Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Teen pleads guilty in crash death of Phila. officer

The short, dramatic court case of Andre Butler began and ended Monday morning with the 18-year-old's pleading guilty to third-degree murder in the 2008 death of Philadelphia Police Officer Isabel Nazario.

Maritza Mohamad described her "pain, anger, and despair" over her sister's death during her impact statement.
Maritza Mohamad described her "pain, anger, and despair" over her sister's death during her impact statement.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

The short, dramatic court case of Andre Butler began and ended Monday morning with the 18-year-old's pleading guilty to third-degree murder in the 2008 death of Philadelphia Police Officer Isabel Nazario.

At 11:25 a.m. Monday, with his hands folded behind his back, his crumpled white button-down untucked, and his eyes steadfastly raised to face the judge, Butler was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in state prison.

When he entered the courtroom 90 minutes earlier, Nazario's mother, Patricia Santiago, turned to her granddaughter, Jazmin, seated next to her in the front row, and whispered, "Is that him?"

"Yes," Jazmin answered. Santiago broke into sobs and was instantly surrounded by officers handing her boxes of tissues and a cup of water.

While his defense attorney, Neil Jokelson, and Assistant District Attorney John Doyle worked out the plea agreement, Butler bent his head low and rocked nervously in his chair. But once Nazario's family members began delivering impact statements, he sat up straight and allowed them to look him in the eye, appearing shaken at times by their tearful words.

"I was her only child," Jazmin told Butler, only a year older than herself. "She was my true best friend, the most beautiful, wisest, and strongest woman that I knew."

Jazmin's voice trembled when she said, "Next year, I will graduate high school and I will not have my mother to hold me in her arms and congratulate me. She will not be here to see me leave for my first day of college. . . . For the rest of my life, I will never see my mother's beautiful smile, hear her voice, or be happy with her."

Nazario's sister, Maritza Mohamad, also a police officer, wavered between grief and fury when it was her turn.

"There are no adequate words in the Spanish or English languages to describe the pain, anger, and despair that I've felt from the day of her murder," she said. "If it was up to me, you wouldn't even be breathing the same air as my family. . . . I don't know if I can ever forgive you, Andre Butler, for what you did."

Friends and relatives of Butler's, including his mother, filled part of the back two rows of the courtroom. He did not try to communicate with them.

According to court records, since he was 13, Butler, who grew up in Mantua, had been in and out of juvenile facilities, arrested for robbery and other offenses. Forty days before the crash, he had escaped from a hearing in Family Court and was, at least on paper, sought by police.

If the trial had taken place, the prosecution would have presented witnesses to testify that at 9 p.m. Sept. 5, 2008, while police chased him through the streets of Mantua, Butler floored the gas pedal of a stolen Cadillac Escalade veering into oncoming traffic, flying through red lights and stop signs, and sending pedestrians scurrying for safety.

The ride ended for Butler, then 16, when he plowed into the passenger side of a police car. According to one expert, Doyle said, the impact crushed the door panel 24 inches into the vehicle, sending Nazario, an 18-year veteran of the force, slumping lifeless against her partner, Officer Terry Tull.

Throughout the hearing Tull stood downcast in a crowd of fellow officers along the side of the courtroom, his chin tucked into his chest, his thumb hooked into his belt and the other hand holding his police cap.

Tull spent months recovering from his injuries, part of the time in a wheelchair. He now serves in the Crime Scene Unit.

When it was time for his statement Monday, he spoke softly and without notes. "We were like brother and sister," he said of Nazario, who had been his partner for five years. He described how she would call her daughter during every shift, sometimes as often as every 15 minutes. In the strike force, he said, she was respected for her directness, admired for her honest advice, and loved for her determination to bring her coworkers together. "Izzie would be the one who gave us the family bond," Tull said.

"Then you - for a joyride - destroyed all that. You were 16," he said, growing angry. "You should have been playing a video game or sitting on the stoop instead of causing the destruction of my life. And their lives!" He was shouting now, pointing to Nazario's family, then his fellow officers, "And their lives!"

He paused, then asked Butler, "Can you give me one good reason why?"

As Tull left the room with tears on his cheeks, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who had been sitting next to Jazmin throughout the hearing, got up and met Tull by the door to the courtroom, patting him on the back.

Afterward, Tull said he was flooded with emotion about Butler. "I feel confusion, anger, sadness, and, to be honest, I feel sorry for him to a point. His whole life was ruined. It's kind of rough."

Tull's wife, Sharnell, stood beside him, clearly pained as she listened to him try to explain.

"It's kind of rough," he said. "When a man faces a man, he can vent his anger as a man. But when a man faces a child, you can't quite put your hands on it in the same way."

Unable to render "street justice" and "take him out back and give him a few," Tull said, "The best I could do is tell him what I was feeling."

At 11:30 a.m., Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Minehart asked Butler if he had anything to say.

The young man, with neatly trimmed hair and a pointed goatee, stood and turned toward Nazario's family. He had earned his GED in prison, but at this moment he seemed childlike and overwhelmed. "I am sorry," he started to say.

But all of Nazario's relatives, except her mother, stood, turned their backs on him, and walked out.

"These are very difficult cases, obviously," Minehart said. "These men and women put their lives on the line every day. . . . This woman who has died was an exceptional human being." The judge told Butler, "You're going to have a long time to think about this. You can't change what happened, but you can change."

Then he read the six counts. "Guilty," Butler said quietly after each one. The sentence of 10 to 20 years, negotiated by his attorney and the prosecution, is considerably less than the 88 years he might have faced if convicted by a jury.

Ramsey gave Nazario's family hugs and then excused himself. "I have another one to go to downstairs," he said. The trial of two men charged in the death of Police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski started Monday morning as well.

After the commissioner's departure, Minehart's courtroom cleared slowly.

"I think a trial would have been a very, very painful experience for everybody, and I don't think it would have benefitted anybody," said Jokelson. "It is not the case where the boy intended to hurt anybody. He just engaged in very reckless conduct with very terrible consequences."

Doyle said he was satisfied that the sentence was sufficient. "The most important thing was to get justice."

Given credit for the 22 months he has spent behind bars, Butler will be eligible for parole in September 2018. He will be 26.