On August 20, 1991, 24-year-old Tae Jung Ho was robbed and shot to death as he walked with his friend, Junko Nihei, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Nihei told police that two black men approached and pushed Ho to the pavement. One man, wearing red shorts, held his legs and searched his pockets. The other man, wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt, fatally shot Ho. Nihei said neither man wore glasses or a hat.
Investigation and Trial
John Henderson, a taxi driver, told police he saw a man wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt get into a white vehicle that had four other people in it. He followed it for seven blocks, but eventually lost sight of it. He noted that the vehicle’s license plate contained the letters YZA, but he didn’t record the numbers.
Four minutes later and six blocks from the crime scene, police pulled over a white Chevrolet Blazer which had a license plate with the letters YZA. The driver, 21-year-old Chester Hollman III, and his passenger, Deirdre Jones, were the only occupants. Police searched the vehicle, but didn’t find a weapon or anything related to the crime.
Hollman, who was wearing green pants, glasses and a hat, said the car was a rental he’d borrowed from his roommate. Hollman said that only he and Jones had been in the vehicle that night, and he knew nothing about the crime.
Police then brought Hollman to the scene of the crime, where Andre Dawkins, a homeless drug addict with a history of mental illness, identified Hollman as the man who’d held Ho’s legs and searched his pockets. Of the eight eyewitnesses, Dawkins was the only one to ever identify Hollman.
“I apologize to Chester Hollman. I apologize because he was failed…”
Hollman and Jones were taken to the police station and interrogated separately. Although Hollman denied involvement in the crime, detectives told Jones that Hollman had already confessed to being involved in the crime and promised Jones that she would not be charged if she implicated him. Jones ultimately told police that she was waiting in the getaway car with another woman while Hollman and another man committed the crime.
Hollman was tried in April 1993. Jones and Dawkins both continued to testify against him. On May 4, 1993, Hollman was convicted of second-degree murder and robbery.
Before the sentencing, Hollman learned that the prosecution had withheld Dawkins’ full criminal history from the defense, which included convictions for robbery, conspiracy and filing a false report of incriminating evidence with the police. Hollman then filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that the prosecution hadn’t disclosed exculpatory evidence; the prosecution, however, maintained that they weren’t aware of Dawkins’ full criminal history prior to trial. Hollman’s motion was denied, and he was sentenced to life without parole.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project accepted Hollman’s case in 2013. By this point, Dawkins had recanted his trial testimony in 2001, stating that he hadn’t seen Hollman at the scene and only identified him due to police pressure and bribery. Jones had also recanted in 2005, saying she gave false testimony because police had refused her requests for a lawyer and threatened to charge her with a crime.
In February 2018, the PA Innocence Project, along with co-counsel Alan Tauber of the Law Office of Alan J. Tauber, P.C., asked the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) to review Hollman’s conviction. The CIU agreed and delivered the police and prosecution files for the case.
These files revealed that substantial evidence had been withheld from the defense, including proof that the prosecution had been aware of Dawkins’ full criminal record before he testified at trial and knew that Dawkins lied about his record, which would’ve impeached him as a witness.
The files also showed that police had investigated Denise Combs and her return of the white Blazer to Alamo Rental Car about four hours after the shooting. The files contained Alamo records showing that Jeffrey Green – who had a prior record of violent crimes including arrests for robbery in the months before Ho was killed – was listed as an additional driver. Combs also had a brother, Jack, who was convicted of two separate third-degree murders, one of which was a roadside murder committed in a vehicle rented from Hertz Rental Car by Combs and returned it the day after the murder.
Further, the files showed that within 24 hours of Ho’s murder, an anonymous caller told police that a woman and a man who lived at 2114 Natrona Street were involved in the crime. Combs lived there at that time, and police had gone to that address and interviewed her. The police investigation, however, apparently ended there.
In July 2018, the PA Innocence Project and Tauber filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act petition seeking a new trial for Hollman in light of this newly discovered evidence. After the CIU’s re-investigation of the case, they joined the petition to vacate Hollman’s convictions. The court granted the petition, and Hollman was released after spending 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. On July 30, 2019, the charges against Hollman were completely dismissed.
At the hearing, Patricia Cummings, the head of the CIU, said, “I apologize to Chester Hollman. I apologize because he was failed, and in failing him, we failed the victim, and we failed the community of the city of Philadelphia.”
Featured in the Netflix series “The Innocence Files”