Samuel Randolph Becomes 187th Person Exonerated from Death Row
Death Penalty Information Center: Samuel Randolph Exonerated from Pennsylvania Death Row as Prosecutors Withdraw Charges at Retrial
April 12, 2022
A Harrisburg, Pennsylvania trial court has granted the application of the Dauphin County District Attorney’s office to withdraw all charges against Samuel Randolph, IV, completing his exoneration of a double murder that sent him to Pennsylvania’s death row in 2003.
On April 6, 2022, two days after the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to review the county prosecutors’ appeal of a federal court ruling granting Randolph a new trial, District Attorney Fran Chardo filed a motion to enter an order of nolle prosequi terminating the prosecution of Mr. Randolph. Chardo refused to concede Randolph’s innocence, saying that “retrial is not in the public interest at this time” because “[t]he police affiant and the police detective who handled the evidence collection in this case have both died” and “[o]ther witnesses have become unavailable for other reasons.”
A federal district court overturned Randolph’s conviction on May 27, 2020, holding that the trial court had violated his Sixth Amendment right to be represented by counsel of choice by preventing counsel retained by Randolph’s family from entering his appearance in the case and forcing him to go to trial with an unprepared court-appointed lawyer with whom he had an “absolute[,] complete breakdown of communication.” A unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed that ruling on July 20, 2021. On April 4, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the prosecutors’ petition for review and, two days later, on April 6, 2022, the Dauphin County District Attorney filed an application to discontinue the prosecution.
In 2021, while the Dauphin County prosecutors’ request for review by the U.S. Supreme Court was pending, Chardo offered Randolph an “Alford” plea in which he could continue to maintain his innocence but admit that prosecutors had sufficient evidence to convict. Under the deal, Randolph would be released for time served but his convictions would remain on his record.
“I didn’t do this. Innocent people don’t plead guilty — as bad as I want to go home,” Randolph told Penn Live. Randolph, the news outlet reported, “was worried that with two murder counts against him, he wouldn’t be able to get a good job, buy a house or any number of other things that people with felony convictions are often blocked from doing.”
“That would bother me,” Randolph said.
Randolph becomes the 187th person to be exonerated from a wrongful conviction and death sentence in the United States since 1973. He is the eleventh Pennsylvania death-row exoneree. Five of those exonerations have taken place since 2019. All five have involved both official misconduct and perjury or false accusation. Four of the five have also involved inadequate legal representation at trial.
The Denial of Counsel of Choice
Randolph was convicted and sentenced to death in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas on charges that he had murdered two men in a shooting in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania bar in 2001. He was represented at trial by court-appointed counsel, Allen Welch, who was at the same time running for district attorney in neighboring Perry County. Welch failed for months to visit with Randolph, failed to retain an investigator, and filed pretrial motions without discussing them with his client. Randolph repeatedly expressed concern to the trial court that Welch was not prepared for trial and did “not have [his] best interest” in mind, and that they had irreconcilable differences regarding the approach to the case.
By the time of trial, Randolph and Welch were not speaking, and the court appointed another lawyer, Anthony Thomas, who had no capital case experience, to act as an intermediary between the two. Randolph’s family had been attempting for months to sell a bar his mother owned so they could retain Samuel Stretton to represent him. However, the sale did not go through until a week before the trial. Stretton then sought a one-month continuance to enable him to prepare for trial, but the trial judge, Todd Hoover, denied the motion. Stretton then requested a continuance of “a day or two,” which the court also denied. Three days before jury selection was set to begin, Stretton modified his request, asking that jury selection be pushed back three hours, until noon, to accommodate his previously scheduled appearance before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Welch tried to persuade the trial court to grant the continuance, telling Hoover, “I have at this point absolutely a complete breakdown of communication with my client.” Hoover again refused, saying he would not delay the proceedings for more than an hour, forcing Welch to represent Randolph in the trial. Completely unprepared for trial, Welch had not spoken to Randolph’s potential alibi witnesses and, according to a sworn affidavit submitted by Thomas, had not even spoken with him about the trial strategy because of schedule conflicts relating to his campaign for district attorney. Two weeks after the trial, Welch lost the primary election and later complained to Thomas that he lost because of “this damn trial.”
After he was convicted, Randolph told the court that he would represent himself in the penalty phase. Saying he had been denied counsel of choice at trial, he refused to present any mitigating evidence or argument in his defense and was sentenced to death.
In its opinion affirming the district court’s grant of a new trial, the Third Circuit wrote that granting Stretton a three-hour continuance to accommodate his supreme court appearance “would not have been unfair to the prosecution, nor would it have strained the state’s interest in the ‘swift and efficient administration of criminal justice’ or permitted Randolph ‘to unreasonably clog the machinery of justice or hamper and delay the state’s efforts to effectively administer justice.’” “It was just three hours,” the court said.
The Evidence of Innocence
In federal habeas corpus proceedings, Randolph alleged that the murders were actually committed by one local group of drug dealers in retaliation for a series of assaults and robberies committed against them by a rival group. Police and prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence that, during a search of a house owned by one of the drug dealers, they had recovered “an AK-47 rifle, numerous bullets of various calibers (including the calibers used in these incidents), gun holsters, $3,800.00 in cash, drugs (cocaine and marijuana), and – in the washing machine – a black hooded sweat shirt, a pair of black jeans, and a pair of black sweat-pants” that matched the description of the clothing worn by the killers during the shooting. Another witness came forward with evidence that the second victim killed in the bar had been shot by accident when one of his associates, who falsely implicated Randolph as the shooter, had returned fire at the gunmen.
The district court did not address Randolph’s assertion of innocence, writing “[t]he exculpatory evidence outlined in this claim, if admissible, can be advanced at Randolph’s retrial.”