By Ivan G. Goldman
Ex-Philadelphia fighter Anthony Fletcher, who’s lived on Pennsylvania’s death row for most of the last 20 years, emphatically points out that he didn’t shoot stickup man Vaughn Christopher, not even by accident. That is, when he grabbed Christopher’s gun hand, Fletcher never touched the trigger or tried to. What he did was push the barrel away.
“I rushed him into the struggle to stop him from shooting me,” Fletcher said in a recent letter clarifying what happened in the early morning hours of March 2, 1992 on a Philadelphia street. “I think the gun went off two or three times as we struggled over the gun (and) as I was pushing it in another direction he shot himself. I do not have that type of heart, just to take someone’s gun and outright shoot them.”
Christopher, Fletcher said, had held him up at gunpoint. When ex-lightweight Fletcher saw him on the street later, he threw a punch, and Christopher pulled a pistol. Christopher’s rap sheet includes just the kind of robberies Fletcher described. He’d done time for them at least twice.
The account by Fletcher is, like the rest of his narrative, supported by physical evidence and also a mysterious lack of proof corroborating the prosecution. If Fletcher’s fingerprints were on the trigger you can bet the prosecutor would have presented that at trial. It’s standard procedure for police to test for powder burns on the corpse after a shooting death, yet if there was such a test, there’s no record of its results. Chief Medical Examiner Hydow Park, who performed the autopsy, was puzzled by the absence of the test. He failed to understand that detectives had already begun smothering facts.
According to the prosecutor’s preposterous tale, there was no struggle, the gun belonged to Fletcher, and the shooting took place at a distance of ten or fifteen feet. So vital evidence had to be ignored or disappear, and it did. Even Christopher’s clothes disappeared.
Renee Grant, an admitted crack addict who claimed she saw Fletcher shoot Christopher execution-style, had a lengthy rap sheet for prostitution, theft, forgery, and criminal conspiracy. Yet over and over she was sentenced to probation or the charges against her were dismissed outright. When warrants were issued for her arrest, police knew where she lived, but they didn’t bother to pick her up until they needed a witness, which was the case when they decided to charge Fletcher with murder. After she testified against Fletcher, charges against her were dropped again.
In her original statement she said Fletcher and Christopher had an outstanding quarrel over money, and that she didn’t know the details. In the trial, to conform with the prosecution’s allegation that Fletcher was a drug dealer, she testified that the quarrel stemmed from a drug deal. The defense failed to challenge her on this point even though it was hearsay testimony.
The most significant surviving physical evidence was cited in the autopsy report, which, because of the angle of the bullet wounds, absolutely refuted the prosecution’s case against Fletcher. So the District Attorney’s Office kept Dr. Park in the dark, failing to notify him of the trial date. That should have set off alarms in the defense attorney’s head, but he never even tried to find the medical examiner and either didn’t read the report or failed to understand it. It was largely on the basis of that autopsy report that an appeals judge eventually ordered a new trial. Fletcher’s appeal attorneys even won a pro bono Award from the state bar association for their work. But then the D.A.’s office, refusing to accept defeat, appealed, basing its case on procedural issues, not guilt or innocence. Amazingly, the state Supreme Court overruled the appeals judge.
More than twenty years after Fletcher was railroaded, Pennsylvania remains notorious for failing to provide adequate counsel for defendants. Career-obsessed prosecutors still have an easy path to victory, deserved or not.
This is the sixth article in a series, and readers understandably ask whether there has been any progress in getting Fletcher out. The answer is a qualified yes. A nonprofit institution is interested in helping but hasn’t committed. A local newspaper is re-examining the case, and a generous Pennsylvania lawyer is researching ways to get it into the federal court system. The celebrated Innocence Project won’t help because it only takes cases in which DNA evidence can prove innocence. Amnesty International won’t help because no execution date is set. Meanwhile, Fletcher, now 56, does the worst kind of time there is – death row time, served in macabre isolation.
Anthony calls once in a while. I don’t think he’s ever even considered the possibility of giving up. As a pro he celebrated 24 victories. He’s just looking for one more. Like lots of people in the fight game, he closes conversations with the words “Keep punching.”
His address is Anthony Fletcher, #CA1706, 175 Progress Drive, Waynesburg, PA 15370.
Ivan G. Goldman’s latest novel Isaac: A Modern Fable came out in April 2012 from Permanent Press. Information HERE
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