After 18 years, two win freedom
In a rare turnaround, the D.A.'s Office dropped all charges against the men, convicted of a 1987 murder.
By L. Stuart Ditzen; Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
October 29, 2005
Two Philadelphia men who have served 18 years in prison for a 1987 homicide were granted unconditional freedom yesterday after the District Attorney's Office made a rare motion in court to nullify their convictions and drop charges against them.
The action was based on statements and polygraph examinations of a witness who exonerated the two men, and on related evidence.
Edward McCann, chief of the Homicide Unit in the District Attorney's Office, said substantial doubt had arisen about the guilt of Alfredo Domenech, 42, and Ivan Seranno, 36. While not agreeing that the men were innocent - a term prosecutors rarely embrace - he said his office decided to take necessary steps to free them "in the interests of justice."
"I cried when I heard the news," said Jerome M. Brown, who represents Domenech and Seranno and has, along with two other defense lawyers, argued for years that the men were innocent.
Brown wrote McCann a letter last year asking him to review the case after the homicide chief had taken a similar action in the case of Ah Thank "Allen" Lee, who for years had claimed innocence of a 1983 murder in Chinatown.
"Praise the Lord. This has made my entire year," said David M. McGlaughlin, who represented Domenech at his 1988 trial. "This case has haunted me for all these years. I always have believed he was innocent."
McGlaughlin, now a prosecutor in Gettysburg, praised McCann for agreeing to review the case after the courts repeatedly had rejected appeals from Domenech and Serrano.
"There is no greater proof of what a quality prosecutor he is than this action he has taken," McGlaughlin said.
Domenech, formerly of the city's Feltonville section, and Seranno, formerly of North Philadelphia, were convicted of first-degree murder in 1988 for the May 29, 1987, shooting of Juan "Junior" Martinez on a street corner in Kensington. They were sentenced to life in prison.
The convictions were based largely on the testimony of a prostitute named Renee Thompson, now dead, who witnessed the shooting from a distance.
Thompson testified at trial that she saw Martinez, 22, standing on the sidewalk arguing with someone in a car at Front and Diamond Streets about 3 a.m. She said a passenger in the car extended an arm and shot Martinez, and the car then sped past her, giving her a chance to see the face of the assailant.
Domenech and Serrano were arrested shortly after the shooting when they drove past the scene and Thompson pointed out their car to police as the one she had seen earlier. She identified Domenech as the shooter.
But Thompson's account was buffeted in cross-examination and in appellate proceedings that strung out long afterward.
Brown, who took up the appeal nine years ago, contended that Thompson was 250 feet from the shooting and could not have seen it clearly. He said her account of the shooting differed significantly from the findings of the Medical Examiner's Office concerning the angle of the shot and distance between shooter and victim.
Brown contends that Domenech and Serrano were driving around that night looking for prostitutes, which was why Thompson saw them twice drive past her. The arrest, he argues, was a fluke.
"They were not there for a legitimate purpose, but they were not there for a murder either," Brown said. "It made no sense, because who comes back to the scene of a murder five minutes after it occurs?"
A new witness, identified in the court record as John Doe, testified in an appellate proceeding in 2002 that he was present when Martinez was shot and that Domenech and Serrano were not there.
The witness testified that the shooting stemmed from a drug transaction in which he was a participant. He said he, Martinez and a third man were buying cocaine from two drug dealers when Martinez provoked an argument. One of the dealers, the witness said, pulled a gun and shot Martinez.
Brown said that the John Doe witness, whose identity was withheld for his safety, passed two polygraph tests. He said Domenech also passed a polygraph test in denying any part in the shooting.
McCann, the homicide chief, said he and Assistant District Attorney Ann Ponterio recently interviewed the John Doe witness after reviewing the record of the case.
He said they concluded that the witness was credible and that his testimony potentially could absolve Domenech and Serrano of the crime.
The legal choreography necessary to undo the convictions was played out in a brief court proceeding yesterday before Common Pleas Court Judge D. Webster Keogh.
McCann and Brown jointly asked Keogh to order a new trial for Domenech and Serrano. Keogh granted the request. McCann told the judge that his office would not retry the case and instead would drop charges.
Keogh then signed orders for the release of Domenech from the state prison at Graterford and Serrano from the state prison at Somerset.
They are expected to be released early next week after certified copies of Keogh's orders are transmitted to the prisons.
Contact staff writer L. Stuart Ditzen at 215-854-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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