If a prosecutor allows two clearly innocent men to be convicted of a murder neither committed, is that a praiseworthy event?
Felix Rodriquez and Russell Weinberger spent over 21 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Convicted of murder, Rodriquez and Weinberger were released from prison in 2002 after another man confessed to the killing they were incarcerated for. Through the diligent efforts of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, new evidence demonstrated their innocence and identified the true perpetrator of this crime, an inmate named Anthony Sylvanus.
In an unprecedented move for the organization, the PA Innocence Project is looking to the executive branch to remedy this incredible case of injustice. Constitutionally vested in the executive wing of our government, the pardoning power represents Rodriquez and Weinberger’s last resort for relief. In Pennsylvania, the governor shares the authority to grant pardons with an administrative body known as the Board of Pardons. The pardon is the most far-reaching clemency mechanism—it acts as an official nullification of a criminal conviction.When properly employed, pardons advance the causes of justice and serve to memorialize mistakes made in the criminal courts. The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist explained that the power to pardon is “deeply rooted in our Anglo-American tradition of law, and is the historic remedy for preventing miscarriages of justice.” Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 412 (1993).
Rodriquez and Weinberger were convicted in Philadelphia in 1985 for the 1981 robbery and murder of a Kensington optometrist, Dr. Charles Langley. Dr. Langley was strangled to death with his own necktie and robbed of $123 and a wristwatch. No eyewitnesses were found and no physical evidence linked the men to the crime scene. Their convictions resulted from a phenomenon that has been identified as a leading cause of wrongful convictions: false confession. Both Rodriquez and Weinberger possessed vulnerabilities that experts say make false confessions more likely. The detective who interrogated them was not sensitive to the fact that Russell Weinberger had an IQ around 60 and that English was a second language for Felix Rodriquez.
Weinberger initially plead guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in state prison. In exchange for this deal, he agreed to testify against Rodriquez. A jury convicted Rodriquez of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to life without parole. The two men maintained their innocence for the 21 years they spent behind bars. In 1997, Weinberger was up for parole but the board denied his release because he refused to accept responsibility for the Langley murder. Years before the Pennsylvania Innocence Project was born, Rodriquez wrote to Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project in New York asking for help.
He explained: “two men come forward and confess about the crime I doing time for.”
Anthony Sylvanus came to the attention of law enforcement when then Philadelphia Police Captain Alan Kurtz ran a fingerprint from a cold case through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. It matched Sylvanus, who admitted his guilt and subsequently confessed to a string of murders of elderly folks in the Kensington area from 1981-1982—including Dr. Charles Langley. Sylvanus was not charged with the Langley homicide but plead guilty to four other murders, all of which had been unsolved for three decades.
On September 20, 2002, Rodriquez and Weinberger were released from prison only after they plead nolo contendere and Judge Benjamin Lerner sentenced them to the time they had already served. Counsel for both Mr. Rodriquez and Mr. Weinberger lauded the District Attorney for having done “the right thing,” in not objecting to the plea. That praise was given notwithstanding the fact that the DA allowed two blatantly innocent men to be convicted of a murder neither one committed.
Today, Rodriquez explains that he was tricked into confessing – that he didn’t understand that the papers he signed constituted an official statement. Though the men were released without any opposition from the Commonwealth, to this day they have not been exonerated and neither received any kind of apology from the state.
Russell Weinberger passed away in 2011. PIP will be pursuing a posthumous pardon on his behalf. Granting a pardon for Mr. Rodriquez would help to repair his life, which was shattered by this experience.
While the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons does not specifically include wrongful convictions as a ground for clemency, the pardoning power is not limited to mercy. This is not merely about compassion—it is about memorializing a miscarriage of justice and holding the justice system accountable. This country has long recognized the pardoning power as an acceptable check on the other branches of government, enabling the executive to act when necessary for the public interest. Because the men have exhausted their judicial remedies, a pardon is the only hope for clearing their names.