Lesbian released after 12 years of incarceration for murder

India Spellman has been released after 12 years of incarceration for a murder that her advocates say she never committed. She’s believed to be the first African-American lesbian in Philadelphia to have her murder conviction overturned.

In February 2013, a Philadelphia jury found Spellman guilty of second-degree murder for the robbery and shooting death of 87-year-old George Greaves. Spellman was 17 years old at the time of her alleged crime.

On Aug. 18, 2010, Spellman allegedly tried to rob Greaves with the help of an accomplice, Von Combs, as Greaves was doing lawn work outside his Northeast Philadelphia home. 

When Greaves resisted, Spellman allegedly shot him once in the chest with a handgun and Greaves died. She was convicted of second-degree murder in 2013 and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Today, Spellman is 29 years old. She began her incarceration on Aug. 20, 2010. Most recently she was incarcerated at Cambridge Springs State Prison, prior to her release on Feb. 9.

Combs, who was 14 years old at the time of his alleged crime, was sentenced to two years in a juvenile facility. He has recanted his earlier testimony implicating Spellman as the shooter.

Advocates for Spellman say her prosecution was riddled with deficiencies. Those deficiencies include: exonerating evidence that was withheld by prosecutors; a confession that allegedly was coerced by a former Philadelphia detective who assaulted Spellman; an ineffective defense counsel; the destruction or loss of crucial evidence; and problematic testimony from eyewitnesses who identified Spellman as the shooter.

Spellman maintains she was with her father and grandfather at the time of Greaves’ murder, talking on the phone and chatting on Facebook.

After an extensive investigation, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit concluded that Spellman’s arrest, prosecution and jury trial were plagued with official misconduct. 

On June 24, 2022, the unit informed Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Scott DiClaudio that Spellman’s trial was unconstitutional, mainly because prosecutors at the time failed to provide Spellman’s defense attorney with exonerating evidence.

For the past six months, additional investigation has taken place and last week, DiClaudio agreed that crucial evidence was withheld by Spellman’s original prosecutors. Thus, he granted a new trial for Spellman.

When Michael T. Garmisa, chief of the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit, said the DA’s Office had no intention of retrying Spellman, DiClaudio ordered her immediate release.

About 100 supporters who jammed the courtroom erupted in cheers.

Prior to ordering Spellman’s release, DiClaudio expressed concern that she may not be innocent. “I do not find your alibi was sufficiently proven,” he told Spellman, who attended the Feb. 9 proceeding in prison garb.

DiClaudio also cast doubt on the recantation of Combs, Spellman’s alleged accomplice. “I do not find his recantation is plausible — even remotely,” the judge said.

An elderly cousin of Greaves who wasn’t present in the courtroom wrote a victim-impact statement that DiClaudio discarded. In the statement, Greaves’ cousin opined that Spellman is innocent.

“We are devastated knowing that [Greaves’] killer has never been apprehended and that India has spent 12 years in prison for a crime she did not commit,” the cousin’s statement says.

Outside the courtroom, DA Larry Krasner expressed disapproval that DiClaudio treated the cousin’s victim-impact statement dismissively and didn’t allow it to be read in the courtroom.

In an interview with PGN, DiClaudio said the statement wasn’t in a correct format. He also questioned the cousin’s qualifications to opine about the guilt or innocence of Spellman, adding that he’s never seen her in court and there’s no indication she reviewed the case file.

“It’s an unsigned, unverified non-affidavit from a person who’s never appeared in court,” DiClaudio asserted. “How would the court possibly use that as evidence in a murder case? It’s absolutely ridiculous to even have them submit such a document for consideration that has no evidentiary value whatsoever. It would be wholly inappropriate for the court to consider it [as evidence].”

Alison Sprague, executive director of Victim Witness Services of South Philadelphia, expressed concern about DiClaudio’s handling of the cousin’s victim-impact statement.

“Victims have the right to make a prior comment about significant court actions that impact their case,” Sprague told PGN. “This is the only point at which victims’ voices are included. And when victims are denied their right to comment — I can only imagine how retraumatizing that must be to a victim or family member.”

Jill McCorkel, executive director of the Philly Justice Project, is an ardent supporter of Spellman. Outside the courtroom, she expressed approval with Spellman’s release, characterizing the evidence against her as “shabby.”

“Nobody in this country should be incarcerated on the evidence used against India Spellman at [her] trial,” McCorkel told PGN.

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