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Jake Tapper: Finally, Justice for C. J. Rice

Jake Tapper: Finally, Justice for C. J. Rice
Jake Tapper: Finally, Justice for C. J. Rice

C. J. Rice was first arraigned in 2011 on the 11th floor of 1301 Filbert Street, a towering, steel-framed criminal-court complex two miles from the South Philadelphia neighborhood where he’d grown up. In 2013, on the fifth floor of the same building, Rice was tried on four counts of attempted murder, found guilty, and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison. For three years, he appealed the sentence, appearing on the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. After each attempt failed, he was shuttled back to a state prison in rural Coal Township, Pennsylvania.

This morning, on the eighth floor, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office announced that it no longer considers Rice a viable suspect in the shooting for which he had been found guilty. His conviction had already been overturned by a federal court in November, on the grounds that his attorney had been constitutionally deficient. In today’s decision, the D.A.’s office formally dismissed the charges against him. The D.A.’s decision fully exonerates Rice. He is now a free man. He had been imprisoned for more than 12 years.

Rice was the subject of my November 2022 cover story for The Atlantic, “Good Luck, Mr. Rice,” which investigated his trial and the shortcomings of Sandjai Weaver, his court-appointed attorney. The case against Rice was always weak. No physical evidence tied Rice to the shooting for which he was arrested, and the single victim who identified him had told police three times that she didn’t know who had shot her before eventually changing her story. Yet Weaver failed to gather exculpatory evidence and repeatedly missed opportunities to challenge the state’s case against her client. A source with the D.A.’s office told me that Rice’s conviction likely resulted from his representation being so bad.

Rice had compelling evidence of his innocence: Three weeks prior to his alleged crime, he had been shot in a separate incident that had left him hospitalized for days. When he visited his pediatrician for follow-up care, he could barely walk. That pediatrician was my father, Theodore Tapper. Six days later, the Philadelphia police announced that they sought his patient as a suspect. My father was dumbfounded. Witnesses had seen the perpetrators of Rice’s alleged crime running from the scene. “I don’t think it’s physically possible,” he told me.

My father campaigned for Rice’s release for more than a decade, testifying at his trial and appeals, even marshaling a team of specialized lawyers to his defense and—after lobbying by me—allowing me to report on the story. Today’s announcement is the vindication of his efforts, the culmination of an 83year-old physician’s commitment to a patient whom everyone else seemed to have forgotten.

For Rice, now 30, it’s a chance to finally live an adult life, set his own schedule, choose his own clothes, turn lights on and off at his leisure. When he first visited 1301 Filbert for his arraignment, Blockbuster was still renting DVDs and America was still at war in Iraq. This morning, when the announcement came, Rice wasn’t even in the building. He’d spent enough time there. “That’s behind me now,” Rice said.

On his last day in prison, Rice received something of a send-off: His cellblock at State Correctional Institution–Chester, the medium-security prison to which he was transferred after my story was published, was put on lockdown and he was strip-searched. Rice stood compliantly as guards and German shepherds scoured his room. He was used to the invasive procedure, but he was still irritated.

Clothes off, arms straight out, then up. Behind one ear, then behind the other. A guard made him open his mouth, lift his tongue. He ran his fingers through Rice’s hair and then his beard. Rice knew the drill by then: lift his penis, then his scrotum, turn around, squat, cough.

Rice had been through hundreds of these searches over the years. During lockdowns. Before and after every in-person visit. The searches were humiliating, degrading, but also routine. Nothing found. His day proceeded as usual. He went for a walk in the yard with his fellow inmates, then made a phone call to his brother.

Before long, he was interrupted by a correctional officer.

“Mr. Rice!” she said. “Mr. Rice!”

Rice made eye contact, his brother still on the line.

“Mr. Rice!” she continued, insistent.

Rice said goodbye, hung up the phone, and approached her desk.

“Mr. Rice, do you have a lot of property and stuff?”

