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An ex-Philly detective who has been accused of abuse for years is now on trial for perjury

James Pitts has long been accused of coercing false confessions. His lawyer says there's no proof supporting the perjury case against him, which opened this week.

Ex-Philadelphia detective James Pitts in a file photo from 2011.
Ex-Philadelphia detective James Pitts in a file photo from 2011.Read more

A key question at the heart of the criminal case against former Philadelphia homicide detective James Pitts is this: What happened in the interrogation room?

Prosecutors say the answer is straightforward. As Pitts was investigating a fatal robbery in 2010, they say, he roughed up a suspect to get him to sign a false confession, then lied about it in court when the man sought to challenge the statement’s validity.

Pitts “abused a suspect, and then stole the truth,” Assistant District Attorney Michael Garmisa said Tuesday at the start of the former detective’s trial on perjury, obstruction and related charges.

Pitts’ attorney, however, said prosecutors have no proof to support that explosive allegation — no video, no evidence of injuries after the interrogation. Instead, said attorney Bill McLaughlin, prosecutors are relying largely on the word of a suspect who had ample reason to blame a detective while denying a murder confession.

“What would it take to get someone to confess to a crime they didn’t commit?” McLaughlin asked.

It will fall to jurors to determine which version of events to believe.

Prosecutors have accused Pitts of lying on the witness stand about his treatment of the suspect, Obina Onyiah, saying Pitts pushed a false case against Onyiah even as some witnesses provided evidence pointing toward other suspects.

The case is already something of a landmark in Philadelphia’s criminal justice system. Although city detectives have for decades been accused of coercive behavior — and the city in recent years has seen a wave of convictions overturned as a result — Pitts would be among the first to face criminal consequences if he’s convicted.

Another former detective, Philip Nordo, was convicted in 2022 of sexually assaulting witnesses and informants, and three retired investigators — Martin Devlin, Manuel Santiago, and Frank Jastrzembski — are awaiting trial on perjury charges, accused of lying on the witness stand at a 2016 retrial. Each has denied wrongdoing.

Still, Pitts — who was a detective for nearly two decades before being arrested in 2022 — had for years been the subject of lawsuits, complaints, and allegations of abuse. And at least 10 convictions tied to Pitts have been overturned, dismissed, or dropped, with a number of petitions still outstanding.

Last summer, after a Common Pleas Court judge agreed to overturn a conviction because he said it appeared that Pitts had coerced the confession, the judge said it was sometimes difficult to assess the credibility of such claims because of the sheer number of complaints lodged against the former detective.

District Attorney Larry Krasner, after Pitts’ arrest two years ago, cast the case as a broader example of an attempt to restore public faith in the criminal justice system, saying: “I cannot calculate the damage that was done to a public sense of trust in law enforcement by those kinds of tactics.”

What are the allegations against James Pitts?

The issues in Pitts’ trial center on the investigation of the murder of Northeast Philadelphia jeweler William Glatz in 2010.

Glatz was killed during a robbery at his store, and one of the two robbers, Kevin Turner, was fatally wounded during a shootout.

But a co-conspirator escaped, and Onyiah was ultimately identified as a suspect. Pitts interrogated him at police headquarters inside a sergeant’s office, prosecutors said, and came away from that encounter saying Onyiah had confessed.

But Garmisa on Tuesday told jurors that Pitts had physically coerced Onyiah during the interrogation — first by poking him in the chest, then by shoving his head down toward his legs.

When Onyiah’s case reached trial, he and his attorneys sought to prevent the statement from being presented to the jury, telling a judge it had been coerced and describing the alleged abuse by Pitts. But the judge declined the request, in part because Pitts testified and denied Onyiah’s allegations.

“I never touched your client,” Pitts said in 2013, according to testimony Garmisa read to the jury Tuesday.

Garmisa said Pitts reiterated that sentiment — which he contends is false — several times during different court proceedings. (There was no video or audio of the interrogation because police at that time did not record their interactions with suspects.)

McLaughlin, meanwhile, told jurors that Onyiah is the person who shouldn’t be believed, in part because he’d already been convicted of several robberies before the fatal incident at the Glantz jewelry store.

Was Obina Onyiah cleared?

McLaughlin also sought to attack another part of the prosecution’s case during early testimony Tuesday, pushing back on the notion that Onyiah was never a viable suspect to begin with.

The district attorney’s office reached that conclusion in 2021, after experts reviewed surveillance footage of the crime and said the perpetrator was several inches shorter than Onyiah. Prosecutors successfully argued that Onyiah’s conviction should be overturned based on the new expert opinions, and he was freed after prosecutors agreed to drop all charges.

But McLaughlin told jurors that the experts’ conclusions were not beyond dispute. And as the first witness took the stand Tuesday morning — Detective Thorsten Lucke, who also worked on Onyiah’s case — McLaughlin sought to raise questions about the height of various suspects seen on surveillance footage before and during the crime.

Pitts, who has consistently denied wrongdoing, showed little reaction as the case against him began. He sat next to McLaughlin mostly staring straight ahead, occasionally resting his head in his hands.

Prosecutors estimate that the trial before Common Pleas Court Judge Anthony Kyriakakis could last more than a week. They have not said what penalty they might seek if Pitts is convicted.