July 09, 2019
Tyrone Griffin knows all too well that shortly after he’s escorted into a Philadelphia courtroom on Wednesday, he’ll likely be led out in handcuffs, saddled with a 10-to-20-year maximum prison sentence on a gun-possession charge.
His girlfriend, mother and other supporters begrudgingly accept this predicted outcome.
After all, your chances of eliciting sympathetic leniency tend to evaporate after you launch an online petition campaign calling out the judge for deciding your fate by “persuading the jury to convict.”
During a recent phone interview from Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Holmesburg– where he awaits sentencing after being convicted for possession of a firearm by a prohibited person – the 32-year-old Norristown man said that’s a chance he’s more than willing to take.
After what he deemed questionable moves by judges, including Common Pleas Court Judge Anne Marie Coyle – who chastised his relatives in court and was accused of “grimacing” and “rolling (her) eyes” on the bench before the jury – Griffin has already hired an attorney for an appeal.
He hopes that those and other issues will ultimately grant him his freedom, but doesn't regret passing on a three-to-six-year plea offer since "innocent people don't cut deals."
The arrest and case was rather straightforward, but for allegations of an illegal search that were seemingly ignored by those on the other side of the law after a previous judge declared them moot.
A stolen, loaded 9mm handgun – with his DNA on it – was found under his driver's seat during a November 2017 traffic stop in Germantown. He was barred from carrying a gun due to a previous conviction.
To Griffin, the way the search and case were handled speaks to a "tarnished" judicial system. In short, he doesn't think police officers had any right to search the vehicle that night, so they concocted a cover story for the search.
“I’ve asked myself over and over again, 'Why aren’t cops always punished or held accountable when their testimony is false, questionable or perjured?'” said Griffin, who was convicted in early May.
“If police are lying or being deceptive at the very beginning of an investigation, and pass that information along to district attorneys who then proceed to try that case, the outcome is always going to be the same," he continued. "They’re going to send some innocent people to prison and allow some guilty to go free. The system is going to remain broken.”
To better understand why Griffin is taking such a vocal stand at what would seems to be an inopportune time, his girlfriend, Marlena Green, and his mother, Avis, recently shared a 314-page trial transcript with PhillyVoice.
“He is mentally prepared for [Judge Coyle] to give him max sentencing,” Green said Monday. “He isn’t afraid to fight for his freedom. Hopefully, this could help someone else.”
Specifically, they’re livid over how Coyle – who drew headlines last year for controversially appointing a defense attorney as a special prosecutor in a case – handled a statement shared by the jury during its deliberations.
"This seems like an illegal search based solely on profiling and should not have been admissible." – Jury note
That jury wanted to have a note, handwritten by its foreperson, read “to the court, arresting officers and their superiors.”
“We unanimously are uncomfortable with the inconsistent statements and testimonies … by the police officers,” it read. “This seems like an illegal search based solely on profiling and should not have been admissible. Given that this decision is not one that was in our hands we have taken great measures to separate it from our decision making process.”
Per the transcript, in which the jury questioned officers’ testimony that an odor of marijuana led to the search of Griffin’s vehicle, Coyle allowed the jury note to be read onto the record, but it had no impact beyond that.
“I have never seen anything like this. I have been a lawyer since 1984,” Coyle said of the jury's request to be heard in open court, according to the transcript. “Even before that, I was in court in law school. Didn’t see it then, either.”
Then, she offered her interpretation of the jury’s intentions.
“What they’re doing is what they’ve been instructed to do,” she said. “They decide the questions of fact. They can decide to believe some, all or part of any person’s testimony.”
Shortly after their note was read, and getting no additional guidance, jury members returned a unanimous verdict.
Tyrone Griffin was guilty.
“Your bail,” Coyle then said, “is revoked.”
Many details of the commonwealth’s case against Griffin are not disputed.
He was driving a burgundy Chevy Camaro with heavily tinted windows along Germantown Avenue near Berkley Street along with passenger Deion Sims around 1 a.m. on November 23, 2017.
With a 2014 conviction on an aggravated assault charge, which came after a scuffle in jail where he was being held for a probation violation, Griffin was deemed ineligible to possess or carry a firearm.
During vehicle searches, two guns were found.
There was a stolen one under the driver’s seat, a weapon that Coyle would call the prosecution out for leaving unattended in a meeting room near the courtroom just before trial started. Griffin denied it was his, and said he had no idea it was there.
Another gun under the passenger seat was registered to Sims, who had a license to possess it.
The car was registered to Griffin, who said he put the vehicle in his name because his friend was having issues with his license, an angle that didn’t carry any legal weight in court.
According to testimony from 14th District Police Officers Johnathan Alvarez and William Benson, they followed the vehicle early that Monday morning because the heavy tinting was violated the motor-vehicle code.
Before signaling the car to pull over, they ran the tags, as Alvarez testified was common practice on tactical patrol.
Where the sides part ways is on what happened next.
The officers claimed a “strong odor of marijuana” in the vehicle despite not finding any evidence of the decriminalized drug in the vehicle and no traces of intoxication in the driver. That was their grounds to search.
“If these two officers came in here ready to risk their entire careers just to feed you lies, they could have come up with a much better story.” – Sonam Vacchani, assistant district attorney
Alvarez, who told the court it was his protocol on traffic stops to ask motorists whether they have marijuana in the car, had testified at a previous hearing that the odor was "light, mediocre." The defense seized on that linguistic contradiction.
“They lie in order to get in and look around that car,” claimed David Walker, the attorney who represented Griffin at trial. “And that’s why this case and this evidence can’t be trusted. … Deion Sims knew that gun was stolen out of Norristown and he was never, ever in a million years going to admit (to) both of those guns being his.”
