Anthony Fletcher, ex-lightweight from Philadelphia, ex-soldier, and a victim of deplorably sick justice, is a discarded member of the boxing fraternity who was railroaded and forgotten 20 years ago by an out-of-control District Attorney’s Office.
Entombed in a tiny death row cell inside SCI Greene Prison in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, he’s not allowed to mingle with other convicts. Fletcher sifts through old memories because he doesn’t have sufficient sensory surroundings to create new ones. He files his own briefs once in a while but can’t untangle himself from the web of legal incompetence that entrapped him long ago. Unlike former cause célèbre Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Fletcher wasn’t proficient at organizing others to take up his cause and has suffered horrifically for it. Every once in a while he mails me a photocopy of some document relating to his case, maybe just to prove he exists.
Fletcher was convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection on a charge of first-degree murder largely on the strength of eyewitness testimony from Natalie Renee Grant, who was facing charges of retail theft and prostitution. After the court convicted him of first-degree murder, she walked away on probation. A standard deal.
Fletcher is one of countless steamrolled defendants I cover in a book coming out from Potomac Press called Sick Justice: Locking up Millions in the Land of the Free, but it won’t be out for a year or so. If Fletcher’s going to get any help, now would be better than later.
What happened on the street that night in March 1992 has been dimmed by time and Fletcher’s botched defense. He always admitted shooting small-time crook Vaughn Christopher but maintained he acted in self-defense. Christopher, Fletcher said, had earlier stuck up a crap game, taking $50 from him, and when he saw Christopher later, Fletcher threw a punch and Christopher pulled the pistol. They both wrestled for it, Fletcher said, and the gun fired, striking Christopher in the leg and right side. The wounds shouldn’t have been fatal. No one informed jurors that Christopher bled to death in the hospital after his mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, denied him a crucial transfusion on religious grounds.
One of the ironies of our system is that innocent defendants are particularly tempted to go to trial, which means they’ll likely serve harsher sentences because juries usually convict criminal defendants, who then pay a price for not accepting a plea bargain. And Fletcher, then 34, insisted on a trial. He didn’t believe an American court would convict him. But his attorney, who wouldn’t let him testify, barely cross-examined Grant and didn’t even challenge her hearsay testimony. The judge let it slide too.
Fletcher, who grew up in south Philadelphia, joined the Army straight out of high school. He learned to box in Germany and became a highly successful amateur. After his discharge he turned pro at age 24. Overcoming his late start, he fought his way into world-class ranks. But then bad choices and bad luck took over. He suffered a detached retina, was busted for cocaine possession, was partially paralyzed by Bell’s Palsy, and was shot four times while sitting in a car watching a playground basketball game in southwest Philadelphia. A companion sitting behind the wheel was fatally wounded. The attack might or might not have been drug-related.
Through all this Fletcher competed as a fighter, but eventually age was too great an adversary. He retired in August 1990 at 24-4-1 (8) after being stopped in his last two outings by Donald Stokes and Oba Carr.
Fletcher’s case wasn’t terribly unique in 1992, a time when crack ruled south Philly streets. The prosecutor offered a typical bargain – to bring the charge down to third degree murder if he’d agree to a sentence of 10 to 20 years. The district attorney at the time was execution devotee Lynne Abraham. “Abraham’s office seeks the death penalty virtually as often as the law will allow,” said The New York Times Magazine in a July 16, 1995 article headlined “Deadliest D.A.” She once posed on the cover of Philadelphia magazine cradling a submachine gun.
Later it turned out that key facts in Fletcher’s case were hidden from the jury. Others were manufactured, plain and simple. For example, the prosecutor preposterously claimed Fletcher was called “Two Guns” because he carried two guns on the street, but any Philadelphia fight fan could have informed the court that it was a boxing alias referring to his ability to land telling shots with both hands. There was a dreadful communication gap between Fletcher and his court-appointed attorney Stephen Patrizio. Remarkably, Patrizio never even corrected the bogus tale about Fletcher’s alias. Patrizio subsequently confessed to a host of other trial errors. Probably the most grievous was his failure to object to the judge’s flawed instructions to jurors. The judge was supposed to inform them they could find Fletcher guilty of voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter instead of murder. An objection at the time might have led to a much lighter sentence or given Fletcher excellent grounds for appeal. A competent attorney always looks for such gifts, but the defense never tore off the wrapping. In a deposition taken from him later, Patrizio made it clear that his principal strategy was to take the deal and after that he ran out of ideas.
Other disturbing issues include the disappearance of vital physical evidence after it was sent to the medical examiner’s office. Hard-nosed detectives who looked at it later all agreed that with or without Grant’s dubious testimony, circumstances didn’t merit a first-degree charge, which requires premeditation.
Because of his earlier cocaine conviction and the playground shooting that came later, police considered Fletcher just another drug dealer who needed to be taken off the street, and when Christopher was shot they found their lever. If they could get him sentenced to death, so much the better. But looking back after all these years it’s difficult to argue that keeping him locked up any longer makes sense and even tougher to make a case for lethal injection. If you think about it, he’s no longer being punished for his alleged crime but for refusing to take the deal. Had he done so, he’d have been free long ago.
Robert Cassidy, a former associate editor of Ring magazine, wrote about the holes in Fletcher’s case in the August 2000 issue of The Ring. Ake Sintring, who lives in Sweden, read the article and eventually formed a group to work in Fletcher’s behalf. Sintring brought the case to my attention.
Reversing a conviction is a steep uphill climb, particularly when the defense attorney fails to lay out grounds for appeal during the trial. Fletcher got caught in a perfect storm. Although Patrizio did an awful job defending his client, somehow his mistakes were deemed not quite grievous enough to win a new trial. So the case has withstood legal challenges even though the charges were never fairly tested.
It’s impossible for a reasonable person to conclude that Fletcher, now 55, received justice back then or is getting it now. Ironically, had Fletcher punched a little harder and didn’t have those four losses, he’d have been a well-known lucrative commodity, not another disposable black man, and this tale would have unfolded differently.
This article first appeared on BoxingInsider.com
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