When a three-judge appeals court panel in Pennsylvania unanimously granted Meek Mill a new trial this week, the rapper was given something that eludes many people caught up in the criminal justice system: A second chance.
The court decision on Wednesday was a major win for Mill after a legal battle over drug and gun possession charges that has stretched for more than a decade. Mill — born Robert Rihmeek Williams — was sentenced in 2008 to up to 23 months in prison on drug dealing and gun possession charges, and faced 10 years on parole upon his release.
It’s been a long road for the 32-year-old performer. He’s had to overcome a judge accused by his legal team of having a personal grudge against him, an allegedly crooked cop bent on character assassination, multiple trials, and court-imposed restrictions that kept him from earning a living. Fans and supporters say his case is an example of just how harshly the criminal justice system penalizes young black men.
After re-examining the evidence — a second look that that came about in no small part because of his fame and pressure from big name celebrities, as well as the help of high-priced lawyers most defendants aren’t lucky enough to have — the court concluded that the evidence against Mill just didn’t hold up.
“We conclude the after-discovered evidence is of such a strong nature and character that a different verdict will likely result at a retrial,” read a statement released this week by the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
Mill’s original conviction was thrown out in large part because the Philadelphia police officer who arrested him allegedly provided tainted testimony. Prosecutors had built their original case around the officer said they no longer believe him to be credible, and said he would not be called to testify if a new trial is held. That policeman has since resigned, and a fellow officer has submitted an affidavit in the case siding with Meek Mill.
Mill was exultant at the news that his conviction had been tossed out.
“I’d like to thank the Pennsylvania Superior Court for overturning my conviction and granting me a new trial,” Meek said, as quoted by his advocacy group Reform Alliance, which he founded to help others facing similar legal travails.
“The past 11 years have been mentally and emotionally challenging, but I’m glad that justice prevailed and my clean record has been restored,” said Mill.
It’s not every day that prosecutors turn against the testimony of an arresting officer. But they also came to agree that the judge in the case failed to show “the appearance of partiality,” and cheered the appeals court decision to jettison Meek’s conviction.
“The District Attorney’s Office is pleased that the Pennsylvania Superior Court has validated our position that Robert Rihmeek Williams deserves a new trial before a court that has no appearance of partiality,” read a statement by the District Attorney’s Office.
So, what does all this really mean for the rapper?
It’s rare for a presiding judge in a case to be removed, and even retrials really don’t happen all that often. There’s a good chance that the case will be dismissed altogether and no new trial sought. Still, an overturned conviction and new trial does not necessarily mean Meek Mill is exonerated. At this point, all he is guaranteed is a fresh trial with a different judge, and perhaps witnesses who don’t have an ax to grind, none of which necessarily means he’ll be found not guilty.
New court proceedings allow for new arguments, the inclusion of evidence that wasn’t presented the first time. Meek Mill could theoretically end up where he started, with a conviction and facing prison time. But even if convicted, legal experts say it seems entirely possible that the rapper would end up with a sentence of time served and walk away from this entire ordeal a free man.
Support for Meek Mill over the years has come from community organizers, fans, social media campaigns with #FreeMeek hashtags, and celebrities like Jay Z, whose label the rapper is signed to. The Philadelphia Eagles famously played one of his songs in their locker room after they won the 2018 Super Bowl. And the owner of Philadelphia’s NBA team, the 76ers, has been a vocal supporter of Meek Mill, in addition to being a co-founder of Reform Alliance.
Mill, meanwhile, has spent the past few years clinging to hope or something close to it. He has occupied his time working on music, and getting involved in the criminal justice reform movement.
He has said he sees his struggle with the judicial system as a sign from God, and in 2018 founded his Reform Alliance group, according to its mission statement, to “dramatically reduce the number of people who are unjustly under the control of the criminal justice system – starting with probation and parole.”