Another thing that’s not in dispute: Griffin fled from the officers during the stop, before the gun was found under the driver’s seat.
Griffin, who testified on his own behalf at trial, said he ceased running after a block or so because he was scared and “stopped with my hands up” in front of three witnesses walking down the street because “I wanted them to witness … what was going on.”
The officers testified that was not the case, that Alvarez caught up before tackling and handcuffing him.
Here's how that issue played out during trial:
Assistant District Attorney Sonam Vacchani: “Well, was that your gun in the vehicle?”
Vacchani: “Did you know there was a gun stolen out of Norristown in the vehicle?”
Griffin: “I had, absolutely, no knowledge of it.”
All the while, according to Officer Benson’s testimony, Sims was in the back of the police car “with his feet up on the glass in the relaxed position,” saying “I’m not going anywhere.”
In the eyes of the law, Griffin was on the hook for the illegal possession charge.
He has been in custody for 19 months since the arrest.
Before closing arguments in a tumultuous trial, the judge denied making any facial expressions that the defense thought could sway the jury in prosecutors' favor.
“I didn’t do that,” Coyle said. “You know what, Mr. Walker? I don't appreciate it. For the 90 percent of the time, I made an extreme effort to keep my head down and looked at (paperwork) and I don't appreciate that. It is not correct, not true.”
Still, Griffin believes that alleged behavior from the bench – along with the basis for the search itself – is key to an appeal to which he’s already committed before his sentencing.
To Walker, the defense attorney, jurors should not have trusted “how they found that gun,” as the officers were “trying to shape the story. He argued that Griffin’s DNA could have ended up on the weapon in question by something as simple as “shaking hands” with the passenger.
“This is not a righteous prosecution,” he said. “They haven’t come close (to proving the case) because this man is innocent of these charges.”
Vacchani said there was no “ulterior motive” in the stop, and was offended the defense would question the officers’ actions.
“If these two officers came in here ready to risk their entire careers just to feed you lies, they could have come up with a much better story,” Vacchani told the jury. “They could have said they found those blunts in the car. They could have said they found the gun in his pocket, not under the car seat. But they didn't.
"(The jury) wanted the police, the DA and the judge to know that they believed Mr. Griffin had been the victim of racial profiling and that the police officers lied on the stand.” – David Walker, defense attorney
"They told you the truth. And yes, at times, it wasn't nice and neat, you know, in a nice little package with a ribbon on top. No. They told you the truth.”
If the court record is any indication, the jury believed the defense's argument.
Jury members' first question to the judge during deliberations centered on whether they could convict despite having questions about “whether the search of the vehicle should have occurred in the first place.”
After a discussion between the judge and the attorneys, Coyle responded:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the determination of the legality of the search and seizure or confiscation of the firearm at issue involves a rule of law. That is solely within this Judge's province to decide. It is not before you. It is not an element of the crime charged.”
The jury followed up with the statement it wanted read to the court.
“Welcome to (Courtroom) 1002, 1002 is the land of the eternal full moon,” Coyle then responded, according to the transcript.
Minutes later, they returned a guilty verdict.
“I certainly respect, but disagree with the jury’s verdict," Walker told PhillyVoice on Tuesday morning. "This jury was unique, in that by sending their collective statement, they wanted to be heard on the issue of police misconduct.
"They wanted the police, the DA and the judge to know that they believed Mr. Griffin had been the victim of racial profiling and that the police officers lied on the stand.”
On Wednesday, Griffin will sit before Coyle to learn his fate.
Suffice it to say, he and his family are not going to the Criminal Justice Center to make any friends, and absolutely will not do so.
“I appreciate the hard work and dedication the vast majority of the city’s judges, judicial leaders and elected officials bring to Philly by leading and being fair in the courts,” Green, his girlfriend, said. “As a voter, taxpayer and person who wants to believe that the Constitution protects minorities, I need those judicial leaders to take immediate and public action to remove Judge Anne Marie Coyle from the bench for obstruction of justice and Tyrone Griffin acquitted.”
Though a previous judge did not nullify the search – thus rendering Coyle unable to rule on it, but not precluding it from an appeal, according to First Judicial District sources who would not comment further on the matter – Green still holds contempt for Coyle's role in the case.
“She is a part of a system that is throwing black men in jail, revoking bail and ordering them to pay money to a racist and classist so-called criminal-justice system,” she said.
For his part, Griffin offered a preview of what he planned to say before the judge during a call from jail on Monday afternoon.
It abides by his interpretation that the stop was illegal, the jury’s concerns should not have been swept aside so quickly and how the system gives police officers a “built-in advantage” when it’s their words against a defendant’s.
“I had 12 jurors sit and deliberate and unanimously agree that they’d seen and witnessed injustice. Twelve honest, impartial and smart people who said ‘this seemed like an illegal search based solely on profiling and should not have been admissible,’ based solely on profiling,” he said. “They were just a smart group collectively who recognized injustice and pointed it out, who were impartial and transparent."
Griffin said the term profiling is just "a softer word for racism and bigotry," and inconsistent testimony is code for "dishonesty, or lying."
As he waits to hear the length of his sentence, he questioned a legal world where, in his eyes, some judges advocate for the prosecution.
"There is no fairness when there’s no neutral fact-finder. There is no fairness when you have criminals with guns and badges who behave like petulant playground bullies," he said. "Let’s call a spade a spade: if there’s a problem with the probable cause of the search, there most certainly is a credibility issue.
"She should personally fix this injustice. I’m going to always stand for what I believe in, challenge authority when they’re wrong and fight for the little people.”
As for Sims, the passenger in his car that evening who faced no charges stemming from the traffic stop?
"We were friends," he said. "Not anymore."
Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice
Add Brian's RSS feed to your feed reader
Have a news tip? Let us know.