IN A CITY AVERAGING more than one murder — and five shootings — daily, the case the assistant district attorney presented in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Troy Headen rang familiar, by now almost clichéd.
One Sunday last year, Tyrone Hill and his good friend Tyrone Poaches drove to a schoolyard playground in the 4900 block of Parrish Street, in West Philadelphia. After Hill got out of his car, a fistfight broke out between him and another young man; the cause of the argument is unclear. Hill, 195 pounds and by all accounts a powerful fighter, knocked the man out. Troy Headen, a friend of the young man Hill was fighting, was nearby during the fracas and soon approached Hill. Hill and Headen exchanged words, at the least. According to the Commonwealth, Headen, then 20, drew a 9mm Luger. Hill was unarmed. Headen allegedly fired 14 rounds. As Hill curled into a fetal position, seven bullets pierced his body, entering his chest, his stomach, his left and right legs, his scrotum. Headen fled. Tyrone Hill, 23 years old, lay bleeding to death.
The Commonwealth’s case was not without complications. The murder weapon was never recovered. And on the stand, Hill’s friend Tyrone Poaches, who should have been the DA’s star witness, fell apart. Poaches, also 20, turned pugnacious under the DA’s questioning, cursing, refusing to answer her, saying, “Why is you asking me these questions, man?” He disavowed the signed six-page statement he’d given police on the night of the murder, in which he’d identified Headen as the shooter and claimed to have witnessed him firing his last two shots into Hill. He testified that he couldn’t recall giving any of the detailed answers in his statement, saying, “I get high, so I don’t remember.” Having ultimately declared him a hostile witness and cross-examined him herself, the DA suggested to the jury in her closing argument that Poaches’s equivocation was the product of the anti-snitching mentality that has become endemic in this city, that’s an affront to law and order and justice — and that’s ravaging almost exclusively the city’s black community.
Rising then to deliver his closing argument was Michael Coard, tall and rail-thin, fastidious in a tailored suit, with short, perfectly arranged braids. Coard, the self-proclaimed “angriest black man in America” and a leading light for civil rights in this city, was about to exploit Tyrone Poaches’s reticence in hopes of freeing a suspect the authorities had posited beyond a reasonable doubt to be Hill’s murderer.
Standing before the jury, smelling like a mixture of mint and cologne (“If you’re a defense attorney in Philadelphia, appearances, unfortunately, are what matter,” he says later), Coard physically ripped a copy of Poaches’s written statement to shreds. According to Coard, it was simple: Poaches’s testimony was utterly unreliable. “He comes in,” Coard told the jurors, “on Monday and tells you one thing: It was a bright sunny day, he tells you. Comes back Tuesday, and tells you the exact opposite: Hey, on Monday it was actually raining, it was a big storm. You weren’t here for this; you don’t know. You know he told you one thing on Monday and the opposite on Tuesday. Ladies and gentlemen, what can you conclude on Wednesday? There is only one thing you can conclude: that he’s a liar.”