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New evidence frees Delco man after 41 years in prison

MEDIA, Pa. — It was a homecoming that was long awaited and very much planned for.

After spending 42 years in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit, Leroy Evans walked out of Delaware County Courthouse in Media, Pa., a free man. Facing a throng of family, friends and well-wishers, he triumphantly raised his arms in triumph before hugging and kissing his wife, Rosemary.

“I feel great,” said Evans as he smiled his way through the crowd. “I have so much to be thankful for.”

Evans, who was accompanied by his lawyer and new big brother, Michael Malloy Esq., kept beaming as if he were a lighthouse guiding a ship at night. He’s not angry. He’s not bitter. He’s just happy to be out of jail.

On Nov. 11, 1980, Emily Leo, “the Avon Lady,” was brutally murdered in Chester. The police arrested Evans, a 23-year-old father, for the crime. Despite a lack of evidence, the damning words of a kid from the neighborhood, Anthony Jones, convinced the jury that Evans had brutally murdered the beloved local businesswoman. Then, in 2016, Jones admitted that he alone murdered Leo.

That set off a wacky chain of events that finally ended Friday when Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced, following an investigation by his office’s Conviction Integrity Section, post-conviction relief has been granted to Evans who had served 42 years in prison for a conviction of first-degree murder.

Over the past four decades, Evans’ alleged co-defendant has recanted crucial testimony given at trial regarding Evans’ involvement in the murder of Leo. Today, following the Conviction Integrity Section’s agreement to PCRA relief, Delaware County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Kevin F. Kelly granted PCRA for Evans. That resulted in allowing for a new trial and subsequent plea by Evans to third-degree murder, allowing him to be released from jail on a time-served sentence.

Although the co-defendant’s testimony, which was crucial to a first-degree murder conviction, was found unreliable, Evans cannot be fully exonerated of involvement in the murder based on other evidence presented.

“This is a powerful reminder of the importance of ensuring justice for all Pennsylvanians,” Shapiro said. “For our justice system to function properly, it is critical that convictions are based on facts. Throughout my team’s review of this case, we found that reliance on the co-defendant’s testimony, that was shown to lack reliability over time, led to Mr. Evans’ first-degree murder conviction. I am proud of the work the Conviction Integrity Section has done over the past year and a half reviewing this case. My deepest sympathies continue to go out to the Leo family on their long and necessary journey of healing.”

In September 2020, the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office referred the matter to the Office of Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Section (CIS) for review. After an extensive review of all available physical evidence, transcripts of the preliminary hearings, trials, post-conviction proceedings, and statements made by Jones over the last 40 years as well as court opinions, briefs and the police reports, the CIS did not find a basis for complete exoneration.

However, in the interest of justice, the Office of Attorney General agreed that a 2016 statement by the co-defendant, denying that Evans was involved in the murder, and new details about the crime should be considered as newly discovered evidence by the court.

On Friday, a hearing was held and Kelly granted PCRA relief in the form of a new trial. Evans immediately pleaded nolo contendere to third-degree murder and was resentenced to the statutory maximum. With credit of 41 years served, Evans was released from prison.

The verdict was expected and pleasing to his lawyer, Mallory.

“There was a lot of questions with this case,” said Malloy. “I wondered what was going on. I’m finally glad that they got it together and now my client is free. “

Another backer for Evans was the Delaware County Black Caucus. Their support of a new trial for Evans was crucial.

“This is something that I’m very pleased about,” said Arnold Jones of the Delaware County Black Caucus. “I’m here to join the family and friends of Leroy Evans in wishing him the best of luck in the future. This is indeed a happy day.”

So now what will Evans do? He’s 65 and cannot sue the state for the incarceration. All he said he wants to do is relax and enjoy life.

“I’ve got a lot of family that I plan to see,” Evans said. “Some of them I don’t know but I’m going to learn about them.”

Joyce Abbott returns to alma mater Cheyney to discuss education

Joyce Abbott had a passion for teaching, but it wasn’t until she attended Cheyney University that she began the journey to becoming the educator she wanted to be.

Abbott, the inspiration behind the Emmy Award-winning ABC sitcom, “Abbott Elementary” returned to her alma mater recently for a discussion on education with Cheyney coordinator of assessment and continuous improvement Carolyn Hall.

“Abbott Elementary” is the creation of Quinta Brunson, who was one of Abbott’s sixth-grade students in 2000-2001 at Andrew Hamilton School in West Philadelphia.

“One of your students thought enough of you to make the show your namesake,” Hall said in welcoming Abbott back to Cheyney’s campus. “For that to happen is very much a testament for what sort of educator you must be.”

During the event, Abbott spoke at length about the importance of education and her perspective on public education as it relates to perseverance and overcoming obstacles.

