A Philadelphia judge on Friday threw out a murder conviction and sentence of a man who has been behind bars since 2008, ruling that the homicide detective who arrested him fabricated evidence and provided trial testimony that was so prejudicial it should have resulted in a mistrial.
The ruling by Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina was the answered prayer that Dwayne Thorpe, 34, and his family had been seeking for years, while it was the latest blow to Detective James Pitts, who for years has been accused in lawsuits, court filings, and police Internal Affairs reports of using heavy-handed interrogation methods to coerce statements from suspects and witnesses.
The Inquirer and Daily News reported earlier this week that the city paid $750,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a West Philadelphia man named Nafis Pinkney whom a jury acquitted of a 2009 double murder to which Pitts and his partner had coerced Pinkney to confess to committing.
During his 2013 trial, Pinkney testified that he signed a false confession statement after a 24-hour interrogation session during which the detectives assaulted him. Another man has since confessed to committing the slayings, but has yet to be charged.
Pitts, who did not attend Friday's hearing, joined the Police Department in 1989 and was promoted to the Homicide Unit in 2006. In seven lawsuits in which he was a defendant, the city has paid or been ordered to pay plaintiffs more than $2.5 million, according to court and city records.
City payroll records show that Pitts last year was paid $177,671, including $97,034 in overtime.
Attempts to reach police officials for comment on the ruling were not successful.
Thorpe’s mother, Michelle Evans, reacted with a combination of shock and joy to the judge’s ruling Friday.
“I’m just dumbfounded,” she said. “I don’t know how I feel. I’m just glad that the judge saw through Detective Pitts’ manipulation. He seems to have a record of destroying lives and families, forcing statements and manipulating cases. He should be off the force for being a crooked cop. Now my son has a chance at a fair trial.”
Sarmina’s ruling, which followed a Post Conviction Relief Act hearing that took place over four days in June, gives the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office 30 days to decide whether to appeal. Meanwhile, Thorpe remains behind bars. The office could decide not to retry the case, a decision that likely would be made by the winner of next week’s district attorney election. Office spokesman Cameron Kline declined to comment, saying the judge’s formal order had not yet been released.
Attorney Todd Mosser, who represents Thorpe, said that his client was nowhere near the July 4, 2008, murder for which he was convicted, and that he’d find it hard to believe that the District Attorney’s Office would stand by the tainted detective.
“I would hope they wouldn’t appeal,” Mosser said. “I would hope they wouldn’t continue to defend this detective. If they don’t appeal, or if we’re successful in the appeal, he’ll get a new trial. And quite frankly, given the sheer volume of cases involving this detective, I think it’s pretty obvious there’s a problem here.”
Mosser said the path to Friday’s ruling began when he read a November 2013 Daily News article that examined the cases of three people whom Pitts and his partner had arrested on murder charges but who ultimately were exonerated. “I added to that by finding 10 people who testified to their experiences with Pitts,” Mosser said Friday.
The judge heard testimony from eight of those people in June and had written testimony from two others. They corroborated Thorpe’s claims against Pitts, Mosser said.
“Ten witnesses who have no relation to each other [except two] all say the same thing — that Det. Pitts uses force, bullying, threats, and coercion to attempt to secure statements from people. It strains credulity to accept the notion that all ten witnesses fabricated allegations that in large part are consistent with each other and tell the same story about this detective,” Mosser wrote in a brief to the court after the June hearing.
Thorpe was convicted of the July 4, 2008, shooting death of Hamin Span in the 2000 block of Elkhart Street in Kensington. The gunman, described by witnesses as about 18 years old, used his right hand to fire a handgun at the fleeing Span. Thorpe, who was 25 at the time, has a stocky build, is left-handed, and was more than a mile away attending a block party hosted by his family in the 800 block of North 10th Street in North Philadelphia, according to four relatives’ testimony.
Thorpe became a suspect in Span’s slaying when the victim’s brother, who witnessed the shooting, told police the gunman ran into an apartment in the 3000 block of Frankford Avenue. After finding a picture of Thorpe posing with another male in the apartment, they interviewed the apartment owner’s boyfriend, Allen Chamberlain, a close friend of Thorpe’s.
Although Chamberlain knew nothing of the murder, Mosser said, when he was taken downtown for questioning, Pitts threatened to arrest him, said he would take his young son away, and punched him in the face and stomach. The interrogation resulted in Chamberlain signing a statement implicating Thorpe as the gunman. At Thorpe’s trial, Chamberlain disavowed his statement.
“He was very forceful with me in his insistence that he never said what Pitts said he said,” Mosser said of Chamberlain.
Sarmina ruled that the testimony of those who recounted Pitts’ misconduct was newly discovered evidence, Mosser said. She ruled that Thorpe had ineffective counsel during his 2009 trial because his attorney failed to seek a mistrial when Pitts testified about drugs and guns that had nothing to do with the case, and because Pitts testified that Thorpe had a prior arrest record, which should not have been mentioned in front of the jury.
If a new trial takes place, the judge ruled, city prosecutors would not be allowed to mention guns and drugs, or Thorpe’s prior arrest, or to use the statement Pitts took from Chamberlain, which the jury heard despite his recantation.