After spending 31 of his 51 years as a defendant, and a prisoner, Marcus Perez has just filed suit against two men he alleges wrongfully kept him behind bars.
I have done almost a dozen columns over almost a decade about Perez’s case, in which he was wrongly sentenced to life imprisonment. (He was resentenced and released earlier this year after a review of his case by D.A. Larry Krasner’s office, thanks to years of effort by his pro bono counselors, Shawn Nolan and Marc Bookman.)
Here is Perez’s story, in a nutshell:
In 1989, he was 18 and went along with a friend to collect a $150 debt. By his own admission, he was stupid, and headstrong, and brought along a gun. During an altercation, he shot the debtor dead, and was quickly arrested.
He never denied his guilt. As he told me years later, he had no excuses — he was raised better than that. He knew he deserved punishment for his rash act. But the punishment levied was erroneous, and Perez spent decades in pursuit of justice.
When Common Pleas Judge Theodore McKee offered Perez a plea deal of a life sentence, he accepted it.
McKee explained that a life sentence does not mean life, that he could expect to serve from 17 ½ -35 years, and that he “would not die in jail.”
The judge was wrong. In 1988, the legislature had changed the law, making a life sentence an actual sentence of life, with no parole.
Had Perez been aware of that, he would have rejected the plea bargain.
This isn’t just Perez talking. A guilt-stricken McKee confirmed Perez’s story, but by the time he learned of his mistake, the case had passed from his hands and he had no way to correct his error. Perez would have to rely on a PCRA — the Post Conviction Relief Act, an appeals device to undo judicial errors.
Perez is suing his lawyer, Anthony D. Jackson, for negligence and incompetence. (Jackson has been disbarred and could not be reached at several phone numbers connected to his name.)
Also being sued is Jerome Teresinski, who was an assistant district attorney at the time, who wrongly altered the trial transcript, according to the lawsuit filed by Perez’s attorneys, Gerald J. Williams and Mark Schwartz. [Disclosure: Schwartz is representing me in my defamation suit against the Philadelphia Inquirer.]
Teresinski’s actions transformed what had been an accidental error by a judge into a deliberate, wrongful prosecutorial act, according to the complaint filed Monday in federal court.
The allegations against Teresinski were first aired in reporting I did in 2011.
Four years after the trial, Teresinski contacted the court reporter and got one word changed in the trial record “for the apparent purpose of frustrating and defeating plaintiff’s arguments,” according to the lawsuit.
The original transcript had McKee telling Perez that the life sentence “implies 17 ½ to 35 years,” which clearly suggests a maximum of 35. The altered text had the judge saying “life plus 17 ½ to 35 years,” thus shamefully removing Perez’s key argument.
At the time of my reporting, I spoke to four judges, independent of one another, who unanimously agreed that seeking a correction that way, so long after the trial, is highly unusual.
More suspiciously, Teresinski was not the attorney handling the Perez case. And the “correction” to the transcript was not reported to the trial judge nor to the defense attorney, as is required.
Contemporaneously, the state Supreme Court reproached Common Pleas Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes for altering the courtroom transcript to conceal a disparaging remark she made about a defendant.
Writing for the majority, Justice Max Baer said, “To alter an official transcript, the only vehicle through which appellate courts can ensure the due process of law, is reprehensible.”
Reprehensible, but not something either the D.A. nor Philadelphia judges cared about.
At the time, I left messages for Teresinski, which were ignored. The D.A.’s office, run by later-to-be-jailed Seth Williams, had no comment, part of Williams’ continuing stonewalling.
Teresinski is now in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio. He did not respond to a voicemail message left by me on his office phone, inviting him to comment.
An interesting tidbit about Teresinski was turned up by Philadelphia magazine writer Robert Huber, doing a report on Seth Williams.
The two men had been friends since they were classmates at the elite Central High School, and they were so close that Teresinski is the godfather to one of Williams’ daughters, Hope Olivia.
Huber detailed some of Williams’ activities, and concluded that Williams “doesn’t seem to understand line-crossing.”
Same for his buddy Teresinski, it is alleged.
So now, to exercise a cliche, the chickens are coming home to roost.
The bigger villain in the piece is Teresinski, who actively, it is alleged, moved to defeat Perez’s shot at an appeal, and arguably resulted in him spending extra decades in prison.
After a lifetime of being a defendant, Marcus Perez is now a plaintiff. He hopes to achieve justice long denied.