A Philadelphia man freed from prison in April because of an overturned murder conviction was shot dead last week in North Philadelphia, according to police.
George Cortez, 36, incarcerated for four years for a murder his brother is now charged with committing, was found with several gunshot wounds to the chest on the 2300 block of Cleveland Street after 1 a.m. on June 27, police said. He was pronounced dead at Temple University Hospital later that morning.
Capt. James Clark of the Homicide Unit said Tuesday that it was not immediately clear why Cortez was shot but that police were investigating the possibility that Cortez was targeted by friends of Nafis Murray, the man he was once accused of killing.
Cortez's mother, Rosetta Cortez, said she believed her son was targeted for retribution after his release. She now worries about her own safety, she said.
"My son hadn't even been home two months," she said.
Clark said police had not yet identified any suspects. Cortez also had a history of drug-related arrests, according to court records, and Kirk Handrich, assistant district attorney in the Homicide Unit, said Cortez had long been active in the neighborhood drug trade.
"People in the neighborhood know what happened," Clark said. "They just need to come forward and give us a name."
Cortez was released from prison on April 22, five years after the shooting death of Murray on the 1900 block of York Street in North Philadelphia.
Authorities arrested Cortez in 2011 after he was identified as the shooter by Talena Johnson, an eyewitness who was wounded in the attack, said Handrich. Surveillance video of the incident also appeared to show a suspect who resembled Cortez, Handrich said.
After a trial in June 2012, Cortez was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
But he was granted a new trial in April 2015 after a judge ruled that there were issues with the use of a cellphone video the first time around, Handrich said.
Handrich - who was assigned the case after Cortez's conviction - said he dug into the evidence anew and found signs that Cortez could have been incorrectly identified.
With the help of Cortez's attorney, Andrew Gay Jr., Handrich and veteran homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega were able to speak with Cortez and his mother, he said. Information from those interviews led prosecutors to believe that Cortez's brother, Owen Cortez, pulled the trigger, according to Handrich.
George Cortez initially withheld information about his brother from police because he believed he could win his freedom without having to implicate a sibling, Handrich said.
In April, prosecutors charged Owen Cortez with murder and related counts for Murray's death. He is expected to plead guilty after admitting to detectives that he was the shooter, Handrich said. Cortez's attorney could not be reached for comment.
George Cortez, meanwhile, was released from prison after prosecutors dropped the charges against him ahead of his second trial.
His mother said the violent nature of her son's death has been difficult to accept, particularly because she exerted so much emotional energy working toward his release.
"Right now it's hard for me to grieve the way I should," she said.
Anyone with information about Cortez's death is encouraged to call the Homicide Unit at 215-686-3334.