A 22-year-old South Philadelphia man accused of fatally shooting the son of a city police commander during a brawl at a Phillies tailgate in 2019 was acquitted Wednesday by a Common Pleas Court jury.
Tyquan Atkinson was found not guilty of all charges, including first- and third-degree murder and weapons offenses, after the panel concluded that prosecutors had not proved that he was the gunman who shot 20-year-old Nicholas Flacco in the chest on a March night in FDR park.
Deliberations lasted about two hours. In an unusual twist, Atkinson was not in the courtroom as the verdict was read because a courthouse power outage made it impossible for sheriffs to bring him in from a holding cell.
Still, Atkinson’s family and friends hugged outside the courthouse afterward. And his lawyer, Evan T.L. Hughes, said Atkinson had been waiting for his chance at vindication since being arrested not long after the crime.
“Three years we’ve been waiting for this moment and preparing for it and fighting for it,” Hughes said. “So I’m very happy that we’re finally done. And he should be home soon.”
Flacco’s relatives wept in the courtroom after the verdict was read. They declined to comment afterward.
For years, police and prosecutors had presented the case as a revenge killing, saying Atkinson had come to the park with a gun after Flacco insulted his dead friend during an alcohol-fueled melee.
Assistant District Attorney Erica Rebstock presented evidence during four days of testimony in an attempt to support that theory, including an account from a teen who said he saw Atkinson shoot Flacco; cell phone records placing Atkinson’s phone in the park around the time of the killing; and testimony from Atkinson’s former girlfriend, who said he’d confessed to her on the night of the crime.
During closing arguments, Rebstock said Flacco’s disrespect of Salvatore DiNubile had set Atkinson on a vengeful course.
Flacco “might as well have signed his own death warrant,” she said.
But Atkinson took the stand and denied any role in the killing, saying he was hanging out elsewhere in South Philadelphia that night and had been near, but not at, the park.
In the days after the killing, Atkinson said, he began receiving threats on Instagram from Flacco’s friends. In one instance, he said, an accuser mentioned his mother’s address.
“I’d never been in trouble in my life,” Atkinson testified. “I was scared.”
He fled to his aunt’s house in Delaware County, then ran from U.S. Marshals when they tried to arrest him. Atkinson accused officers of beating him and breaking his ribs when they took him into custody on the roof of an Upland shopping center. (Rebstock later said Atkinson injured his ribs when he fell running from police through a wooded area.)
Hughes, Atkinson’s lawyer, said the case had been flawed from the start. He said Flacco’s friends were drunk at the park and unable to see anything because it was dark outside. Desperate to identify the shooter, Hughes said, they later began sleuthing around the Instagram pages of people they thought were involved in the brawls.
When they saw Atkinson, who is Black, in photos with groups of other young men, who were mostly white, Flacco’s friends incorrectly pegged Atkinson as the gunman, Hughes said — then spread the rumor so quickly it seemed like fact. He added that police were eager to secure an arrest on behalf of Flacco’s father, at the time a commander in Internal Affairs.
“You can almost trace the taint, the poison, if you will, of Instagram,” Hughes said.
Jane Roh, spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, said in an email that prosecutors “vigorously and capably presented the limited evidence available in this case to the jury.
“We again extend our deepest condolences to the family of Nicholas Flacco.”
Hughes, meanwhile, said Atkinson could be released from custody as soon as Wednesday night.