Three Philadelphia police officers have been reassigned pending an internal investigation into the arrest of Termaine Joseph Hicks, who was cleared of a 2001 rape last week after spending 19 years in prison.
That decision comes after an investigation by the Innocence Project and the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit raised serious questions about whether police had fabricated evidence, planted a gun, and arrested Hicks under false pretenses — all to conceal a police shooting of an innocent bystander who had rushed to aid a rape victim.
“They lied under oath to cover up for shooting an innocent man three times in the back,” Innocence Project lawyer Vanessa Potkin said.
A police spokesperson said the DA provided details on the allegations only after Hicks’ case was resolved. “As a result of receiving this information, we have opened an Internal Affairs investigation into the allegations of police misconduct,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Officer Martin Vinson, who testified that he fired because Hicks was reaching for a gun and lunging toward him, and his then-partner Sgt. Dennis Zungolo, who testified he saw Hicks pulling up his pants when police arrived, were both placed on restricted duty, the spokesperson confirmed. Vinson, most recently assigned to the Third Police District, has not responded to requests for comment. Zungolo, of South Detectives Division, declined an interview and referred questions to John McGrody, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. McGrody did not return phone calls on Tuesday.
The spokesperson declined to confirm the identity of the third officer under investigation. However, the court filings detail the role of Officer Robert Ellis, who testified at trial that he had recovered a .38-caliber Taurus from Hicks’ right jacket pocket. Hicks’ exoneration hinged in part on forensic analysis that cast doubt on his testimony. Both sides said it did not follow that the gun was smeared in blood, while the interior of the pocket it supposedly came from was pristine. The gun was also registered to an active-duty police officer who had not reported it missing.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Ellis, a crime-scene-unit officer, declined to comment or to confirm he was under investigation. He said he was meeting with McGrody, who could answer any further questions.
A spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on whether it would pursue action against the officers. Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations for perjury and other relevant criminal charges bars prosecution after five years.
Hicks’ lawyers allege that the cover-up went well beyond the three officers. “When you look more broadly at the other officers involved in this case, there is a larger pattern of official misconduct,” Potkin said.
According to her filings, the process of constructing a cover-up began immediately.
After shooting Hicks, Vinson approached and patted him down in search of his weapon. Hicks says Vinson muttered something like, “damn,” and then began to cry.
Then, Hicks’ lawyers say, Vinson used his police radio to contact dispatch. He said: “I tried to get the male to, uh, you know, put his hands where I could see them, and he was reaching for something and I couldn’t see it.”
Potkin notes that several other police officers were at the scene as Hicks was shot or shortly thereafter. Ellis arrived with his then-partner, Duane Watson — who is currently facing perjury charges after his testimony in a narcotics arrest was contradicted by surveillance video. Watson’s role in the case was not clear, and he was not called to testify.
The city has settled civil-rights complaints naming Vinson and Ellis as defendants. One was a 2015 lawsuit alleging that Vinson and another officer had dragged a taxi driver falsely accused of stealing a cell phone out of his cab and assaulted him. In another, Ellis was one of a number of officers accused of beating a suspect and then arresting him for assault and resisting arrest.
Potkin also drew parallels to a criminal case, USA v. Mortimer, in which Ellis reported recovering two illegal guns from a suspect during a 1996 traffic stop. But that defendant was “acquitted at a re-trial when the defense presented evidence that Officer Ellis planted ballistics and falsely attributed guns to the accused that he did not in fact possess.”