Jamaal Simmons, imprisoned in 2012 for a murder in which he always denied involvement, was released from prison last month after a judge threw out his conviction and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office declined to try him again.
But the decision was made in secret. Common Pleas Court Judge Steven Geroff made his ruling after meeting with Simmons’ attorney and a prosecutor behind closed doors, and said nothing about it in open court. Simmons’ fate was so closely held that he said even he wasn’t told until the next day, when he called his brother from prison and learned his case had been overturned.
“I didn’t believe it,” Simmons, 35, said in an interview last month. After previous attempts at vindication had been rejected, he said, “I just was thinking: ‘Here we go again.’ ”
The case marks the fourth time in six months that a prosecution connected to Philip Nordo, an ex-Philadelphia homicide detective fired in 2017, has either deteriorated or dissolved, according to interviews and an Inquirer and Daily News review of court records.
No one will say how many other cases that Nordo helped build may be at risk of collapse — or whether a long-running probe of his conduct, which has been largely secretive, might yield any charges. He lost his job for “knowingly and intentionally associating, fraternizing, or socializing” with people connected to criminal conduct, the Police Department said at the time.
Simmons' case was handled by the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which investigates innocence claims and has been expanded under District Attorney Larry Krasner. Its director, Patricia Cummings, declined to comment on Simmons' case, as did Simmons' attorney, George Newman.
Nordo did not respond to requests for comment, and his lawyer, Fortunato Perri Jr., declined to comment.
Hundreds of narcotics convictions in recent years have been overturned in city courts due to allegations of police misconduct. But if Krasner — who as a defense attorney frequently sued the police for alleged wrongdoing — were to authorize a systemic review of a homicide detective’s work, experts say, that would be unprecedented in Philadelphia.
“I don’t think we’ve had that come up,” said Bradley Bridge, a public defender who has specialized in overturning mostly narcotics cases. He said the process for reviewing murders is different, and generally more complicated and resource-intensive.
National parallels are also rare. The most prominent examples — scandals involving homicide investigators in Brooklyn and Chicago — have resulted in scores of overturned convictions and have cost taxpayers millions in legal settlements.
Teri B. Himebaugh, a defense attorney, has been cataloging cases in which Philadelphia homicide detectives have been accused by witnesses or suspects of holding people in isolation for hours, threatening them, abusing them, or even force-feeding them information to secure arrests — accusations similar to those lodged against Nordo in Simmons' case and another case dismissed last year.
Police Commissioner Richard Ross, in an interview, pointed out that the department in 2014 implemented policies that require detectives to videotape interviews with suspects and log the time when witnesses enter and leave the unit, changes designed to protect people’s rights while also bolstering the record of detectives' interactions with them.
The percentage of arrests in homicides — also known as the clearance rate — has since plummeted. Ross does not think the directives are the cause, saying there are a “myriad of reasons," such as distrust of police.
“What did they change other than that?” she asked. “You obviously can’t do the sorts of things that they [had] been doing out in the open.”
Nordo joined the Police Department in 1997 and spent about a decade investigating murders. The burly, third-generation cop became known as a prolific investigator, prone to working round the clock and doing whatever it took to solve difficult cases. Commanders often spoke highly of Nordo’s dedication, which was reflected in his earnings: In fiscal year 2016, his last full year on the force, his salary was about $80,000, and he took home nearly $76,000 more in overtime, city payroll records show.
The case that would connect Nordo and Simmons began in 2009, when the detective was tasked with investigating the shooting death of Rodney Barnes, a carpenter killed by a stray bullet on the 2300 block of Norris Street while retrieving supplies from his truck.
Relying at least in part on surveillance video recorded about a block away — which did not capture the shooting — police came to believe that the intended target was Richard Taylor, who had been on Norris Street to get a DVD from a friend, court records show.
Taylor was brought to Police Headquarters and interviewed by Nordo, according to court documents, and his statement that day would become a key piece of evidence. Police and prosecutors ultimately alleged that Taylor and Simmons had been feuding, and that Simmons slowly drove a van behind Taylor the day of the shooting, while another man — who was never identified — got out and fired the wayward shot.
