By Bill Moushey
The Innocence Institute of Point Park University
Drew Whitley never before met the young woman who approached him outside his mother’s Braddock apartment yesterday, gently shook his hand and muttered: “God bless you.”
Just days after Mr. Whitley emerged from 18-years in prison because DNA tests proved he was not the man who brutally murdered a McDonald’s restaurant manager in 1988, an examiner scrutinizing his driver’s license application thanked him for his strength.
At a shopping center over the weekend, the intense media coverage of Mr. Whitley’s flight to freedom produced a deluge of well-wishers.
“People I don’t know walked up to me and told me they are sorry for what happened, and to thank me for standing so strong,” he said. “They told me my fight gives people hope,” he said.
So has gone the first week of freedom for a man who went to prison for life armed only with a defiant claim of innocence and the will to prove it. When a judge set him free, it not only made Mr. Whitley the second man to be exonerated via DNA evidence in Allegheny County since last August, but cast him as a hero to the disenfranchised.
Then there are the things he is amazed by in a Rip Van Winkle sort of way – like computers and cellular phones.
“It’s crazy,” a phrase he finds himself repeating often as he talked about the proliferation of cell phones since he was locked down. “Kids and everyone have them,” he laughed, pointing out he has one too, even if it is borrowed. He also looks forward to learning personal computers, which did not exist when he was imprisoned.
There was much he missed, “the whole nine yards of life,” as he called it. He was not there for the funerals of his brother Thomas and three uncles. He lost the chance to be with his son, who was 14-years-old when Mr. Whitley went away and is now the 31-year-old father of four.
He says he was able to maintain the fight because he was “born with a good spirit,” and due to the support of his mother on the outside, and several of his friends inside.
One of them was Tommy Doswell, who was incarcerated in various prisons with Mr. Whitley, before his release last August as the first Allegheny County exoneree from DNA evidence. Mr. Whitley says he has talked with Mr. Doswell daily since his release.
“Me and Tommy, we were just fortunate that we had some DNA evidence to test. Believe me, there’s a lot of people I know are innocent who are still locked up,” he said.
Mr. Whitley said yesterday he is “still pinching himself” about the series of events that led to his release.
The path to exoneration began months ago when a judge ordered DNA testing of hairs found on clothing presumed to be worn by the killer of Noreen Malloy, then a 22-year-old night manager at the McDonald’s restaurant near Kennywood, who was shot twice during an aborted robbery early on a summer morning in July 1988. After a second set of tests excluded Mr. Whitley, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. dropped the case.
“It’s crazy,” repeating his favorite phrase about the phone call he received from his lawyer, Scott Coffey, at the State Correctional Institution at Greensburg, telling him he was coming home.
The advice he got from his prison friends: “They told me to watch out for the women,” he said, laughing.
He has spent his first week of freedom with his family, renewing acquaintances. “I am thankful that God didn’t come and take my mother before I was set free. If that would have happened, that would have broken my heart for real,” he said.
There are the banal realities, especially since Mr. Whitley walked out of prison with less than $100 from working in the prison laundry ($30 a month) and not a stitch of clothing.
“I just want to work, I cannot be idle any longer,” he said of the immediate goals.
Mr. Coffey is considering lawsuits over the wrongful conviction, but any possible award would not come until after years of litigation.
While 21 states and the federal government have compensation bills to provide cash payments to victims of wrongful convictions, a bill sponsored by State Rep. Michael P. McGeehan (D-Phila.), has languished in the Pennsylvania legislature without a hearing since last May.
“It’s crazy,” he repeated. “I keep saying that because it is,” he added.
Mr. Whitley also reached out to the family of Ms. Malloy, whose murder is now is listed as unsolved and under active investigation by the Allegheny County Police Department.
“I got my closure, I got out, but they got to go over it again. That has to be double for hard for them, especially for the mother, I know it is. They are in my prayers,” he said.
For five years, Post-Gazette Staff Writer Bill Moushey, director of the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, an investigative reporting program where students investigate and write about allegations of wrongful convictions, worked on the Whitley-Malloy case. Mr. Moushey can be reached at Bmoushey@pointpark.edu
To read the Post-Gazette story, click here