On October 6, India Spellman was supposed to have an evidentiary hearing for a potential retrial. In Philadelphia, a crowd of supporters passed through the courthouse’s metal detectors to fill the benches. Many wore T-shirts declaring Spellman’s innocence. The courtroom was so crowded that some were forced to stand. There was just one person missing: India Spellman.
Twelve years ago, when she was just 17, Spellman was accused and then convicted of a murder for which she had an alibi. She has been incarcerated ever since. Shortly after her sentence was finalized, Spellman began to appeal—a process that, to this day, has been riddled with delays. Last month’s delay happened because the judge did not know Spellman had been transferred to a prison facility three hours away. Thus, he never placed an order to have her transported back for the hearing.
“Every single one of these delays is devastating for India’s family and loved ones. Every single delay is justice denied,” Dr. Jill McCorkel, a Villanova professor who’s been advocating for Spellman, said. The hearing is now scheduled for November 10.
Spellman was a homebody. Her grandfather, a former Philadelphia police officer, has described her as such. At 17, her after-school activities included homework, playing basketball (she dreamed of making it to the WNBA), and lounging at home. From the couch, she’d bop between Facebook and phone calls. On the afternoon of August 18, 2010, she was doing just that. According to court records, a boy stopped by and then left. But Spellman, true to character, stayed home.
The same day, two people robbed a woman in Philadelphia. About an hour later, they shot and killed an elderly man in his driveway. Then, they ran. Police suspected one of the perpetrators to be a boy named Von Combs—the boy who had stopped by Spellman’s place that afternoon. During the course of the investigation, he allegedly named Spellman. Shortly after, she was arrested.
According to cell phone records, Spellman was on the phone when the murder happened. Her father and grandfather have also signed affidavits testifying that she was home. And yet, she was tried and convicted of second-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy, and violations of the Uniform Firearms Act. She was sentenced to 30 years to life.
When Spellman was arrested in 2010, she was taken to the Roundhouse—a concrete fortress reminiscent of the Colosseum. Inside, she was interrogated by detectives, including a man named James Pitts. According to Spellman, Pitts—a man of significant stature—physically assaulted and psychologically abused her during questioning. Pitts has a track record of violence, including 11 citizen complaints, five internal investigations, two accusations of intimate partner violence, and six lawsuits (settled for a total of $1 million).
According to court records, Spellman’s parents followed her to the Roundhouse and repeatedly asked to be present during her questioning. Their requests were denied. Her mother was hysterical. Not only was Spellman a juvenile, but she has a learning disability that hinders her reading comprehension. According to Spellman’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition, police told her parents that she had already confessed and that they should go home. But that was a lie. Police had not coerced a confession out of Spellman—yet—though they soon would.
Behind closed doors, Detective Pitts told a terrified Spellman that if she signed a statement, she could go home. The statement said she and Combs had committed the crimes. Spellman did as they asked. The statement was almost identical to the one police got Combs to sign. He was sentenced to two years in a juvenile facility. The Philadelphia Justice Project for Women and Girls, a nonprofit helmed by McCorkel, has called the entire interrogation illegal.
In the time that Spellman has been incarcerated, two people who were also violently interrogated by Pitts have been exonerated. Both had the support of Philadelphia’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU)—District Attorney Larry Krasner’s version of an Innocence Project. In March, Pitts was charged with perjury for one such case. Todd Mosser, Spellman’s current attorney, helped exonerate one of Pitts’s prior victims. Mosser described Spellman’s case as particularly egregious.
Pitts aside, indicators of Spellman’s innocence abound. Eyewitnesses described the assailant as a thick woman with dark skin wearing a hijab—a description Spellman doesn’t match. While an eyewitness identified Spellman as the perpetrator during the trial, the same witness had previously told prosecutors she didn’t see either perpetrator’s face. This nugget of information was withheld from the defense, which Spellman’s PCRA petition cites as a violation of the Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland, which mandates that any exculpatory evidence be turned over to the defense.
More simply, Spellman’s camp also alleges ineffective counsel, as the initial defense lawyer (since deceased) never called her father and grandfather to testify; nor did he present the cell phone records that confirmed her alibi. These factors spurred the CIU to take up the case. Since progressive prosecutor Krasner was elected in 2017, the CIU has helped exonerate over 20 individuals—all men.
Exonerations are one way to fight back against mass incarceration, which by definition targets Black people in America. Freeing people who have been wrongfully convicted is urgent, but the process to do so is notoriously slow. There are currently about 2 million people behind bars in the United States. Since 1989, only 3,250 people have been exonerated. Taken together, they were wrongfully imprisoned for over 28,000 years.
Women of color are increasingly caught in the grips of our exceptionally punitive criminal legal system. In the past three decades, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 475 percent. Of those exonerated since 1989, only 281 were women.
This Thursday, the courtroom in Philadelphia is sure to be packed full of Spellman supporters yet again. Her grandparents will be wearing masks to protect them from Covid-19. Friends and family members will be wearing India Spellman T-shirts. And McCorkel will be flanked by an army of students. All that is a given. The question, though, is how much longer an innocent woman will remain behind bars.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Philadelphia’s Conviction Integrity Unit had not yet taken up India Spellman’s case as of publishing; this has been corrected.