Simmons was arrested two months later but insisted he was not involved. Taylor’s testimony, meanwhile, varied as the case wound through court — and he came to blame the discrepancies on Nordo.
At a preliminary hearing in 2010, according to court documents, Taylor testified that he saw Simmons driving a van that had been lurking behind him, which generally matched what he allegedly told police in his initial interview.
But he changed his story at Simmons' 2012 trial, which was delayed because Taylor — who was awaiting trial for aggravated assault and a gun charge — did not show up. He was placed on house arrest and ultimately testified, saying that he had never seen Simmons in the van, and that his prior testimony was false and resulted from being threatened by Nordo.
“I was constantly approached by Detective Nordo, saying that if I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, he going to make sure my life is f----d up,” Taylor testified, according to court documents.
In addition, Taylor said at trial that his initial statement to police — a copy of which was read to the jury — was filled with information that had not come from him. According to a trial transcript, he told jurors that he signed the document representing his statement without reading it because he had been held in the Homicide Unit for more than a day, and he figured signing the paperwork would allow him to leave.
Whom to believe?
Witnesses “going south” — disavowing their prior testimony, or alleging that they never said what was attributed to them in police documents — is an age-old issue in Philadelphia. The city has long been plagued by retaliatory violence against those who speak up. Jules Epstein, a law professor at Temple University, said some witnesses don’t trust the court system or want to have a hand in sending someone to prison.
The phenomenon can set up a difficult test for judges and juries: Should they believe the witness who claims the cops are lying, or the officer who says the witness is giving false testimony?
In Simmons’ case, jurors voted to convict him of third-degree murder, conspiracy, and aggravated assault. Then-Common Pleas Court Judge Carolyn Engel Temin — now a top official in the DA’s Office — sentenced him to 15 to 30 years in prison.
But last month, prosecutors and Simmons' appellate attorney, Newman, met with Judge Geroff behind closed doors. None said anything after they returned to the courtroom, but records show that Geroff agreed that day to vacate the conviction and prosecutors dropped the case.
Taylor, 29, in an interview this month with the Inquirer and Daily News, said he spoke last fall with prosecutors, including Cummings of the Conviction Integrity Unit, and described his interactions with Nordo. He said he told them that he had been held in the Homicide Unit for more than a day before Nordo and another officer interviewed him; that Nordo had pushed him to make false statements about Simmons stalking him in the van; and that Nordo called his cellphone and appeared at his court dates in what he viewed as an attempt to cajole his testimony.
Taylor said that before he spoke with Cummings, “nobody believed me. Basically they were asking: ‘Why would a cop lie?’ "
The DA’s Office would not say what role Taylor’s allegations against Nordo played in the decision to free Simmons. But it was at least the fourth time in recent months that a case connected to Nordo has taken an unusual turn.
Last July, Darnell Powell, charged with killing Eliezer Mendez in Kensington in 2015, was cleared of all counts after a judge said that Nordo’s “outrageous" conduct had tainted the case beyond repair. The judge, Diana L. Anhalt, said it seemed as if Nordo essentially wrote a statement for a witness who was “slow intellectually,” and she cited another witness, a man, who was recorded on the phone telling Nordo: “I love you.”
Two weeks later, according to court records, another man charged in the same homicide, Quintin Jones — who in 2017 had pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and conspiracy, which can carry decades-long prison sentences — was granted immediate parole and given five years’ probation.
And in August, Common Pleas Court Judge Charles Ehrlich agreed to resentence Adriel Alverado, who in 2016 had pleaded guilty to gun and drug-related counts and received three to six years behind bars.
Nordo’s role in the case was not clear, but Alverado in appeal documents asked for a lighter sentence because of "my cooperation and testimony from Detective Nordo.” On Aug. 3, according to court records, Ehrlich agreed to grant Alverado eight years of probation and remove the prison sentence. The judge also sealed his remarks on the case, barring their release from the public.
Simmons, since he was freed from prison, has been spending time with his daughter, 12, and living with his brother Ikeam, 32. He said he still hasn’t fully processed what happened in his case.
“I was numb," he said. "I’m still numb to it.”