This is the kind of story that equally saddens, scares, and infuriates me. Going to prison is one of my biggest fears in life, and to a degree that’s a good thing, as that fear has kept me on the straight and narrow. I don’t want to do anything that might lead to me being sentenced to jail. But then I worry about being caught up in something like what happened to this poor fellow, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time and ending up in jail. The only thing worse than going to jail has to be going to jail for a crime that you didn’t even commit.
The story begins on November 27, 2001 in South Philadelphia. A man pistol-whipped a woman and dragged her into an alleyway behind a hospital and raped her. At one point a delivery van passed by, its headlights flashing into the alley, which scared the rapist into stopping and then running away. Tremaine Joseph Hicks had been nearby and heard the woman screaming and ran to the scene. Seeing the woman laying on the ground he reached into his pocket to get his phone and call police. Right at that moment police officers Martin Vinson and Dennis Zungolo pulled up in their police car, apparently arriving based on someone else’s 911 call. and Officer Vinson got out and immediately shot Tremaine 3 times in the back. Then Officer Vinson searched Hicks and found no weapons on him.
It’s not yet clear exactly who did what at this point, but this is where the cops went into coverup mode, including somebody planting a gun on Tremaine, as he lay bleeding in the alley. Officer Vinson called for backup and said “I tried to get the male to, uh, you know, put his hands where I could see them, and he was reaching for something and I couldn’t see it.”
Tremaine was taken to a hospital when he was given emergency surgery for a collapsed lung due to one of the bullets and he survived. But then he was arrested and charged with rape as he lay handcuffed to his hospital bed.
Officer Robert Ellis and his partner Duane Watson had arrived on the scene after Officer Vinson called for backup, and he would testify in court that he found a .38 caliber Taurus handgun in Tremaine’s jacket pocket (even though the gun was recovered with blood all over it while the inside of Tremaine’s jacket was perfectly clean) . Officer Zungolo testified that when he and Officer Vinson arrived he saw Tremaine pulling up his pants, and Officer Vinson testified that Tremaine reached into his pocket and “lunged” at him, which is why he shot him (again, Tremaine was shot in the back). The rape victim couldn’t identify he attacker in her court as it was dark and she had suffered head trauma due to the pistol whipping she’d received prior to the attack. All she could remember is that the assault stopped right after she saw the bright headlights flash in the alley, which she assumed were the police arriving.
It turns out that there was actual surveillance video from the street which showed the victim being dragged into the alley by a man wearing a grey hoodie. It also shows the delivery van driving by and it’s headlights flooding the alley. It doesn’t actually show what happened in the alley but it’s enough to show that Tremaine wasn’t the rapist as he wasn’t wearing a hoodie. But for some reason this very crucial evidence wasn’t made available to Tremaine’s lawyers during the trial. Neither was forensic evidence regarding the lack of blood inside Tremaine’s jacket where Office Ellis claimed he found the gun or that Tremaine was definitely shot in the back, contradicting Officer Vinson’s statement about Tremaine lunging at him.
And so, at 26 years old, Tremaine was found guilty and sentenced to a maximum amount of 25 years in jail.
Just thinking of this I can’t even imagine what Tremaine was feeling at the moment of sentencing. Or all the days to come when he was in his prison cell. He was innocent. He’d done nothing wrong. In fact he was just trying to help the poor victim, and yet now he was in jail. The police, people sworn to “protect and serve” citizens like him had instead not only gotten away with shooting him, which could have killed him, but had robbed him of his freedom. He had a five year old son whom he was raising at the time. And now that was taken away from him. The rage at the injustice of it all must have been overwhelming.
During this sentence, whenever he was eligible for parole he would maintain his innocence, and thus the parole board always denied his release because he refused to admit his guilt and show remorse. That had to be even more infuriating for him. I wonder if he ever considering lying and saying he did it, just to get out?
Eventually the non-profit charitable organization The Innocence Project got involved, and along with his private attorney Susan M. Lin, the suppressed evidence was brought to light and in December of last year, after serving 19 years in prison, Tremaine’s conviction was vacated and he was released.
So justice finally prevailed. But can this “justice” give him back the 19 years of freedom that he lost? The time missed raising his son, who was 5 but is now 24, and has a 2-year old son that Tremaine will meet for the first time (as he said he didn’t want his grandson to meet him in prison before that). Even if he gets some large financial settlement from the city (which unfortunately gets paid by the taxpayers, not the actual cops who shot and framed him), that doesn’t turn back time. And that’s what’s always the remaining injustice about this sort of thing.
Oh, and speaking of those cops, last I read, Officers Vinson, Zungolo, and Ellis had been “reassigned pending an internal investigation” of Tremaine’s arrest. For the record, while I couldn’t find the specific details myself, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that “The city has settled civil-rights complaints naming Vinson and Ellis as defendants. One was a 2015 lawsuit alleging that Vinson and another officer had dragged a taxi driver falsely accused of stealing a cell phone out of his cab and assaulted him. In another, Ellis was one of a number of officers accused of beating a suspect and then arresting him for assault and resisting arrest.” And there was an earlier case “in which Ellis reported recovering two illegal guns from a suspect during a 1996 traffic stop. But that defendant was “acquitted at a re-trial when the defense presented evidence that Officer Ellis planted ballistics and falsely attributed guns to the accused that he did not in fact possess.”
So, lying about suspects and planting weapons is nothing new to these guys. There’s also that fourth officer, Ellis’ partner Duane Watson, who’s role in Tremaine’s arrest is unclear, and isn’t currently listed as being under investigation for this crime. But he “is currently facing perjury charges after his testimony in a narcotics arrest was contradicted by surveillance video.”
Gee, and you wonder why many of us are skeptical whenever we hear the claims that “bad cops” are the minority, that most are good? The problem is that the “good cops” far too often enable the bad cops. That’s how they get away with crap like this. It’s how they remain on the force even after being caught doing bad things. And until more “good cops” speak up against their fellow officers, or start suffering more legal consequences when they don’t, we’ll never have true justice in America.