Robert Wilkinson

Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania
Date of Crime:  October 5, 1975

Robert Wilkinson, a mildly retarded man, was convicted in 1976 of the arson murders of five people. At 3:25 a.m. on Oct 5, 1975 someone used a Molotov cocktail to firebomb the home of Radamas Santiago. The Santiagos, who lived at 4419 North 4th Street, were then asleep in their home. Radamas and one of his sons, Carlos, survived. Radamas's wife, three of his children, and Luis Caracini, a guest in the house, perished in the fire. At the time of the firebombing, 14-year-old Nelson Garcia, a friend of the Santiagos, was sleeping on their front porch. His hair aflame, Garcia fled from the house, looking for a fire alarm. Garcia saw Robert Wilkinson in an automobile stopped near the Santiago home. Because Wilkinson was the first person he saw, Garcia assumed that Wilkinson had thrown the firebomb. He accused Wilkinson, who police then arrested. Garcia later elaborated that he had seen Wilkinson throw a bottle with a burning cloth onto the Santiago porch.

Wilkinson said he was “blackjacked and stomped” into confessing to the crime. In addition to Wilkinson, police were alleged to have threatened and physically coerced other suspects and witnesses. Photographs of injuries and the testimony of third parties corroborate Wilkinson's and others' claims of abuse.

At the urging of Puerto Rican citizens, federal authorities began their own investigation. Months after Wilkinson's conviction, another man, David McGinnes, confessed to throwing the firebomb. State Prosecutor David Berman would later testify that he threw away a tape recording of McGinnes's statement calling it “nothing but garbage, a pack of lies.”

Garcia then admitted that he had lied. He said that after the firebomb was thrown, he saw Wilkinson jump into his car and speed off – apparently in search of a fire alarm. Wilkinson had turned in the alarm and he later helped firemen uncoil hoses at the scene of the fire. In regard to his accusation of Wilkinson, Garcia said, “I don't know why I said it.”

After Wilkinson's conviction was overturned, a judge barred the use of Wilkinson's confession at a retrial because he found that Wilkinson was not capable of reading what police had written for him. Charges against him were subsequently dropped. Several Philadelphia police officers were convicted of civil rights violations arising from their “brutal and unlawful” mistreatment of Wilkinson. These convictions were sustained on appeal. Wilkinson was later awarded damages of $325,000.

Wilkinson was aided by the homicide squad investigations of Philadelphia Inquirer reporters Jonathan Neumann and William Marimow. These investigations led to the overturning of Wilkinson's conviction and to the reporters receiving a 1978 Pulitzer Prize. In 2000, a TV movie, The Thin Blue Lie, was made that was loosely based on the reporters' investigations and on Wilkinson's case.  [10/07]


References:  U.S. v. EllisNews ArticlesMiscarriages of Justice

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Philadelphia Cases, Mass Murder Cases, Arson Murder Cases, Coerced Confessions