“You have to be prepared to go above and beyond in order to be an effective teacher,” Abbott said. “You have to give up your own time and build relationships with the parents. I’ve visited homes in my efforts to understand my students.”

As an educator in the School District of Philadelphia for 26 years, she spent a year at Shaw Middle School and 25 years at Andrew Hamilton School before retiring. In 2004, 2005, and 2007 she was listed in the Who’s Who Among America’s Finest Teachers.

Throughout her career, Abbott took the time to teach children the basics like treating people with respect and speaking correctly. At times, she bought groceries for the families of her students, paid to have their lights turned back on or sat with students in the hospital.

She said her journey involved many long days and nights as well as enduring different attitudes and conflicts with adults. However, she always kept her focus on her students.

“As with any occupation, particularly education, every day is not easy,” Abbott said. “When your purpose is the students that you serve, you cannot please everyone. Your vision is toward the students you’re entrusted to.

“I had to keep my eye on the students I served,” she said. “It’s not easy. I’m not going to tell you I didn’t have tears, that it wasn’t rough. I went above and beyond because in some cases I was their only hope.

“I did whatever I could do to give them some glimmer of hope for some level of success in their life,” she added. “When I was in the classroom, people would say ‘they can’t speak in complete sentences; they can’t write.’ Don’t say what they can never do. They can and they will. That’s perseverance.”

Abbott also shared the obstacles she overcame as an educator. There were times where she was cursed out by students. She had desks thrown at her, but never in her career did she have a student suspended.

“Some of my students acted out, but I knew there had to be a reason why,” Abbott said. “When I could see everything they had going against them, it would bring me to tears, but also made me want to work harder.

“A lot of them came from homes and environments where college, trade school or high school isn’t a goal,” she added. “I had to ensure the students were successful. Even if they weren’t interested in going to college, I made sure they went to a top high school. You have to understand the population you serve.”

Abbott said that more work needs to be done in schools today to prepare students for higher education.

“We still have people who can’t read and write,” she said. “We need people in schools who really care. College is the last door of opportunity for many of our people. Education is something no one can take away from you.”

Abbott served a decade in the U.S. Army, which included a 10-month tour in the Persian Gulf War while she had a 3-year-old daughter back home. Abbott, who earned the rank of staff sergeant, said her strength for teaching was rooted in her military experience.

“That separation from my daughter was difficult for me, but as a leader I couldn’t show that,” Abbott said. “I had soldiers under me. I had to stay strong.”

A native of West Philadelphia, Abbott is a graduate of Overbrook High School. She has a bachelor’s of science degree in business and economics from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and a master’s of education degree from Cheyney University.

Abbott said she attributes her success as an educator to the small classes, student collaboration and strong professors at Cheyney.

“I went to Cheyney University because they were known for producing some of the best teachers,” Abbott said. “My graduate program was phenomenal and my professors wanted to see you succeed. The foundation they gave me helped me become the best educator I could be for my students.”

Abbott said she would tell future educators to “believe in yourself and make a difference in students’ lives.”

“Every day is a new day, but you really have to believe in yourself,” Abbott said. “Stay clear of your vision and remember why you’re doing what you’re doing, which is the success of your students.

“Don’t let anyone or anything come in between you and that vision,” she added. “Lastly, never give up even in the face of adversity. These students are counting on you.”

Both sides in Johnson federal retrial stick to their guns

In a return engagement between U.S. prosecutors and City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, his wife Dawn Chavous and co-defendants Abdur Rahim Islam and Shahied Dawan, both sides stuck to their points of view from the first trial.

In opening arguments Friday prosecutors alleged that Islam and Dawan, former executives at Universal Companies, bribed Johnson in the form of a $67,000 consulting contract to Chavous over a two-year period, in exchange for official acts, which including introducing favorable zoning legislation in city Council, on the former Royal Theater at 1524 South St., which Universal owned.

Universal purchased the property for a few hundred thousand and later sold in for more than $3.5 million.

Prosecutors also allege that Johnson introduced legislation to keep Universal from losing several parcels of land at 13th and Bainbridge streets.

In the earlier circumstantial case, prosecutors theorized that Universal was broke and Johnson and Chavous were living beyond their means.

In April, a jury of eight men and four women told U.S. District Judge Gerald A. Hugh that they were hopelessly deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial.

Hugh is also presiding over this case. All the defendants and lawyers from the previous trial remain. Only the jury is different. This time mostly women.

Johnson, 48, is a three-term Council member who was elected in 2012. He represents the 2nd District, which includes parts of Center City, South and Southwest Philadelphia.

“Universal needed a public official to save their nonprofit and were willing to pay for it,” Eric L. Gibson said. Johnson and Chavous, Gibson said, “were willing to sell Johnson’s office.”

In their opening arguments defense attorneys poked several holes in the prosecutor’s theory.

