Despite a confession, a West Philly double murder remains 'unsolved'

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The victims, Nakeisha Finks and Jonathan Pitts, were found bound, duct-taped, and shot in the back of their heads.

On a chilly day in February, a Delaware man named James Barrow walked into a Newark, Del., police station and started talking about the evil he'd done in Philadelphia.

Barrow, who is 30 and has been arrested more than a dozen times since becoming an adult, told investigators he had been hearing voices over his cellphone and felt overwhelmed with guilt, according to two criminal justice sources familiar with the case.

When detectives got Barrow back to Philadelphia Police Headquarters, they recorded him on video recounting how he'd killed a man and a couple, and robbed 12 others. Police have described the male targets of his alleged deadly deeds as low-level drug dealers.

It was a bountiful interrogation for the detectives, who then charged Barrow with one murder and assorted crimes related to the robberies.

But seven months later, the most serious crime Barrow confessed to - the double homicide of a young West Philadelphia couple - has not triggered any charges.

The lack of action, or even explanation, by police is deeply troubling to the families of the victims.

Barrow's confession in the Aug. 29, 2009, slayings of Jonathan Pitts, 21, and his girlfriend, Nakeisha Finks, 20, in Pitts' home at 56th and Delancey Streets has brought another measure of redemption for Nafis Pinkney, a neighbor who was arrested the day after the slayings.

He spent four years in jail waiting to be tried. A jury acquitted him in three hours.

Police have not notified the couple's families of Barrow's confession. The parents didn't know of Barrow's existence until notified several days ago by a reporter.

"This went on since February, and you still haven't contacted the families of the victims?" Tamika Watson, Finks' mother, asked during an interview. "I'm just lost for words. You have somebody who has confessed to murdering my daughter and you have not contacted me? That's just unreal. Another letdown."

Pitts' mother, Gwen, and her husband, Fred Ford, said they had never heard of Barrow.

"It rings no bells with nobody," she said.

Their West Philadelphia home is across the street from the home they had rented for their son and his girlfriend. Their living room is festooned with images of Jonathan, in family photos and on memorial T-shirts.

"Naturally, I want justice," Gwen Pitts said. "I want his killer. And if Nafis is clear, I wish him well."

Former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham did not fault police for not notifying the victims' parents about Barrow's confession.

"I would want to make sure he is the right one before I notify the families," she said. "Not everything is as neat as it appears."

Abraham, in office from 1991 to 2010, said the acquittal in the case would not dissuade her from charging someone else in the couple's slayings if it was her decision.

"Prosecutors all over the country make mistakes," she said.

Suspect confession

In the hours after the slayings on the tidy 5500 block of Delancey, Pinkney spoke voluntarily to Detectives Ohmarr Jenkins and James Pitts, no relation to Jonathan Pitts.

Pinkney's statement said he, a cousin, and a friend conspired to burglarize Jonathan Pitts' home to steal drug money. Pinkney said the two other men carried out the executions.

Pinkney would later testify that he confessed only after 24 hours of being fed information about the slayings, and that detectives coaxed him to make up plausible lies implicating himself and the other men. Police did not charge the two Pinkney named as coconspirators, and nothing was found linking them to the crimes.

During Pinkney's October 2013 trial, prosecutors presented no forensic evidence. A jury found him not guilty of all charges.

"They really didn't have any evidence, except for his confession," said Watson, who attended every day of the trial.

Pinkney, now 27, told the Daily News in 2013 about the experience of being interrogated by Detectives Pitts and Jenkins:

"The one that would lay hands on you was Detective Pitts, and Jenkins would be trying to calm him down. But at the end of the day, they both began to lay hands on me, hit me, punch me, mug me around in there, to get me to go along with what they were telling me."

During a brief interview Aug. 30, James Pitts said he did nothing wrong while interrogating Pinkney.

"Mr. Pinkney was never coerced into doing anything, that is my answer to that," he said.

Regarding Barrow's and Pinkney's clashing confessions, Pitts said: "People will have to believe what they want to believe."

Center City lawyers Paul Hetznecker and Gregory Pagano are among those concerned that police and prosecutors have slow-tracked the investigation in the interest of damage control.

The malicious-prosecution lawsuit they filed last year for Pinkney against the two detectives would pack a greater punch if Barrow were charged, they said.

James Funt, a Center City lawyer who in April won a $1 million jury verdict for a client who sued James Pitts and two other investigators for malicious prosecution, concurred, saying:

"It is possible that their concern is that an arrest of Mr. Barrow now for the crime police asserted Mr. Pinkney did then could be viewed as a tacit recognition that something was indeed amiss with the statement they vowed was accurate."

Bennett Gershman, a former New York prosecutor and a founding faculty member at Pace Law School in New York City, said, "This whole thing stinks."

District Attorney's Office spokesman Cameron Kline said the office would not comment because the investigation into Barrow was ongoing.

Lawsuits equal $1.8 million

Within the city's criminal justice community, prosecutors typically praise James Pitts as a dogged investigator, while some defense attorneys grumble that he's a bullying bruiser during interrogations.