“No,” he said.

“Well, pack your stuff, because you’re going home today.”

It was December 19, 2023. After Rice’s conviction was overturned in federal court, his lawyers arranged his release from prison as the D.A.’s office weighed its next move in the case.

Rice had just turned 30. He had been 17 in 2011 when he turned himself in to the Philadelphia police, having heard they wanted to talk with him. Now he was being told that he would be signing out of the Department of Corrections. “I’m ready,” he told himself.

As Rice gathered his things, Amelia Maxfield, a lawyer then working with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, waited in the prison lobby. When she visited clients, guards weren’t typically effusive. Today was different. The assistant superintendent chatted with her casually. She sat through a shift change, and a number of staffers made a point to tell her how happy they were for Rice, what a great person he was. Some even waited past their shift to say goodbye to him.

Rice had written to Maxfield and the Innocence Project asking for help, and the group became involved in his case not long after my Atlantic story was published. They worked with Karl Schwartz, a Philadelphia defense attorney, to file a writ of habeas corpus on Rice’s behalf, a petition in federal court challenging the legality of a person’s incarceration. Soon, Rice’s team had grown to include Nilam Sanghvi of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project; Ginger Anders, a seasoned defense attorney of the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson; and Donald Verrilli, a solicitor general under President Barack Obama. Verrilli became involved when I ran into him at a restaurant, got his cell number, and texted him my Atlantic story. Washington, D.C., is a town where lots of people make well-meaning but ultimately empty promises about helping people with various projects. This was not one of those instances.

In his petition, Schwartz argued that Weaver had fallen short of the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a right to effective counsel. She’d made a number of inexplicable blunders while representing Rice: She never subpoenaed his phone records, which Rice said would prove that he wasn’t at the scene of the crime; she also failed to challenge the victim who identified Rice on why she had changed her story. In his petition, Schwartz chose to focus on one particularly egregious error: Weaver’s decision to allow the prosecution to introduce a theory that one of the victims of the shooting had shot Rice earlier that month. That narrative had no evidentiary basis, but it suggested that Rice had had a motive to retaliate.

Habeas petitions are long shots, succeeding in just 0.3 percent of cases, according to one 2007 study. Ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims are perhaps even more difficult to establish, owing to a high burden of proof set in the 1984 Supreme Court case Strickland v. Washington. But on September 22, 2023, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office conceded that the retaliation theory was “prejudicial” and that Weaver’s decision to allow it was “objectively unreasonable.” It agreed, in other words, that she had been ineffective. On October 23, a U.S. magistrate judge affirmed Schwartz’s habeas petition. The decision then went to Nitza I. Quiñones Alejandro, a district judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. She officially overturned Rice’s conviction on November 27.

That put Rice’s fate back in the hands of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. Larry Krasner, elected D.A. in 2017, could either retry Rice or drop all of the charges. In the meantime, Rice was back to a legal state akin to pretrial detention. He could leave prison under a bail agreement.

Rice walked out of SCI-Chester that evening with a big smile on his face. He gave Maxfield a warm embrace.

“Amelia!” he shouted.

“Hey!” she said.

He carried a tub of his legal work, documents he’d amassed over the years as he’d attempted to prove his innocence. They walked to Maxfield’s rental car. He seemed delirious, in disbelief. He kept saying “Wow!”

“Do you want to change your clothes in the waiting-room bathroom?” Maxfield asked. Rice was still wearing his orange prison sweatshirt and hat. Maxfield had brought a change for him from his girlfriend, Shawna, but the last place he wanted to go was back into SCI-Chester. So they got in the car and drove to a local diner, where Shawna was waiting.

“C.J. is an incredible person, and his determination over the past 12 years has been remarkable,” Maxfield told me. “The problems that led to C.J.’s wrongful conviction—unreliable eyewitnesses, ineffective assistance of counsel, and a poor police investigation—infect so many cases in Philadelphia and across the country.” Maxfield now works for the Exoneration Project, an organization that provides free legal services to the wrongfully convicted. “We are so happy that C.J. is home and free, and we look forward to continuing the fight for those who are not.”

