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Lawyers say Philly cops coerced a man to confess to murder. He’s cleared after 10 years.

“It’s been a long journey. We suffered. They destroyed my whole family for something my son did not do,” said Nnena Agwu.

The Philadelphia Police Administration Building.
The Philadelphia Police Administration Building.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

A man who confessed to a 2010 robbery and murder after eight hours in custody — and who has said for years that detectives beat him until he signed that false statement — was exonerated Tuesday after a decade in prison.

The ruling from a city judge came after the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, in court filings, presented analyses by three experts who determined that Obina Onyiah, 38, is innocent.

The experts reviewed surveillance footage of the botched heist of Northeast Philadelphia’s William Glatz Jewelers — which ended in a shootout that killed both Glatz and robber Kevin Turner — and concluded the perpetrator was at least four inches shorter than Onyiah. That aligned with the height estimates given by all four eyewitnesses on the scene in 2010.

“That is the equivalent of a DNA exclusion in a rape case,” said Assistant District Attorney Carrie Wood. “That is affirmative evidence of innocence.”

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Tracy Brandeis-Roman agreed to overturn Onyiah’s murder conviction and accept the DA’s motion to drop charges.

Onyiah’s mother, Nnena Agwu, said it was the outcome she’d been praying and fighting for since her son was arrested more than a decade ago.

“It’s been a long journey. We suffered. They destroyed my whole family for something my son did not do,” she said.

The video that helped free Onyiah also happened to be the very first piece of evidence leading to his arrest. Stills from that video were broadcast on television, and a man then in federal prison provided a tip that the robber looked like Onyiah.

A search warrant turned up no physical evidence. Instead, the case against Onyiah was built in part on a confession that, according to the DA’s filing, was obtained by Philadelphia Police Detectives James Pitts and Ohmarr Jenkins.

Onyiah sought to suppress the confession at a 2013 hearing, arguing it was involuntary. His girlfriend at the time, Katherine Cardona, testified to sitting outside the Homicide Unit interview room, hearing thumping sounds and Onyiah’s pleas for help. “We just kept hearing Obina scream,” she testified.

The judge found her testimony unbelievable, and the confession was admitted anyway. It was corroborated by two eyewitnesses who had picked Onyiah from a photo array (though they had also previously picked out a different suspect identified from the TV broadcasts). Cardona testified to the coercion again at the jury trial, but Onyiah was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The decision to overturn his conviction comes eight years after The Inquirer and Daily News first reported on a string of cases built by the same two detectives that were tossed out or resulted in acquittals. In 2019, another man, Dwayne Thorpe, was exonerated after his lawyer presented 10 witnesses to testify that Pitts employed abusive and coercive tactics. A key witness in Thorpe’s case had made similar allegations at his trial, but that jury, too, discounted the claims and convicted Thorpe.

Other judges, however, have found no credibility to such allegations.

Onyiah’s lawyer, Teri Himebaugh, said the exoneration was important not just for Onyiah but for her other clients who have raised similar allegations.

”This is a vindication of the fact that this pattern and practice exists, and that this horrendous unconstitutional behavior not only exists but is allowed to continue,” she said.

The Philadelphia Police Department declined to comment but confirmed Pitts has been reassigned pending an investigation.

In an interview with The Inquirer last week, Pitts stood by Onyiah’s conviction and his investigation practices. He said he’s never hit, threatened, or mistreated a witness or suspect.

“I’ve never coerced a statement,” Pitts said. “You could ask the DA’s Office what their evidence is, because they’re continually going in front of places and saying the cops did the wrong thing with no evidence.”

Jenkins did not respond to an interview request, and the department did not respond to a request to make him available.

Onyiah’s exoneration is the 20th under DA Larry Krasner, who is in a hard-fought reelection race and has touted the work as a major first-term achievement. The CIU’s work has also elicited anger and frustration from former detectives and prosecutors who believe the convictions were solid.

In Onyiah’s case, the CIU also placed blame on prosecutors, saying they should have disclosed sustained Internal Affairs complaints against Pitts before Onyiah’s trial. According to the CIU’s filing, those included that he detained an 84-year-old man for six hours without cause and that he punched a woman in a domestic incident and lied to investigators about it.

Pitts told The Inquirer he could not discuss Internal Affairs investigations but noted he’s never had a guilty finding from the Police Board of Inquiry, which makes disciplinary recommendations.

“Detective Pitts’ actions in this case, and his unpunished misconduct, resulted in the incarceration of an innocent man,” the DA’s Office wrote.

A complicating factor in Onyiah’s case: He won’t be released immediately. That’s because he was also convicted of a second robbery — a crime prosecutors still believe he committed. Due to the murder conviction, he received an aggravated sentence of eight to 20 years in prison for the robbery.

Himebaugh said she’ll seek reconsideration of that sentence in light of his exoneration.