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Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner faces political, policy test with reported list of problem cops

The revelation that the Philadelphia District Attorney's office has for months maintained a secret list of suspect police officers sent defense lawyers scrambling Tuesday, confirming for the first time what many of them had long suspected and eliciting questions about how District Attorney Larry Krasner would manage it moving forward.

Detective Philip Nordo is on the DA's list of suspect police officers, sources said.
Detective Philip Nordo is on the DA's list of suspect police officers, sources said.Read moreELWOOD P. SMITH / File

The revelation that the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has for months maintained a secret list of suspect police officers elicited outrage as well as uncertainty among defense lawyers Tuesday.

One attorney said he was never told that a detective involved in his client's homicide case, Detective Philip Nordo, had been placed on the roster. Nordo's inclusion was confirmed by sources Tuesday.

Other defense lawyers said they were outraged that prosecutors had not shared the list, and some speculated that confirmation of its existence — first reported by the Inquirer and Daily News on Tuesday — could lead lawyers to file petitions asking for hundreds of old criminal cases to be reviewed or tossed out.

"That's fair game for any lawyer who represents any client in the city of Philadelphia," said defense attorney Guy Sciolla.

The full extent of fallout was likely to take months or longer to determine. District Attorney Larry Krasner has said his office would need three months to develop a comprehensive plan for addressing problem cops and their testimony.

Krasner said Tuesday that he would not comment on whether Nordo was on the list of the current and former two dozen tainted officers, saying he wanted to complete his own review of the list before releasing any names.

City prosecutors under former District Attorney Seth Williams created the internal list as a way to alert frontline prosecutors to potentially untrustworthy officers to trigger a debate about using their testimony. He said he is not accepting the list from his predecessor's team as drafted by Williams' appointees because "their conclusions may not be ours."

If Krasner were to release such a list or add more officers to it, the change-minded prosecutor risks angering the police union or inviting a flood of lawsuits against officers branded by the District Attorney's Office as problematic.  At the same time, prosecutors are bound to comply with long-established court doctrine requiring them to give defendants any information that might help their defense.

It all amounts to an early political and policy test for Krasner, who promised on the campaign trail to combat police misconduct as part of his mission to reform the criminal justice system.

Homicide case

Complications can be seen in the case of  Darnell Powell, who was charged with murder in 2015 and remains behind bars awaiting trial.

The case was built, at least in part, by Nordo, who later was accused of repeatedly depositing money into the prison account of a key witness against Powell without disclosing the transactions.

Nordo was benched and later fired after the department said he had engaged in  misconduct. Two sources said he also was then placed onto the list of some two dozen potentially tainted officers whose testimony could not be used without permission from high-ranking prosecutors.  Nordo declined comment Tuesday.

Nordo, 51, worked as a homicide detective from 2009 until his dismissal last year. He routinely carried a heavy caseload, testifying in scores of cases and pulling in overtime pay nearly equal to his $82,000 salary.  Before that, he worked in the busy East Detective Division and was a street cop in North Philadelphia's 23rd District.

He joined the force 20 years ago. Before that, he was a SEPTA police officer, and headed the FOP's labor unit for that force.

Powell's defense attorney, Robert Gamburg, said Tuesday that it had been made clear to him prosecutors likely will not call Nordo if they take the case to trial, which is scheduled for May. Sources have said evidence against Powell also includes surveillance video and other witnesses who may implicate him, including one who has pleaded guilty to participating in the fatal shooting of 22-year-old Eliezer Mendez in Kensington.

But Gamburg said he had not been informed of Nordo's inclusion on the list even as the District Attorney's Office made its most recent plea-bargain offers. And if the case does go before a jury, Gamburg said, he intends to call Nordo and anyone from the prosecutor's office who might have had enough questions about his conduct to label him untrustworthy.

Issues with Nordo's role might explain the deal Gamburg said prosecutors had offered his client — 15 years of probation and no jail time, an unusual offer in a first-degree murder case that would otherwise trigger a sentence of life without parole.

Paul Hetznecker, a veteran Philadelphia-based defense lawyer, said he hoped that Krasner would consider declining any prosecution of a case involving officers on this list or any future version. Even if there was other evidence that could be used at trial, Hetznecker said, the problem officer's conduct could still unfairly impact the case against the defendant.

"If the case is tainted by one officer, then the case is tainted throughout," he said.

Middle ground

Jules Epstein, a law professor at Temple University, said there could be a middle ground for handling both new and old cases involving  problematic officers — one in which prosecutors and defense attorneys work together to determine the officer's level of involvement and how much any misconduct might impact the case. Judges could resolve disagreements, he said.

The FBI created a similar system to work with defense attorneys in 2015 after admitting flaws in its handling of microscopic hair analysis, and the District Attorney's Office has worked with public defender Bradley Bridge to review hundreds of cases involving disgraced narcotics officers.

"You need a process," Epstein said.

David Rudovsky, a defense lawyer with a long record of pursuing cases alleging civil rights violations, praised the list as a significant reform.  He said it was crucial for the department and prosecutors to identify rogue police.

"I don't think you can just say to yourself, 'We won't look and therefore we won't know.' Which is what has gone for many years," he said.

Rudovsky said that prosecutors should now alert all defendants in open cases, as well as those already convicted, if a flagged officer played a key role in their arrests.

At the same time, Rudovsky stopped short of calling for a public release of the roster.  "You have to be careful," he added. "I think police have a right not to be on the list unless you have significant evidence."

Another veteran defense lawyer, Michael Pileggi, said the policy would likely lead to a new wave  of court fights, as has happened in recent years after federal prosecutors brought charges against rings of allegedly corrupt police.

"Obviously, it's going to prompt a lot of civil rights cases," Pileggi said.  "You're going to have a lot of  overturned cases. You're going to have a lot of taxpayer money spent."

Staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.