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From hoops court to a trial court – Innocent man freed after 14 months in jail

Early on the morning of March 9, 1999, Benjamin Easley, 23, was leaving for Delaware County Community College, where he was an honor student and a basketball star, when police arrested him for murder.

Black-clad SWAT cops dropped ninja-style out of the trees emerged from the bushes around his father’s Upper Darby home, drew their pistols and demanded his surrender.

Because the charge was murder, he was imprisoned without bail for 14 months awaiting trial.

He did not commit the murder.

He was with friends at a restaurant miles away at the time.

He did not know the victim or the killers.

The murder was drug-related. Easley, a basketball star since his Penn Wood High days in Delaware County, is a practicing Christian with no drug history.

No one on the criminal-justice side was out to victimize him.

That’s what was so eerie about the imprisonment of an innocent man. There was no bad guy.

There was only a good guy facing the prospect of remaining behind bars for the rest of his life.

He could have been me. Or you.

“Usually, I’m just trying to exploit inconsistencies and create reasonable doubt,” says Easley’s attorney, Brian J. McMonagle. “But this time, I felt tremendous pressure because I had an innocent man and I kept imagining him facing life imprisonment.”

McMonagle broke a cardinal rule of lawyering. He got emotionally involved.

“My wife said, ‘You’ve probably tried as many murder cases as anyone in the city. You’ve been doing this for 15 years. Why is this case eating you alive?'”

McMonagle knew that if he failed to convince the jury of Easley’s innocence, the system that had stolen 14 months of the young man’s life would let him rot in jail for the rest of it.

At 2 a.m. on Feb. 28, 1999, Easley – a B+ student and a star guard averaging 30 points per game – was in the club district at Delaware and Spring Garden, eating with his cousin Tim and his cousin’s female-friend, when Tim got a beep and called back on Easley’s cell phone.

“A friend of his said she was at 63rd and Lancaster,” Easley recalls, “and that her ex-boyfriend had just been killed. She was talking real loud, asking Tim to come because she was scared.”

They finished dinner, then went to a club to hang out with friends. By the time they got to the roped-off murder scene at 63rd and Lancaster, it was 4 a.m.

As Easley and his cousin made their way through the crowd of onlookers toward the woman who had called, they were mistakenly identified by a witness, arrested and taken to 8th and Race for questioning.

Hours later, they were told that their alibis checked out and they were free to go.

Easley resumed his normal life: getting ready for a junior college all-star game, preparing to graduate, hoping to attend a four-year school, probably Delaware State.

But at 7 a.m., as Easley was leaving home for school, he was rearrested.

“This cop was banging on the desk,” Easley said, “shouting, ‘Stop lying. Tell us who did the killing. We know you were with him.’

“I told the truth. There was nothing else I could tell him. He got angrier. He tried to say tat I was with the guy and that I sold drugs for that guy. He said I was going away for the rest of my life.”

“It just didn’t sound like they had a case from day one,” says Easley’s college admissions counselor and mentor, Bob Batten, who prayed for him and with him.

“The system is so slow. You’re guilty until you’re proven innocent. It was a nightmare.”

Easley’s dad, Ben Martin, a postal worker who has spent 20 years running post office basketball leagues and youth summer leagues at 30th and Wharton streets in Grays Ferry and at 68th street and Lindbergh Boulevard in Southwest Philly, spent a chunk of his savings to hire McMonagle to save his son’s life.

“I don’t know lawyers because I’ve never been in trouble,” said Martin, who raised Easley. “So I asked guys who had been. They said, ‘McMonagle. If Ben’s innocent, he’ll bring him home.'”

McMonagle said that both witnesses who identified Easley as an alleged accomplice fell apart under cross-examination.

Phone records confirmed Easley’s whereabouts at the time of the murder. A jury acquitted him on May 18.

Easley will fine-tune his game in the summer leagues, then return to community college for a year, hoping to realize his dream of attending a four-year school.

He is not bitter.

He just wants everyone to know that the honor-student who spent 14 months in jail awaiting trial for murder, is and always has been, an innocent man.

Send an email to geringd@phillynews.com or call Dan at 215-854-5961.