“Family, prayer, hope.”
It was those three things that got Shaurn Thomas through the two and a half decades he spent behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit. And even though his appeals were ignored one right after another, he never doubted that he would one day walk free.
Thomas believed in himself, in his family—who never once questioned his innocence, and in God. It’s that firm faith and conviction that set this innocent man free after spending nearly a quarter of a century in prison.
“Keep writing. Keep fighting. Never give up.”
In 1995, Thomas was convicted of the 1990 murder of wealthy Puerto Rican businessman, Domingo Martinez, and sentenced to life without parole.
Even though the 16-year-old Philadelphia youth had an alibi, the court dismissed his appeals, and locked him up almost completely on the testimony of a co-defendant. He was only 20 years old.
He never gave up fighting for his innocence and spent years trying to appeal without success.
However, Thomas knew that if he wanted his freedom, he would have to keep fighting for it. Finally, after Pennsylvania Innocence Project attorney James Figorski took up his case, Thomas, who has always wanted to see his little brother play basketball, would get that opportunity.
He told RT, “I’ve realized though that my freedom is worthwhile having, so I wrote to any and everybody that would listen to it.”
In 2009, James Figorski, who is also a retired Philadelphia police officer, opened a letter Thomas had sent the newly formed Pennsylvania Innocence Project. Figorski, a senior staff attorney volunteer, decided to take up his case on a pro bono basis.
Together, they worked tirelessly to prove Thomas’ innocence, and when newly discovered evidence was found by the police containing documents presenting an alternate theory of the murder, prosecutors at Philadelphia district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit started to listen.
Staff and attorneys from the unit visited the juvenile center where Thomas said he was at the time of the murder, and they determined he was most likely innocent. Legal director Marissa Bluestone then interviewed the man who had accused Thomas of the murder in person—who then admitted to lying about Thomas murdering Martinez to help his brother, who he had also originally accused of being involved, to avoid the death penalty.
So with the newfound evidence and confession, finally, after almost a quarter of a century, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Rosemarie DeFino-Nastasi exonerated Thomas’ case, and Thomas, now 42, was set free in May of this year.
“I gave my mom a huge hug … and I gave my attorney a hug (laughs).”
Remarkably though, Shaurn Thomas holds no resentment about having a had a significant portion of life stolen from him. He’s just glad to be back home.
“I don’t feel angry. I feel a little disappointed that the system let me down to a degree but I don’t feel angry, because I support myself with a nice group of people. I believed in God, and I believed in myself, and I believed in you know the people that surrounded me,” he said.
He holds no hard feelings and says he’s learned a lot. “I learned a lot in prison, I learned…maturity, I learned to respect things, and I learned that family will be there—no matter what—at the end of the day,” Thomas told NBC10.
His mother, Hazeline Thomas, couldn’t be more proud of her son–who never gave up on himself or on life.
“I’m proud because … he was innocent and he did something about it,” she said.
He now looks forward to catching up with his family–who have stuck by his side through it all. Thomas is now engaged to a woman he met while in prison and looks forward to getting married and starting his own family. He’s even received a job offer cooking at a restaurant—something he enjoys deeply.
But for now, Thomas is taking it one day at a time and enjoying his life getting “to smell the trees and see the sun.” He enjoyed his first meal as a free man at Red Lobster with his family.
When asked how it felt being home at nearly two and a half decades, his response was beautiful.
“It feels like I never left because the love is still here,” Thomas told NBC Philadelphia.
His attorney, Figorski said, “It is gratifying to know that we were able to help Shaurn Thomas obtain his freedom after witnessing the injustice to which he was subjected,” Figorski said. “All of us are ecstatic that Shaurn Thomas will finally be free with his family.”