We first heard from Eugene before we even started operating, in early 2009. Law student volunteers began reviewing the materials in his case, and learning about his conviction. What struck us all is exactly what the judge now hearing Eugene’s petition has observed: the paucity of evidence used to convict two men of murder. Because his conviction was so old, just getting his trial file alone took several weeks of effort. And even then, as is usually the case, the file was woefully incomplete. It contained notes of testimony and most of the briefs and opinions from the appeals Eugene had filed soon after his conviction. But there was no “discovery” – materials provided by the prosecution to a defendant before trial, usually including police records, identification information, witness statements, and the like.
As an indigent inmate in a faraway prison, Eugene had run out of options in trying to prove his innocence. Although he had been represented by lawyers at trial and on an appeal, none appeared to take his claim of innocence seriously. Indeed, one prior lawyer treated Eugene’s situation so badly he filed a letter with the court asking to be relieved from representing Eugene because the lawyer saw “no merit” in any appeal issue. At no point did any lawyer tell the court that Eugene was an innocent man, convicted of another man’s murder. Yet he soldiered on, hoping someone would listen.
A Break: “Rolex” Says He is “Willing to Help” Then Confesses to Murder
After Eugene first wrote to the Project asking for help, the biggest development since his arrest took place. Eugene’s mother received a letter in the mail from a man who claimed he could help Eugene in his case. That letter, sent by Ricky “Rolex” Welborn, said only that he would be willing to help. Eugene acted as quickly as he could, finally securing enough money to hire someone to go interview Welborn in prison where he was serving a life sentence for murdering another man.
That interview, on March 18, 2011, yielded a full confession. A confession from Rolex that he, and not Eugene Gilyard, murdered Thomas Keal. As soon as he received that confession, Eugene did what he had to do under Pennsylvania law: he filed a petition under the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”) asking the court to vacate his conviction and grant him a new trial, where the jury could hear Rolex’ confession and judge for themselves whether Eugene was involved in the murder or not.
In June, 2011, the investigator from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project met with Rolex and did a longer, more extensive interview. During that interview, Rolex again admitted that he -not Eugene – was responsible for Mr. Keal’s untimely death. Indeed, Rolex admitted to another shooting that took place earlier the same day, where he used the same gun (a crime for which he had never been prosecuted as the victim refused to identify Rolex to police).
In his confession, Rolex admitted that he and another man (whom he refused to name, even 20 years later) decided to commit an armed robbery for cash. They chose Mr. Keal as the target as he was believed to carry cash from his store when he closed at night. In August, 1995, Rolex and his co-hort approached Mr. Keal on the street, demanded money from him, and threatened him with his gun – a double-barreled sawed-off shotgun. When Mr. Keal pulled out his own gun in self-defense, Rolex said he shot Mr. Keal in the leg. While Mr. Keal was on the ground, Rolex’ co-hort shot him in the head 3 or 4 times with his own gun, a .22 revolver.
The victim dead, Rolex and the other man ran from the scene. They got into a car, driven by “Rob” and drove to West Philadelphia. (Although he initially named Rob by name, Rolex refused to sign the statement unless Rob’s name was crossed out.) Rolex admitted that he kept the victim’s gun for himself and later sold it to a man he referred to as “Chink.” He used the same sawed-off shotgun in another robbery in November, 1995.
Rolex admitted his guilt knowing full well that he, himself, could be prosecuted for Mr. Keal’s murder. During the interview, he was alert, forthright, and non-hesitant in describing what he did that night. His only hesitations were in identifying, by name, the man he was with, and including “Rob’s” name in his signed certification. To this day, Rolex refuses to provide his co-hort’s name.
Asking the Commonwealth for Help
On August 8, 2011, we wrote to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and asked them to investigate the murder of Thomas Keal. The letter was co-signed by Mr. Keal’s daughter, the very person who identified Eugene as having been the one who killed her father. While not stating that she was wrong, Ms. Keal wanted to know the truth about her father’s murder.
In the letter to the District Attorney, we pointed to other evidence that showed Rolex was telling the truth – that he killed Thomas Keal and that Eugene Gilyard had no involvement. Several eyewitnesses who were present at the time of the murder saw Rolex and a man they called “Tizz” walk toward Mr. Keal’s store. After hearing gunshots, the witnesses say they saw Rolex and Tizz run away and get into a car. Rolex’ confession corroborates Ms. Keal’s account of what she saw the night her father was murdered. Including that Mr. Keal was shot in the head while he was on the ground.
After sending the letter, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project continued to investigate Eugene’s case. Because our mission is to learn the truth about a crime, we do not stop our investigation until we have reviewed all of the evidence, spoken to all the witnesses we can. And our investigation yielded even more evidence that Rolex and not Eugene was guilty of murder. Significantly, the Project found and interviewed Anthony Stokes – the man Rolex said he had shot earlier that day. Mr. Stokes confirmed that Rolex did, indeed, shoot him that same day and that he used a “sawed-off shotgun” to do it. Mr. Stokes said he did not identify Rolex as the shooter, preferring to get his own justice later. Mr. Stokes agreed to allow the Project to obtain his medical records from the shooting which, again, confirmed his account.
And yet, we never heard from the Commonwealth. Until they filed a Motion to Dismiss Eugene’s case.