How videos convinced a jury that Amin Speakes, after 2 years behind bars, was not guilty of murder

"Jusitce prevailed!" Vernell Rainey (left) said after Amin Speakes was acquitted. "The truth will set you free. And that's what it did. It set my grandson free."
"Jusitce prevailed!" Vernell Rainey (left) said after Amin Speakes was acquitted. "The truth will set you free. And that's what it did. It set my grandson free." (SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 08, 2012

RIDDLED with bullets, Timothy "Banger" Ross lay faceup in the doorway of his North Philly home as his family watched the color drain from his face and a pool of blood ooze onto the floor beneath him.

Moments earlier on Oct. 7, 2009, a hail of gunfire had flown through the doorway. One shot came so close to striking Ross' 14-year-old sister in the head that it ripped off one of her braids.

Ross' frantic family knew exactly who did it: Amin Speakes, then 21, who had fought with Ross two hours before the shooting. The cops soon scooped up their man.

What the family and police didn't know at the time, though, is that Speakes had what some would call a rock-solid alibi - two time-stamped videos that placed him miles away from the shooting.

The District Attorney's Office viewed the video and decided to put Speakes on trial anyway.

Denied bail, Speakes turned 22, then 23, while awaiting trial behind bars, often playing chess alone.

Finally, after two years and three months, a jury last month found Speakes not guilty of first-degree murder. Instead of spending the rest of his life in prison, he was finally a free man.

"Here I am facing charges, and I didn't have no clue about what happened," Speakes, 23, said during a recent interview in his attorney's office. "That 'not guilty' verdict made me what I am. If I didn't hear that verdict, I wouldn't be here."

Speakes' case is disturbing not just because he sat in jail for so long for a crime he was cleared of, but also because it begs the question: If the jury got it right, how did the police and District Attorney's Office get it wrong?

"There was just a lot of burying their heads in the sand and not wanting to open their eyes to what really happened here," defense attorney David Nenner said. "This has been a rare experience in my career, where there is video evidence that exonerates somebody. It's not something I typically see."

'The jury spoke'

"We have a jury system. We have a system of due process. The jury heard and saw evidence and concluded that this defendant was not guilty," District Attorney Seth Williams said recently.

"There's a difference between not guilty and any type or form of prosecutorial misconduct or misconduct on behalf of the police. The jury spoke."

The verdict also means that the murder of Ross, which was once hung on Speakes, is an open case.

"Had the detectives and the police continued to do some investigating in the neighborhood for the rest of the day and night, they may have caught the killers," said Vernell Rainey, Speakes' grandmother. "But they dropped the ball in my living-room court and left it there."

In reaching its verdict, the jury had to weigh eyewitness testimony and police statements that appeared to nail Speakes for the Cleveland Street murder versus surveillance videos that Nenner argued gave his client a clear-cut alibi.

With such competing evidence, it's not surprising that the D.A.'s office soldiered on to let the jury decide Speakes' fate, said Marissa B. Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which works to free those who've been wrongly convicted.

It's also not surprising, she said, that the video evidence appeared to carry more weight with the jurors. "Maybe juries are starting to understand that eyewitness testimony - as powerful as it can be - may not be as accurate as we think," she said.

Mind you, Speakes is no Steve Urkel, the nerdish TV character. In 2007, Speakes pleaded guilty to a gun-possession charge and was sentenced to probation, according to court records. Before that, he was ordered to attend the George Junior Republic juvenile- treatment program in Grove City, Pa., where he graduated from high school.

The murder rap that Speakes caught had less to do with mistaken identity than it did with a rush to judgment, Nenner believes.

In the minutes and hours after Ross' slaying, people in the neighborhood pointed police in Speakes' direction, and he was identified as the gunman by Raheem Pollard, a cousin of the victim; by a neighbor, Tyrone Suber Jr.; and even by Speakes' own cousin and good friend, Shaquille Rainey, then 16.

Speakes, Rainey and friends fought Ross, Pollard and their friends two hours before the shooting. The fight erupted because Speakes had inappropriately touched Ross' sister, Tatyonna, as she walked with a girlfriend. After taking this all in, the police arrested Speakes that night and took his cousin Shaquille in for a night of heavy-duty questioning.

At his trial more than two years later, Assistant District Attorney Deborah Watson-Stokes scowled at Speakes during her closing argument and thundered that he had murdered Ross because the victim dared to stand up for his young sister after Speakes put his hands all over her.

