This story was originally published Nov. 5, 2013.
IN THE ANNALS of Philadelphia crime, the name Nafis Pinkney rings no bells amid the high-profile murderers, mobsters, corrupt cops and politicians.
But in 2009, with a high-school diploma, a steady job as a baggage handler at Philadelphia International Airport and no criminal convictions, Pinkney, then 20, found himself beneath the bright light of a criminal interrogation.
In a 24-hour span, he went from neighborhood witness to prime suspect, accused of murdering his friend since day-care days, Jonathan Pitts, 21, and Pitts' girlfriend, Nakeisha Finks, 20.
Steadfastly maintaining his innocence, Pinkney spent the next four years in city jails awaiting trial, and for 1 1/2 of those years, it was listed as a death-penalty case.
Finally, last month, in just three hours of deliberation, a Philadelphia jury determined that he was the wrong man, found him not guilty of all charges and set him free.
By their Oct. 11 decision, jurors effectively concluded that Nafis Pinkney had something in common with Amin Speakes and Unique Drayton, two other murder defendants who went free: They all had been charged with murder based on the work of the same two Philadelphia homicide detectives, Ohmarr Jenkins and James Pitts (no relation to Jonathan).
'Good cop, bad cop'
Just after 11 a.m. Aug. 29, 2009, police found Jonathan Pitts and Nakeisha Finks tied up and blindfolded with duct tape. Both had been shot in the back of their heads in Pitts' ransacked home on Delancey Street in Cobbs Creek.
Pitts, described by police as a low-level drug dealer, also had been beaten, according to the Medical Examiner's Office.
Pinkney, now 24, says the two homicide detectives on the case, Jenkins and Pitts, played "good cop, bad cop" before smacking and cajoling a false confession out of him.
"One officer would come across as calm and cool, and the other one would be overaggressive," Pinkney told the Daily News after his acquittal. "The one that would lay hands on you was Detective Pitts, and Jenkins would be trying to calm him down. But at the end of the day, they both began to lay hands on me, hit me, punch me, mug me around in there to get me to go along with what they were telling me."
Pinkney said he signed the confession "because I thought that was my only way out the door. They said, 'If you sign this, you go.' I'm not the only one that's been through what I've been through, false confessions and things of that nature. It was a mistake on my behalf, but it's not my fault."
At trial, detectives Jenkins and Pitts and the District Attorney's Office went full-bore to get the jury to convict Pinkney of two counts of first-degree murder, which would carry a sentence of life in prison without parole.
In all, Pinkney's family spent almost $50,000 on three defense lawyers, according to his father, Thomas Pinkney, 52.
Now Pinkney, his family and the lawyer who represented him in court, Gregory J. Pagano, are asking: How could such a miscarriage of justice happen?
Their questions start with the alleged actions of detectives Pitts and Jenkins, who they claim gave Pinkney information about the murders and coaxed him to make up plausible lies implicating himself and two other men during a 24-hour interrogation.
"The detectives must have fed him just enough facts to put that statement together. I don't think there's any other conclusion," Pagano said.
"Sometimes this type of detective work might work. Sometimes you can coerce a statement out of a guilty person, and all the pieces - the forensics, the DNA and fingerprints - might fit into place. But sometimes when you cast a wide net like that, you scoop up a fish that's innocent. Then it doesn't work. Then it all falls to pieces."
Not the first time
Pinkney is the third defendant in three years to be cleared after being charged with murder based on the work of the same two detectives:
* Last year, after spending more than two years in jail awaiting trial for a murder in North Philadelphia, Amin Speakes, 25, was acquitted by a jury that saw surveillance video proving he was elsewhere at the time of the crime.
As the Daily News reported in a cover story Feb. 8, 2012, two time-stamped videos placed Speakes miles away from the Oct. 7, 2009, shooting of Timothy "Banger" Ross for which he was charged with first-degree murder. The D.A.'s office had viewed the video and decided to put Speakes on trial anyway.
"Had the detectives and the police continued to do some investigating in the neighborhood for the rest of the day and night, they may have caught the killers," Vernell Rainey, Speakes' grandmother, said after the jury found him not guilty. "But they dropped the ball in my living-room court and left it there."
* In January 2011, murder and weapons charges were formally dropped against Unique Drayton, 27, who was charged with fatally stabbing her roommate on Jefferson Street near 52nd in Overbrook in August 2009. The case fell apart when Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, ruling that Drayton had been held without probable cause, suppressed the confession statement she gave Detective Pitts after being in custody for 41 hours.
"The statement that she made was not voluntarily made, but was the product of psychological coercion," Sarmina said in her November 2010 ruling, according to a court transcript. The judge said she found many things that Pitts said during the suppression hearing "incredible," while she found most of what Drayton said to be "credible."
"I think Detective Pitts is far too aggressive in his interrogation techniques," said public defender Andrea Konow, who represented Drayton with fellow public defender Marit Anderson. "He's a big guy. I think he gets in there and bullies people, and he causes people to say things that may not be true."
As in Pinkney's case, no one else has been arrested for the murders for which Speakes and Drayton once were charged.
"The scariest thing here is that more than one cold-blooded killer is walking the streets of Philadelphia," said Pagano, Pinkney's defense lawyer.
