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.
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.”