For example, Thomas Fitzgerald, the attorney representing Dawan told the jury, that Universal had a budget of $50 million a year, despite the government saying they were out of cash. Fitzgerald also said that Dawan, a certified public accountant, previously worked as an auditor with the federal government for 10 years. He was chief financial officer of Universal for many years.

“The truth is not just about what you were told, but what you were not told,” Fitzgerald said.

Patrick Egan, the lawyer representing Johnson, told the jury, that the group of parcels in question on Bainbridge Street, were actually owned by a partnership that was 51% owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, with Universal owning 49%.

And he said the parcels were part of the former Martin Luther King housing project that was built in 1960, later demolished in 1999 after being plagued by crime, decay and other social problems. It was subsequently redeveloped by PHA and Universal Companies. Construction began in 2001 and was completed several years later and included 245 new low-rise homes. Other scattered parcels were developed over time, he said.

“Just because the government says it, doesn’t mean it’s true,” Egan said of the charges. Universal, he said, would have no reason to bribe Johnson, because he had been a friend and ally of the company when he was a state representative.

“Johnson helped Universal many times before Chavous had any contract and many times after the contract had ended,” Egan said.

Barry Gross, the attorney for Chavous, said that “no real evidence” of a bribe exists. When you consider a $67,000 over a 16-month period, before taxes, subtracting for business expenses, it doesn’t make sense.

As for the prosecutors’ theory that Johnson and Chavous were living above their means, they was no evidence of anything extravagant.

In fact, Chavous had purchased an investment property before she was married and could have sold it if she needed money, Gross said.

The contract was about 15% of all of her other contracts, he said.

Chavous, Gross said, was qualified based on her education, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees and further education at Harvard University and experience and relationships in government and education groups, such as a former chief of staff to state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.

“Speculation and jumping to conclusions, is reasonable doubt,” Gross said.

Johnson posted on his social media pages Friday morning: “As my wife, Dawn Chavous, and I have said from the beginning of this process, we are innocent of all charges filed against us and we look forward to this second trial getting underway to clear our names.”

Justice Jackson makes Supreme Court debut in brief ceremony

WASHINGTON — Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson made her first appearance on the Supreme Court bench in a brief courtroom ceremony Friday, three days before the start of the high court’s new term.

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their spouses attended the invitation-only ceremonial investiture for Jackson, the first Black woman on the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice John Roberts wished the 52-year-old Jackson a “long and happy career in our common calling,” the traditional welcome for a new justice.

She took her place at the far end of the bench to Roberts’ left, just next to Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The justices are seated by seniority.

During the ceremony Jackson also followed the custom of every other new justice since 1972 and sat in a chair that once belonged to John Marshall, who served as chief justice for 34 years in the early 1800s.

Marshall also was a slaveholder, perhaps adding a special poignancy to Jackson taking her place in his onetime possession. She is only the third Black justice in the court’s history, along with her new colleague Justice Clarence Thomas and the late Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Friday’s ceremony included the reading of the commission appointing Jackson to the court. She also repeated the oath she took when she formally joined the court in June, just after the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer.

Breyer was among a courtroom filled with dignitaries, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Speaker Paul Ryan, a Jackson relative through marriage.

Jackson’s parents, daughters, brother and in-laws had a front-row seat.

Several wives of current and former justices also attended, including Virginia “Ginni” Thomas. Thomas was interviewed Thursday by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Jackson was confirmed in April on a 53-47 vote in the Senate, with three Republican senators joining all Democrats to support her.

Biden had pledged during his presidential campaign that he would nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court.

Biden, Harris, first lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff spent a few minutes with the justices before the court convened, court spokeswoman Patricia McCabe said.

The president said nothing during the five-minute, tightly scripted courtroom ceremony.

Back at the White House, Biden tweeted in praise of Jackson’s “brilliant legal mind” and touted his record on filling judgeships.

“In fact, we’ve appointed 84 federal judges so far. No group of that many judges has been appointed as quickly, or been that diverse,” Biden said.

Jackson and Roberts walked down the 36 front steps of the court for photos following the ceremony. They chatted briefly on the court plaza, and when Roberts departed, the justice’s husband, Dr. Patrick Jackson, joined her.

“I’m so proud of you,” Dr. Jackson said, as they embraced in front of a gathering of reporters and well-wishers.

Jackson is the first justice appointed by a Democratic president since Justice Elena Kagan joined the court in 2010. Kagan was appointed by former President Barack Obama, who also appointed Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2009.

It appeared Obama would get a third high court pick when Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016. But Senate Republicans refused to take up Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, then serving as a federal appeals court judge. Garland, now Attorney General, also participated in Friday’s ceremony.

Former President Donald Trump eventually chose Justice Neil Gorsuch, the first of his three Supreme Court appointees, to fill Scalia’s seat.