“I’m glad to see this wrong righted,” Rice texted me once he was out. Still, his experience had destroyed his confidence in the legal system. “Can’t call it a mistake. Because the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s judicial system had at least five separate times to correct this specific situation, and chose not to act in the interest of justice,” he continued, referring to his trial and subsequent appeals. Either the Pennsylvania court system failed to seriously review his case, he said, or it did review it and “chose to allow a clear injustice to stand.”
Rice knows Weaver was bad at her job, but he sees many other systemic reasons why he ended up in prison unfairly. He seems motivated to join the legal system and help others like him. He is whip smart. He should be a lawyer.

(Caroline Gutman for The Atlantic).

On Sunday, February 4, my father traveled from his home outside Philadelphia to meet up with Rice, who is far from the city, trying to build a new life.

My father was anxious about how this reunion would go. Though freeing Rice had become one of the great causes of his life, my father hadn’t been within arm’s length of him since September 2011, when Rice came to his office and he inspected the more than two dozen staples holding his torso together after Rice had been shot. Since then, they’d spent years corresponding by mail.

When my father arrived at the diner where they’d planned to meet, he emailed Rice from the parking lot, telling him he was there. A moment later, Rice appeared at his window.

“I got out of my car,” my dad recalls. “We stared at one another briefly and then gave each other a huge hug.”

My father took in how much Rice had changed since they’d last met. In addition to growing two or three inches, he’s put on about 80 pounds of muscle.

My dad ordered French toast and sweetened raspberry tea. Rice had tea and a Mexican wrap. As had been their practice over the years they had exchanged letters, Rice shared some of his writing. He had left behind the college-ruled paper he used in prison for a new iPhone. These were his reflections on being free:

It was a shock to the senses, in both a figurative and literal way. The simple act of a hug is so warming and appreciated, something I’ve become so deprived of for over the past dozen years or so. Amazing how hugs make you feel human. At the same time it feels real but I guess that’s where I ask someone to pinch me so I know I’m not dreaming. Ouch. That’s because it’s reality. Wow. A lot to take in … like I came out of the twilight zone. Overwhelmingly humble. I guess that’s the best way to try and describe the feeling. Many people who I did not get to see again, guess that’s a part of life and have to keep on keeping on.

After about 90 minutes, my dad and Rice stood, hugged, and returned to their respective homes.

“The ruling this morning was the correct one—except C.J. never should have been charged with any crime in the first place,” my dad said today. “The legal system churns on its own merry way, and justice is seldom found. Twelve years of C.J.’s life were taken away from him without any compensation.”

That said, some of the photos from my dad reuniting with Rice show a big, relieved smile on his face, a joy that isn’t a common sight.

When Rice was first arrested, in 2011, his niece Promise was just a month old; he could hold her by cupping his hands together. She’s now 12. When they talk after school, Rice says, he peppers her with questions about what’s happened during her day, what she’s learned. “You’d be surprised by how real life is out here,” he said. He’s been fascinated by food-delivery apps, streaming services.

Since his release, he’s tried to spend as much time as possible with his family. Two cousins and a nephew were born while he was incarcerated. Before he was transferred to SCI-Chester, in 2023, a three-hour in-person visit required five hours of driving, round trip, from Philadelphia.

This past weekend, Rice was sitting by a river, far from the city where he was found guilty and sent to prison. He counted seven seagulls flying overhead, watched a father race his three children down the riverbank. “There’s so much space out here,” he said. It was just past 4 p.m.; if he were still in prison, he noted, he’d be locked in his cell until “nighttime rec” at 6 p.m., staring at a cold, gray wall.

“I’m gonna sit here for about 40 minutes and just get it together,” he said. In the future, there will be college, a career, a family. For now, he’s content to let the time pass.

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