PHILADELPHIA (CN) - Rapper Meek Mill will get a second chance to prove his innocence in a lengthy legal battle that has made him a spokesman for criminal justice reform, an appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The decision came just over a week after the hip-hop star appeared in Pennsylvania Superior Court for his long-awaited hearing seeking a retrial of his 2008 conviction on drug and weapons possession charges.
Though his case garnered national attention because he was sentenced to what was widely viewed as an unjustified two-to-four-year prison term for a probation violation, Mill was awarded retrial amid credibility questions about the cop who arrested him.
Philadelphia police officer Reginald Graham, whose 2009 testimony put the rapper behind bars, was later fingered for pocketing money recovered in a drug bust and then lying in an FBI investigation about it, according to a 2016 internal affairs report.
His own brush with the law earned him a spot on the district attorney’s “do not call” list of officers who could no longer be used as trial witnesses.
Because Graham was the only witness in Mill’s alleged crimes, his lawyer argued in court last week, his unreliability on the stand should entitle him to a new trial.
A three-judge panel agreed in an opinion released Wednesday, affirming the rapper’s contention that the outcome at his original trial would have “likely” been different without Graham as a witness.
Even prosecuting attorney Paul George did not dispute in last week’s hearing that a retrial could no longer include testimony from Graham, whose own theft and perjury did not come to light until after Mill’s trial.
The “after-discovery” of new evidence that could have exonerated him entitles the rapper to a new trial under the Post-Relief Conviction Act, wrote President Judge Jack Panella in Wednesday’s decision.
The official ruling was widely viewed as a formality after last week’s hearing, in which the Commonwealth declined to even present any counter-arguments against the rapper, whose real name is Robert Rihmeek Williams.
Flanked by Los Angeles-based attorney Kim Watterson and several handlers, Mill was all smiles as he walked out of the courtroom last week. Shortly thereafter, news headlines and social media were abuzz with predictions that the rapper would likely get a new trial.
Today those prognostications came true, with the Superior Court decision officially overturning his original sentence and vacating his probation pending a new trial.
That news came on the heels of the 32-year-old rapper’s announcement that he had officially launched his Dream Chaser record label in a partnership with hip-hop mogul Jay-Z.
“I’m not on probation right now…new label deal with jayz!!! Today was lit already,” the jubilant Mill tweeted Wednesday morning.
The Superior Court ruling also stipulated that Mill’s new trial would be heard by a new judge, addressing the “unique circumstances” behind allegations of bias against Genece Brinkley, the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge who had long overseen his criminal proceedings.
Brinkley was widely accused of using her position to avenge personal animus against the rapper when she sentenced him to a multiyear prison bid in large part for bagging clothing instead of handing out meals during court-ordered community service at a homeless shelter.
Mill’s attorney said last week that the judge’s unusual behavior created the appearance of bias, which should be enough to earn her client a new trial.
The panel declined to comment on Brinkley’s impartiality, but emphasized that the newly-disgraced credibility of the sole witness against Mill is reason enough for his case to be reheard.
“Williams’ right to be tried before an impartial judge is necessary in this case because the trial judge heard highly prejudicial testimony at the first trial, which was a bench trial, and made credibility determinations in favor of a now-discredited witness and against Williams,” the ruling stated.
The decision was seen as a huge win for criminal justice reform, a movement of which Mill is now at the forefront. Since being released from prison in 2018 via court order, he and Jay-Z launched the REFORM Alliance to help people fight unfair jail sentences and parole terms.
Judges Judith Olson and Kate-Ford Elliott joined in Judge Panella’s opinion. The panel has not announced a new trial date.
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