Now he's homeless
Pinkney, who has moved from the Philadelphia area, said the ordeal has left him homeless, unemployed and disgusted by the conduct of the detectives who accused him of murdering his friends.
"It's sad because we hold these officers and detectives to a higher standard because of our safety," Pinkney said.
"People lie to and don't respect the Philadelphia Police Department - or cops, period - because things like this happen. You have people incarcerated and they told the truth. But you didn't want to believe them just because you have a feeling, a hunch. Their lives are taken from them."
Detective Pitts, 43, joined the police force in 1989; Jenkins, 42, came on board in 1995. Homicide Capt. James Clark did not respond to Daily News requests for comment on the allegations made by Pagano and Pinkney against the two detectives.
But Assistant District Attorney Mark Levenberg, who prosecuted Pinkney, said Pinkney "forgot to mention," during more than an hour on the witness stand while being questioned by Pagano, that the detectives assaulted him. He said Pinkney had no injuries where he said he'd been hit.
Levenberg said Pinkney's lawyers are to blame for his four-year wait to be tried because they kept asking for postponements.
"I disagree with the verdict. I'm not going to engage in a guessing game about why the jury did as it did. The evidence was pretty clear," said Levenberg, who found no fault with the behavior of Pitts and Jenkins.
"I think being a homicide detective is a difficult job. I think that the evidence all speaks for itself. I don't believe that that statement was coerced. I think the defendant lied about some things on the stand."
Who was the killer?
If Nafis Pinkney didn't kill Jonathan Pitts and Nakeisha Finks, then who did?
In the statement taken by detectives Pitts and Jenkins the day after the slayings, Pinkney identified the gunmen as Lenny Walker and Milton "June" Martin, two neighborhood men who he said agreed to rob Jonathan Pitts' home of drug money.
"I told Lenny how to get into Jon's house and where I thought the money was at inside the house," Pinkney is quoted as saying in the confession statement.
But police thoroughly investigated Walker and Martin - who is Pinkney's cousin - and found no evidence linking them to the murders. They were questioned and released.
Pagano believes that they were too street-savvy to be baited into giving false confessions.
The only physical evidence police had to link Pinkney to the crime scene was a brownish bloodstain on a downstairs wall, nowhere near the second-floor-bedroom murder scene.
Pinkney claims that the stain was on the wall long before the murders, the result of roughhousing he and other friends often did at Jonathan Pitts' home.
Pagano said the detectives learned of Walker and Martin after questioning Pinkney about the friends with whom he and Jonathan Pitts hung out.
"So they took that and ran with it," Pinkney suggested.
He believes that police also ran with rumors, from some of the victims' relatives who gathered at the crime scene, that Pinkney had something to do with the slayings given his close relationship with Jonathan Pitts.
With the rumors swirling and his desire to help catch the killer or killers, Pinkney said, he readily agreed to be interviewed by police.
"I could have easily ended up being murdered, duct-taped and bound, so I put my best foot forward as a friend to help the best way possibly that I could," he said. "And I was taken advantage of. It's not right."
The four-page police statement - a copy of which was obtained by the Daily News - contained things that Pinkney told the detectives that he says they wanted to hear and write down.
The statement began at 1:45 p.m. Aug. 30, 2009 - about 24 hours after he had been taken into custody.
But in the courtroom, the statement that Jenkins and Pitts had used to arrest Pinkney was likely the key to his freedom, Pagano believes.
In addition to Pinkney blaming the robbery-turned-murders on two men who were cleared of the slayings, he also said in that statement that the two men got into the house by climbing a ladder and entering through a narrow rear window.
Pagano told the jury that there was no evidence that the killers entered the house that way, and that most home-invasion perpetrators go through the front door.
"How can you believe his statement? That was my primary argument to the jury. If Lenny and June were not involved, if the perpetrators did not go in through the back window, then you cannot believe his statement. And if you can't believe his statement, then it must have been coerced."
Pagano shared with the jury several theories on who could have killed the couple.
Jonathan Pitts managed the Casbah, a bar at 56th and Spruce streets that his mother owned and that was within a block of his home. Someone may have followed him home after he closed the bar just after 2 a.m., Pagano said.
Or the killer could have been the same person who fatally shot Kamara Joseph on Shields Street near Elmwood Avenue, five days before the double murder and a little more than 1 1/2 miles away.
Like Jonathan Pitts, police described Joseph, 30, as a low-level drug dealer, and he was bound with duct tape and shot in the back of the head, as were Pitts and Finks, Pagano noted.
Probing Joseph's slaying, police requested Pinkney's cellphone records in an attempt to link him to the slaying, according to a Police Department letter obtained by the Daily News. No link was found, and Joseph's slaying remains unsolved.
Although he is free, Pinkney said, his life will never be the same. On Pagano's advice, he moved from the West Philadelphia neighborhood where he was born and raised, and where he and Jonathan Pitts attended day care together.
He said he wants Pitts' and Finks' families to know that he had nothing to do with their murders.
"I just want to go on with my life and let people know that things must change, because there are a lot of people stereotyped and they're in prison because of where they live or where they're from or because of their complexion," said Pinkney, who hopes to earn a business degree to help run his father's flavored-ice business.
Of detectives Pitts and Jenkins, he said: "I really do think they need to . . . have a heart. They're very careless and unconcerned about people's lives. Treat people like you want to be treated."
- Staff writer David Gambacorta contributed to this report