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November 08, 2023

Nicetown man exonerated and released after 15 years in prison

David Sparks was arrested and convicted of murder when he was a teen. He left a Montco penitentiary Monday night

Social Justice Exoneration
David Sparks exoneration Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

A judge in the Court of Common Pleas ordered David Sparks released from prison on Monday. Sparks was convicted of the murder of Gary Hall in 2008.

A Philadelphia man who spent half his life in prison for a wrongful conviction walked free Monday, officials announced.

David Sparks was 16 when he was charged with the murder of Gary Hall, a 19-year-old shot and killed during a block party in Nicetown on Sept. 4, 2006. Sparks was in the area at the time of the shooting and called 911 for help, urging dispatchers to "hurry up" because someone was "possibly dying." While police initially arrested Sparks for a curfew violation, they later charged him with Hall's murder.

He stood trial in 2008, during which he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole. He had been imprisoned at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Phoenix ever since.

But on Monday, a judge in the Court of Common Pleas ruled that Sparks should be freed from prison and his conviction vacated. He was released later that night, according to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. The organization posted a photo of Sparks grinning with a Wawa coffee cup to its social media on Tuesday.

The exoneration followed an investigation by the Conviction Integrity Unit, which is part of the district attorney's office. The CIU uncovered multiple violations of Sparks' constitutional rights during trial, investigators said, including police suppression of information from witnesses that implicated a different suspect, Ivan Simmons. Simmons also was considered a suspect in a murder that had occurred one block away from the scene days earlier, but that information was buried during trial proceedings.

A subsequent ballistics analysis of evidence recovered from both murders, which police had not requested in 2008, confirmed that the same weapon was used in both crimes. One of two teen eyewitnesses, whose testimony at trial helped convict Sparks, recanted many of her statements in interviews with CIU staffers.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which took up the case in 2013, initially secured a new sentence for Sparks of 20 years to life after he became eligible for resentencing following a Supreme Court ruling on "juvenile lifers." The group also pushed for the CIU investigation. The Inquirer had also cast doubt on Sparks' guilt with a 2018 investigative report, which included audio of his 911 call.

According to his lawyers, Sparks reunited with his mother, grandmother, siblings and 16-year-old daughter, who was born soon after his arrest, on Monday upon his release.

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