Pitts, who joined the police force in 1990 and was promoted to the Homicide Unit in 2006, has been the subject of numerous complaints and lawsuits accusing him of misconduct.

In six lawsuits in which Pitts was named as a defendant, the city has paid or been ordered to pay more than $1.8 million, according to court and city records.

Those include the case of Zshani al-Rasul, a witness in a 2013 homicide investigation, who was detained for 47 hours. Internal Affairs concluded that Pitts abused his authority, improperly detained her, and failed to offer her a meal every eight hours. The city settled al-Rasul's lawsuit for $110,000.

Besides Pinkney, at least two other people from whom Pitts and Jenkins obtained murder confessions have been exonerated - one in 2012 by a jury, the other in 2011 when the District Attorney's Office dropped charges after a judge ruled the defendant's confession statement "was the product of psychological coercion."

Philadelphia Homicide Capt. James Clark defended his investigators.

"We have a lot of people who come into homicide telling us a lot of different things," he said. "We still have to do a thorough investigation. If a guy walks in tomorrow and says, 'I killed five people five years ago,' we just don't arrest him for that. We have to do our due diligence."

Clark said that more evidence is needed to charge Barrow in the killing of the couple, and that the ultimate decision rests with the district attorney.

Asked why police never notified the couple's families of Barrow's confession, Clark said the detectives "feel like they had the right guy all along."

"Obviously, it went to a jury, and he was found not guilty. That's how it goes."

He praised Pitts as "one of the hardest workers that I have."

Duct-taped together

In the hours after the couple's bodies were found in a second-floor bedroom of their house, at least one police official wondered whether there was any connection to the slaying of a drug dealer five days earlier and a mile and a half away.

While Pinkney was being grilled by Pitts and Jenkins, Lt. Philip Riehl was faxing a letter to T-Mobile seeking Pinkney's cellphone records.

Riehl, a homicide supervisor, wrote that on Aug. 24, 2009, in a Southwest Philadelphia home on the 2500 block of Shields Street, a man deemed to be a low-level drug dealer was found bound, duct-taped, and killed with a gunshot to the back of the head.

Jonathan Pitts was also a low-level drug dealer who, with his girlfriend, was bound and duct-taped, and shot in the back of the head, Riehl wrote.

The phone records did not link Pinkney to the slaying of Kamara Joseph, 30, on Shields Street, and he was not charged with the crime.

But Barrow was - in February.

"What's remarkable is that Lt. Riehl's suspicions, his theory about the case, was completely ignored," Pagano said.

Pagano and Hetznecker said they believe Barrow's confession is also corroborated by homicide Detective Gregory Santamala, who alluded to the double slaying while testifying at an April 12 preliminary hearing, when Barrow was held for trial on charges of murdering Joseph.

Santamala testified that Barrow told him the gun he used to kill Joseph was used in another shooting, "which we didn't even know about at that point, and it was matched up to the other incident."

When Barrow's public defender, Stephen Gross, asked what incident the gun matched, Santamala replied: "There was another incident several days later."

Pagano, who won Pinkney's acquittal at the murder trial, speculated as to why charges in the Delancey Street slayings have not been forthcoming: "If they charge Barrow, that would be an admission that they got it wrong in the Pinkney case. And how often do they admit they are wrong?"

Pinkney's lawyers have pressed for a copy of Barrow's confession video, only to be rebuffed by city attorneys, who contended that the video is privileged. During an Aug. 24 hearing, however, Common Pleas Court Judge John M. Younge gave police 90 days to wrap up the investigation and turn over the video.

"Where is the D.A.'s Office in this?" Pagano asked. "You would think that they would be as interested as the families of the victims in this case to go back to the drawing board to investigate the murders of Jon Pitts and Nakeisha Finks. You would think that they would be interested in justice, instead of hiding behind these canned responses that it's an ongoing investigation."

Barrow's court-appointed attorney, Michael Coard, who took over from Gross and Geoffrey Kilroy in May, did not return several messages seeking comment on the case.

Deputy City Solicitor Brock Atkins, who is representing James Pitts and Jenkins against Pinkney's lawsuit, declined to comment.

'Still hurting'

Hetznecker said what happened to Pinkney should be a wake-up call for police and prosecutors. It underscores the need in Philadelphia, he said, for a strong independent review of police investigations by prosecutors.

In the meantime, Barrow waits to be tried for one slaying he confessed to while two others remain open, leaving the victims' relatives grasping for answers and justice.

Fred Ford, who looks a decade or so younger than his 83 years, raised Jonathan Pitts from the age of 4. Pitts and Pinkney grew up together, he said, and being told that Pinkney was his killer added to the pain of losing his stepson.

"It's a disappointment when you really look at it, what this boy went through," he said of Pinkney. "He could have gotten life. It just shouldn't have went down like that. I think the police owed us a little more than that."

Watson said time has not dimmed her pain of losing her daughter.

"I'm still hurting, and we still don't have answers," she said. "We're at a standstill. We're pretty much in the same spot where we were seven years ago."

deanm@phillynews.com

215-854-4172@mensahdean

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