminated him. The evidence: Woods' palm print found on the Range Rover's rear passenger-side exterior window; a Samsung cellphone police claimed belonged to Woods and contained a photo of him; and the word of Haverford Officer Thomas McDermott, who tried to stop the Range Rover before the wreck and identified Woods as the driver from a photo lineup afterward.

But their case against Woods collapsed within hours. Investigators made several classic mistakes common in cases of erroneous arrests: Relying on bad forensics and a faulty witness identification.

The cellphone wasn't Woods' and the photo wasn't of him either. And McDermott's supervisors were evasive when asked how McDermott could positively have identified anyone, in the dark and from behind, when that suspect was in an SUV speeding his way to 100 mph.

As for the palm print, Woods doesn't deny it's his. But he said he left it when Donnie Sayers, the man ultimately convicted in Giletta's death, stopped by Woods' neighborhood to show off the SUV he claimed he had "rented" from an unknown man. Woods leaned against the car to peer inside, leaving his print.

Investigators ignored Woods' claims of innocence, until Sayers confessed. Sayers, a repeat offender with a history of car thefts and DUI raps, pleaded guilty to homicide by vehicle in May and was sentenced to 13 to 26 years in prison.

In especially high-profile cases like Woods', in which public outrage demands a swift arrest, errors are more likely to occur, experts agree.

"Rushing to judgment is an invitation to injustice," said Marc Bookman, a public defender for 28 years and executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, a nonprofit resource center for capital-defense teams.

Yet in Philadelphia and its suburbs, no mechanism exists to prevent wrongful arrests, even though authorities elsewhere have gone to great lengths to remedy the problem. New York and Dallas, for example, recently created "conviction integrity units" to re-examine DNA evidence and evaluate appeals claiming innocence.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams' transition team recommended such a unit for his office, a suggestion echoed by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. But Williams decided against it, because convicts already can contest their guilt under the state's Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), said his spokeswoman, Tasha Jamerson.

But Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, contended the PCRA law is not enough to ensure justice.

"Every D.A.'s office across the commonwealth has a post-conviction unit, and they try to preserve the conviction, not review it for its integrity. They do not conduct independent investigations or consider claims of factual innocence," Bluestine said.

Learning from

the problem

The convictions of 272 people nationally - including 11 from Pennsylvania - since 1989 have been overturned through DNA tests, according to the Innocence Project.

Jon Gould thinks there's lots to learn about erroneous arrests and convictions.

Gould is the lawyer and social scientist leading the National Institute of Justice study. He and his team are examining about 350 cases of bad arrests and convictions; they expect to present their findings at the institute's annual conference next spring.

The purpose of his study "is not simply to prevent wrongful convictions," he said. "The lessons that come out of these projects actually end up making the criminal-justice process more efficient and effective."

For example, authorities who visually record confessions, one strategy embraced by innocence advocates, ensure they have proof of what happened in the interrogation room.

"That means the defendant cannot try to walk away from the confession in court, defendants are more likely to plead guilty, so cases go faster, and there's no civil suit later claiming police brutality, because it's all there on tape," Gould said.

Whatever public-policy changes result from the studies, experts agree more should be done to help the individuals affected. Many never get compensated for the time they lost behind bars. And they receive little to none of the services available to ex-offenders, Bluestine said.

"It's almost a universal problem for anybody who's been through this same process. If they had committed the crime, they get help with housing, job placement and other services when they're released. But if they're exonerated, they get bus fare and 'Don't let the door slam you on the way out!' They get, quite literally, nothing," Bluestine said.

Woods can attest to that.

In the days after his arrest and exoneration, Woods savored his freedom and refused to trash-talk authorities, saying: "They was doing their job."

Now, his job frustration mounting, he remains diplomatic, saying only: "I don't understand why it's still on my record."

But his mother, Terry Cotton Woods, still simmers when she thinks about the apology Woods and his family never got.

"I feel bad about what happened to the [Giletta and DiChiara] families. My heart goes out to them and I am very sorry for them," she said. "But we also became victims because of how we were treated."

She added: "We just need help for Kenny. He really needs a job; he really needs to support his kids. He has not given up, so I am proud of him."

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