Former Philadelphia prosecutor campaigning for DA accused of lying about role in wrongful conviction case

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Former Philadelphia prosecutor Carlos Vega was co-counsel in the 2016 retrial of Anthony Wright, who was tried again despite DNA evidence linking another man to the murder for which he had been imprisoned.

  • Carlos Vega has denied playing much of a role in the 2016 retrial of Anthony Wright.
  • But Wright’s legal team said Vega was jointly responsible for the case.
  • Wright, who was accused of rape and murder, was acquitted after serving 25 years in prison.
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A former prosecutor campaigning to be Philadelphia’s next district attorney has downplayed his role in a murder case against a man who was exonerated by DNA evidence after spending some 25 years in prison.

But according to that man’s legal team, Democrat Carlos Vega – who is seeking to unseat the liberal incumbent – played a far bigger role than he now claims.

In an interview this week with The Philadelphia Enquirer, Vega described the allegation that he played a key role in the case of Anthony Wright as a “bald-faced lie.”

“I was brought in at the eleventh hour, two weeks before trial, just to question three witnesses,” he told the paper.

“My only participation in that case was calling civilian witnesses and I think the crime scene personnel,” he said in an interview with The Intercept earlier this year. “With respect to the rest of the case, I was not involved at all. It was not my case.”

But that’s not true, according to the Innocence Project, which represented Wright at his 2016 retrial. The group said in a statement on Wednesday that Vega was in fact one of two prosecutors assigned to “jointly handle” the case, noting her served as co-counsel for the full three weeks of the trial. And while he did question three witnesses, he also questioned Wright himself “at great length,” challenging the exonerated defendant’s “integrity, veracity, and his claims of innocence.”

Vega’s statements suggesting otherwise, the group said, “are false.”

“Mr. Vega has not apologized to Mr. Wright for the role he played in seeking his return to prison on a second life sentence, nor publicly acknowledged Mr. Wright’s innocence,” the Innocence Project added.

Vega did not immediately respond to a message from Insider requesting comment.

Anthony Wright’s wrongful imprisonment

Wright, then 20 years old, was arrested in the fall of 1991 and charged with raping and murdering a 77-year-old woman in North Philadelphia. He was convicted two years later after a jury was convinced by a confession that Wright said was coerced by police threats of abuse, the testimony of purported acquaintances who said he’d told them of the crime, and blood-stained clothing that law enforcement said he had been wearing the night of the incident.

The case, detailed by The National Registry of Exonerations, began to fall apart in 2013. That year, DNA testing revealed a rape kit linked the crime to a since-deceased dealer of crack cocaine, not Wright. Testing also showed that the clothing presented at Wright’s trial had been worn by the victim, not him, as police claimed.

Previous state witnesses also recanted their testimony, saying they had been pressured by detectives.

But instead of releasing him, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office took Wright to trial again and presented a new theory: that he had been an accomplice. Jurors were not only unconvinced, but angered by the evidence they were presented with – “The city should never have brought this case,” the jury forewoman said afterward – taking less than an hour to acquit him.

Wright went on to sue the city, settling for just under $10 million.

Political implications

Vega was fired in 2018, along with the other prosecutor in the Wright case, by a new Philadelphia DA, Larry Krasner, a former defense attorney who took office promising an end to business as usual in the criminal justice system. But Krasner, one of the country’s foremost “progressive prosecutors,” has been battered by claims his light touch has allowed criminals dodge consequences for serious crimes.

There is no question violence has gotten worse, in Philadelphia as elsewhere during the pandemic.

In 2020, just under 500 people were killed in Philadelphia, the highest death toll in 30 years. And 2021 is not looking any better, with the city already suffering 142 homicides, up from 107 by this time last year.

Critics have pointed to a decline in the conviction rate for people accused of illegal gun possession. Krasner, in turn, has argued that police are presenting his office with weaker cases (arrests have tripled, but only 49% of those charged have been convicted during his tenure, down from 63% under the previous DA).

Vega has campaigned on putting a stop to a surge in violence, attributing it to the incumbent rather than a deadly virus and a national trend.

“He promised us justice that would make us safer,” Vega said in a press release last month. “But there is nothing just about turning a blind eye to illegal guns, and it certainly isn’t making us safer.”

Still, while promising more law and order, Vega – endorsed by Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police – has also sought to emphasize his working-class roots while promising to address “unfairness in our criminal justice system” in this overwhelmingly Democratic city.

But Vega’s role in what the city now concedes was a wrongful imprisonment – a “tragic case,” in the words of Mayor Jim Kenney – will make it more difficult for the former prosecutor, ahead of Philadelphia’s May 18 primary election, to pitch himself as equally committed to security and reform.

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