"He had the motive, he had the means, and he had the opportunity," the prosecutor bellowed.

Nenner told the jury that Watson-Stokes' case was based on "speculation and guessing," which, he added, amounts to "reasonable doubt."

At the heart of the case, he said, is this reality: "You can't be in two places at once. It's humanly impossible."

Clothes, lies and videotape

Vernell Rainey helped stop the fight that erupted near her house on 18th Street after her grandson touched the victim's sister. Then she did something that saved Speakes, who often stayed with her, from a life behind bars.

To make sure things didn't heat up again, Rainey, a mental-health counselor at Pennsylvania Hospital, took Speakes and her nephew Shaquille Rainey with her to work to return an office car. She drove that car and Speakes and Shaquille followed in Rainey's personal car, a Subaru.

"We drove away together," said Rainey, who testified at trial.

Before going to the hospital, both cars stopped at a gas station at 12th and Vine streets, about a 15-minute drive from the murder scene. Speakes and his cousin were captured on the station's video cameras from 6:22 to 6:26 p.m. - just before the slaying.

Both cars then traveled to the hospital's Hall Mercer building at 8th and Locust streets, about 20 minutes from the murder scene.

While Rainey parked her office car in a garage off camera, Shaquille was recorded walking into the hospital and walking out at 6:38 p.m. - the exact time of the murder.

The three piled into the Subaru, and on the return trip home, Rainey said, they stopped at McDonald's and arrived back at her home about 8:30 p.m. Police were everywhere, and soon swarmed her home and whisked away Speakes and Shaquille.

"They reached a premature conclusion," Nenner said.

While Speakes sat in jail, Nenner prepared his defense with the help of private investigator Russell Kolins, whom the attorney has worked with for more than 30 years. Kolins soon found the gas station and hospital videos and four hospital employees who remembered seeing Speakes and Shaquille Rainey at the time of the slaying. They testified.

But so did the neighbor, Tyrone Suber Jr., who repeated on the witness stand what he had told police: He saw Speakes running from the murder scene with a 9 mm handgun. Suber also repeated something that could not be true: that Speakes was wearing a burgundy hoodie and black Dickies pants.

Witnesses told police that Speakes was wearing a light-blue and white sweatsuit during the fight earlier that day, the same one he was wearing in the gas station video and when he was arrested that night.

The victim's cousin, Raheem Pollard, told police that he saw Speakes fire the fatal bullets before running away with Shaquille Rainey. But on the witness stand Pollard dialed that back and testified that he did not see the shooter's face.

As for Shaquille Rainey, who is learning-disabled, his statement to police that he witnessed Speakes commit the murder fell apart in light of the hospital video, which showed he was 20 minutes away as the murder went down.

Vernell Rainey, who was Shaquille's legal guardian, said homicide detectives questioned the boy, then age 16, for hours without her permission. The detectives, Nenner said, threatened to charge the boy with the murder if he did not sign a statement implicating Speakes.

"What they did to Shaquille was an absolute disgrace," Nenner said. "They orchestrated his statement based on what Pollard and Suber had said and got him to sign off on it, so he could go home."

Shaquille Rainey recanted his statement on the witness stand.

"Without the videos, we would not be able to prove the inaccuracy of what Shaq said to the homicide detectives," Nenner said. "It's the videos which made those statements lies."

Homicide Capt. James Clark declined to comment because he didn't have enough information about the case, but said he would look into the allegations.

But he did defend his department's work.

"I'm very sorry to hear it was a not-guilty verdict in the case," Clark said. "Any time we send a warrant over and it's approved by the district attorney, we think we have enough for a guilty verdict."

Prosecutor Watson-Stokes, who has not responded to requests for comment, argued at trial that the time stamps on the videos were inaccurate and that Speakes gunned down Ross before leaving the neighborhood with his grandmother and cousin.

As for his future, Speakes said he wants to go to college to study finance. He said he feels bad about Ross' slaying but does not know who killed him.

Among the unsubstantiated rumors that have surfaced, Nenner said, is that the killing is related to the drug trade in the community. Ross, Pollard and Suber each have multiple arrests for drug dealing. Pollard was arrested again the night of the slaying after police found 28 packets of marijuana in his pockets.

"Justice prevailed!" Vernell Rainey said. "The truth will set you free. And that's what it did - it set my grandson free."

Of the law-enforcement officials who kept him locked up for more than two years, Speakes said: "They got to get on their job. That's all I can say. They should be looking for that man."

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|