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Ex-Philly detective James Pitts is charged with perjury, alleging he lied about a coerced confession

A grand jury recommended charges based on Pitts' testimony that he never touched Obina Onyiah, who had signed a confession but was later exonerated of a 2010 murder.

Detective James Pitts in a 2011 Inquirer photograph.
Detective James Pitts in a 2011 Inquirer photograph.Read more

A former Philadelphia homicide detective who was the target of numerous lawsuits, complaints, and allegations of abuse — and who handled at least seven murder investigations that fell apart before, during, or after trial — has been arrested on perjury charges.

James Pitts, 51, who joined the Philadelphia Police Department in 1996 and made detective in 1999, had been reassigned to the Delaware Valley Information Center since at least 2019 pending conclusion of a multiyear Internal Affairs investigation.

A Philadelphia grand jury recommended charges of perjury and obstructing the administration of law pertaining to Pitts’ investigation of Obina Onyiah for the murder of Northeast Philadelphia jeweler William Glatz in 2010. Onyiah was convicted on the strength of a confession taken by Pitts — but maintained that Pitts had beaten and threatened him to coerce a false statement. He was exonerated in May 2021 after the District Attorney’s Office hired a photogrammetry expert and concluded that Onyiah, who is 6-foot-3, was far taller than the gunman seen in the jewelry store surveillance footage.

“Pitts, knowing that his sworn testimony was false, affirmatively and unequivocally denied touching Onyiah during this investigation,” the grand jury wrote in a presentment unsealed Thursday.

“The grand jury recommended charges related to the conduct in the interrogation room: punching with a closed fist, poking ... in the chest, and grabbing him by the neck and forcing his head down between his legs,” Michael Garmisa, supervisor of the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, said at a news conference Thursday. “Detective Pitts is also charged with perjury for lying about those physically coercive interrogation tactics when he testified.”

Attempts to reach Pitts or his lawyers were not immediately successful Thursday afternoon. A Police Department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 president John McNesby said the union will represent Pitts, “and provide an appropriate defense against these allegations.”

» READ MORE: Dozens accused a detective of fabrication and abuse. Many cases he built remain intact.

Pitts is one of at least six Philadelphia homicide detectives facing criminal charges in connection with official misconduct. Retired detectives Martin Devlin, Manuel Santiago, and Frank Jastrzembski were all charged last August with perjury in connection with the 2016 trial of Anthony Wright — who was retried for murder even though DNA evidence had connected a different man to the 1993 murder of Louise Talley.

District Attorney Larry Krasner said the prosecution of Pitts represents a step toward restoring public trust in the police.

“I cannot calculate the damage that was done to a public sense of trust in law enforcement by those kinds of tactics,” he said. “As we increase that trust in the community we will have more victims come forward. We will have more victims cooperate. We will have juries whose minds are open that we are presenting the evidence, that we are presenting the truth.”

Onyiah, now rebuilding his life after nearly a decade in prison, said he was grateful that the grand jury had taken action.

“For so many years this person who works for the law is not doing their job correctly and just getting away with it for so long — because it’s not like nobody knew about it. They knew! It’s a bad situation, and people like me pay the price for that.”

Lawyer Teri Himebaugh, who represented Onyiah in his post-conviction petitions, expressed relief that charges were filed.

“This is wonderful news that vindicates a lot of what a lot of people have been attesting to and what judges have been intentionally ignoring,” she said.

Himebaugh and other lawyers have been researching cases handled by Pitts for years. In 2017, after 10 witnesses testified to coercion and abuse by Pitts, a Philadelphia judge found that he had a pattern of misconduct. That hearing ultimately led to another exoneration.

However, other judges have found the same witnesses not to be credible. Himebaugh said that as recently as last week, a Philadelphia judge disregarded the testimony of a woman who said that Pitts coerced her into giving a false statement when she was just 12 years old.

If Pitts is ultimately convicted, she said, that would be a game-changer for the dozens of people convicted based on his investigative work.

“There were a lot of coerced confessions judges just didn’t believe were coerced,” she said. “All those sort of things if he’s convicted, those will be a big issue.”

» READ MORE: browse The Homicide Files database, including 37 misconduct allegations naming Philadelphia detective James Pitts