Imprisoned for 28 years, Theophalis Wilson finally walked free after legal intervention by members of the global law firm
PHILADELPHIA, JAN. 22, 2020 – What began as a representation to secure a new sentence swelled into a full-blown effort to exonerate a wrongfully-convicted incarcerated man. Theophalis Wilson tasted freedom on Tuesday, Jan. 21 after 28 years behind bars. This fresh start was made possible by hundreds of hours of pro bono legal work by Greenberg Traurig, LLP.
The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas vacated Wilson’s 1993 triple homicide conviction after the defense team uncovered instances of prosecutorial misconduct, false witness testimony, ineffective assistance of counsel, and Brady violations. Judge Tracy Brandeis-Roman vacated the conviction, dismissed all charges, and ordered Wilson’s immediate release.
“We had an incredible day, unlike any I’ve ever experienced as a lawyer,” said Shareholder Brian T. Feeney, a litigator based in the Philadelphia office of the global law firm. “The Assistant District Attorney got choked up when she described the conviction as a gross miscarriage of justice. Judge Brandeis-Roman was emphatic as she rattled off the reasons why Theo should be exonerated. The people who love him and have been supporting him for all these years were gasping as the judge read her ruling from the bench. And then the judge said to Theo, ‘You are free go.’”
Greenberg Traurig took the case in 2017 initially to pursue resentencing for Wilson, whose sentence of life without parole was rendered unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama decision, in which the Court ruled it unconstitutional to sentence minors to mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole. Wilson was 17 years old when the crimes were committed.
“We were pretty discouraged for the first year and a half of representation. We were getting nowhere with our request for resentencing, since we were told Theo had to give up his innocence claims before pursuing his Miller (resentencing) claims,” said Labor & Employment Shareholder Kelly Dobbs Bunting, also of Greenberg Traurig’s Philadelphia office and a co-lead for Wilson’s defense. “And of course, Theo didn’t want to do that. I admire his tenacity in the face of what seemed at times to be overwhelming odds.”
After persuading the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit to review the case, the Greenberg Traurig team partnered with the nonprofit public interest law firm Phillips Black in late 2018. Together, the defense team scoured the Commonwealth’s entire 42,000-page file. They uncovered and presented evidence to persuade the district attorney’s office and Brandeis-Roman that Wilson’s conviction could not stand.
“An innocent man was robbed of nearly 30 years of his life, the chance to have a career, and a family as a result of a complete breakdown of the justice system,” said Jennifer Merrigan, of Phillips Black. “Today Theo Wilson has a new opportunity and we are so grateful to have worked with the tenacious team at Greenberg Traurig to help that become a reality. As a nonprofit, we rely on committed pro bono lawyers and staff at firms like Greenberg Traurig so we can fight injustice, as was the case here with Theo.”
Beyond Bunting and Feeney, a team of lawyers and business staff from across Greenberg Traurig supported this victory. That roster includes Associates Kathleen M. Kline (PHL-Environmental), Adam Roseman (PHL-Labor & Employment), Christiana L. Signs (PHL-Labor & Employment), Gareth R. Hall (LON-Litigation), Robert Hill (PHX-Litigation), Alicia R. Intriago (SAC-Litigation), Charles Shin (NY-Litigation), Margaret K. Ukwu (NY-IP/Tech), Michael R. Hogue (SFO-Litigation), Addiped Cheng (LON-Litigation); Robert W. Rubenstein, a Philadelphia-based Labor & Employment practice group attorney; Stephen J. Stanley, a Philadelphia-based paralegal for the Litigation practice and second-year law student at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law; and Barbara Pinto, a Philadelphia office administrative assistant working with Feeney and Bunting.
“As legal practitioners, there is no greater satisfaction than using your skills to change someone’s life. But to be able to help restore someone’s freedom after so much of it was lost behind bars brings a whole different level of professional and personal elation,” said Curtis B. Toll, managing shareholder of Greenberg Traurig’s Philadelphia office. “We are incredibly proud of our team, both the lawyers and staff in the Philadelphia office, and our colleagues across the firm who worked collaboratively to make this victory possible.”
“The Wilson matter is demonstrative of Greenberg Traurig’s ongoing commitment to a legal footprint that includes robust offerings tailored specifically to underserved individuals and communities,” said Shareholder Caroline J. Heller, Chair of Greenberg Traurig’s Global Pro Bono program. “The chance to remedy great injustice is, fundamentally, why we become lawyers. And on this day, our colleagues exemplified advocacy at its finest.”
About Greenberg Traurig Philadelphia: Founded in 1997, Greenberg Traurig’s Philadelphia office is home to some 50 attorneys whose practices include Real Estate, Public Finance, Litigation, Labor & Employment, Environmental, Government Law & Policy, Restructuring & Bankruptcy, White Collar Defense & Special Investigations, Corporate & Securities, Intellectual Property, Immigration & Compliance, Investment Regulation, and Tax. The Philadelphia office represents clients in the manufacturing, health care, real estate, energy, financial, and insurance industries, state and local governments, professional service, and energy firms and individuals.
About Greenberg Traurig’s Pro Bono Program: Greenberg Traurig lawyers across the firm provide pro bono legal services to the indigent and working poor, as well as to numerous civic and charitable organizations dedicated to assisting them. The firm focuses its resources on specialized and interrelated issues including civil rights and affirmative action, anti-human trafficking, family law matters, criminal appeals, immigration and political asylum, housing, and homelessness.
About Greenberg Traurig, LLP: Greenberg Traurig, LLP (GT) has approximately 2,100 attorneys in 41 locations in the United States, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. GT has been recognized for its philanthropic giving, diversity, and innovation, and is consistently among the largest firms in the U.S. on the Law360 400 and among the Top 20 on the Am Law Global 100. Web: www.gtlaw.com Twitter: @GT_Law.