Two who got off lightly in Philadelphia courts do so no longer

John Gassew was arrested 44 times with zero convictions.
John Gassew was arrested 44 times with zero convictions.
Posted: June 19, 2012

In an investigative project on the Philadelphia courts, The Inquirer spotlighted two men with long rap sheets who seemed always to escape serious punishment.

One was Clinton Robinson. He was sentenced to just 21/2 to 5 years after a stray shot from his gun killed a 53-year-old mother of three in 2002.

The other was John Gassew, arrested 44 times, mostly for gunpoint robbery, but never convicted.

Their luck has changed since The Inquirer put each of them on its front page as part of its December 2009 project, "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, and Denied."

Last month, a federal judge sentenced Gassew, 25, to 37 years in prison for his conviction in two gunpoint robberies. In one, he beat the clerk of a 7-Eleven on Oxford Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia with a .45-caliber handgun.

Three weeks after The Inquirer detailed Gassew's run of 44 arrests without a conviction in the city courts, U.S. officials "adopted" his cases for prosecution. They made him a federal case under the theory that the places he robbed were involved in interstate commerce.

As for Robinson, three charges of shootings and a robbery had collapsed against him when he was arrested on a charge of murder in the death of Margaret Thomas.

But that case largely fell apart when the prime witness against Robinson - the man prosecutors said had been Robinson's real target - was himself shot to death. A friend of Robinson's was later convicted of that crime and is on death row for it.

With the witness dead, prosecutors offered Robinson a sweet deal of 21/2 to 5 years for voluntary manslaughter. They never charged him in connection with the witness slaying.

After serving his five years, Robinson was arrested again, in 2009, within months of his release and while still on probation. He had been dealing crack cocaine.

Last year, Robinson's good fortune in court ended.

After Robinson pleaded guilty to drug dealing, Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Liermann gave the Inquirer article on Robinson to the judge.

The newspaper, Liermann wrote in a sentencing memo, "accurately and pointedly describes the carnage left behind by this defendant."

The judge gave Robinson a tough sentence for the narcotics charge.

Then a new judge resentenced Robinson for the killing of Thomas on the ground that he violated his probation in that case by dealing drugs. Once again, Liermann highlighted Robinson's history.

When it was added up, Robinson, now 27, was given a sentence of 17 to 35 years in prison.

Contact Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or

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