Innocent man reflects on wrongful conviction

By Liya Davidov
Nation & World Editor

The second Faculty Lecture Series event on Friday, Oct. 18, in Mayo Concert Hall broke down an investigative report written by journalism professor Emilie Lounsberry with her co-worker Michaelle Bond. 

The report uncovered the wrongful conviction of Chester Hollman: a Pennsylvania man who was given a life sentence. He was recently released on July 15 after 28 years in prison thanks to the story ran by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Reflecting on the case, Lounsberry said it “was undoubtedly the most satisfying story I’ve ever done.” 

Hollman discusses his 28 years in prison (Jennifer Somers / Photo Editor).

The investigation began in August 2014, not as a plea for Hollman’s innocence, but rather as a story addressing the issue with people lying when testifying in court, thus the phrase “testilying.” The story soon became about the wrongful murder conviction of an innocent man.

Bond joined the case in 2015 when her editor at the time, John Martin, asked her to join it. After hearing a brief overview, she said it seemed “fantastic and incredible,” and jumped at the chance to work on it. 

The journalists gathered boxes of court records and began “diving in, really going through all of the testimony,” Bond said. “A lot of what we do isn’t that glamorous.”

“Testilying,” which was published on April 2, 2017, chronicled how in 1991, Chester Hollman, a 21-year-old with no criminal record, was found guilty for murdering Tae-Jung Ho, a student at the University of Pennsylvania. According to Lounsberry and Bond, detectives found no physical evidence.

Their investigation included tracking down key witnesses to the crime. Specifically, they spent two years searching for Denise Combs, who was potentially on the scene with a vehicle similar to that of the getaway car. 

In fact, in order to get a better understanding of the getaway car and whether or not Hollman could get from the scene of the crime to where he was arrested, Bond took it upon herself to recreate the scenario. She acted as the getaway car multiple times, following the possible routes and driving as fast as she could from the scene to where the arrest took place. 

Hollman was arrested on Aug. 20, 1991, and was sent to SCI Retreat in Pennsylvania where he said he served “27 years and 11 months.” Before his arrest, he was studying criminal justice in hopes of pursuing law enforcement.

“I had lost hope. I watched five years pass, 10 years pass, 15 years pass, 20 years pass,” Hollman said. “It’s so easy to get caught in the prison life.”

While in prison, investigations continued from not only Lounsberry and Bond, but by Hollman’s personal investigator, Dennis Crosson. His family spent over $200,000 on lawyers and investigators to prove his innocence over the 28 years.

“It was very interesting how they managed to solve the crime after 28 years,” said Marc Kaliroff, a freshman journalism and professional writing major who attended the lecture. 

On July 15, Hollman was released from prison by the same judge who put him there, Gwendalyn Bright. Having Hollman at the lecture series just 94 days after his release was an important moment for Lounsberry and Bond as they shared their experience investigating his story. 

The world, along with Hollman’s personal life, had changed drastically over the course of his sentence. Over the 28 years, he had lost his mother, his grandparents and his nephew. Hollman also continues to adjust to new technology, such as smartphones and touch screens.

However, he said the biggest challenge he faces is communicating with the people around him.

“I think for me, interacting with people has been the hardest,” Hollman said. “I’m trying to prove that I’m a real person, I’m worthy for you to be around, to talk to. Every day, I get a little stronger, a little wiser, and hopefully this time next year I’ll be in a better place than I am today.” 

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