Philadelphia DA’s Office CIU Leads to Two Wrong Convictions Being Overturned

Photo courtesy Philadelphia DA’s Office.

Special to the Vanguard

Curtis Kingwood to Be Freed After Convictions Tainted by Former Det. Nordo Overturned

Philadelphia, PA – Ten years after being arrested for a murder for which they were wrongfully convicted, and almost two years after the Commonwealth conceded both of their due process rights had been violated, co-defendants Curtis Kingwood and Faheem Davis were exonerated of murder on Thursday, after the Court of Common Pleas vacated their convictions.

According to the police investigation at the time, on September 11, 2011, Christopher Lee and two other individuals were shooting dice near the intersection of Jefferson Street and Lindenwood Street in West Philadelphia, when they were approached by two unknown men. One of the men produced a firearm. As Lee and the two others began to run away, the man who produced the gun fired at the group – fatally wounding Lee.

During interviews with police, the two surviving individuals could not identify the strangers who committed this crime, but provided physical descriptions. The investigation went cold until almost a year later when the firearm recovered during an unrelated domestic violence investigation was identified as the gun that killed Lee. The person who possessed the murder weapon purportedly told then-Detective Philip Nordo that he received it from a drug addict who refused to be formally interviewed.

After receiving this information, Detective Nordo sought to interview Kingwood. After 43 hours in custody, Kingwood provided a statement implicating himself and Davis. Prior to trial Kingwood met with prosecutors and attempted to confront Nordo about being sexually exploited, but Nordo yelled at him, and intimidated him into silence. Both Kingwood and Davis eventually went to a jury trial and were convicted. They were both sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

A review of the case by District Attorney Larry Krasner’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) and new post-conviction information showed that the Commonwealth suppressed information from the defense that another individual may have had access to the murder weapon and this individual had knowledge of or was involved in the murder; that another homicide detective provided false testimony at trial about the investigation into this individual; and that Nordo’s documented misconducted was not disclosed, despite his involvement in eliciting Kingwood’s confession

The CIU, which was formed in 2018 under the direction of DA Krasner, began reviewing Kingwood’s and Davis’ Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petitions in 2019. In November 2021, the CIU conceded that the defendants were entitled to a new trial. In July 2022, the Court convened an evidentiary hearing and received documentary evidence, and live testimony from the original trial prosecutor and defense counsel, which corroborated Kingwood’s claim that Nordo sexually assaulted him to get the confession.

The CIU’s investigation of Kingwood and Davis’ PCRA petitions was initiated, in part, when the original trial prosecutor contacted the DA’s Office after learning Nordo had been arrested on multiple charges of sexual assault, rape, and official oppression of witnesses and detainees both in and out of police custody. Nordo is currently serving a sentence of 24½ to 49 years of incarceration for those crimes, following a conviction secured by the DA’s Special Investigations Unit in 2022.

The trial prosecutor who contacted the CIU in 2019 testified under oath about feeling uneasy about Nordo’s involvement in the case against Kingwood: “I’m sure that none of us would have relied on that statement [Kingwood gave Nordo] if we knew what was going on… if something like that happened, then it taints the statement.” The Court was also provided with documents produced by the CIU – which had not been disclosed at the time of trial – which revealed the other detective had provided false testimony about the individual connected to Lee’s murder and the murder weapon. The Court also received evidence that the DA and Philadelphia Police leadership at the time of trial was aware of Nordo’s misconduct but did not prosecute him. However, after the July 2022 hearing concluded, the Court did not render a decision.

The case was recently reassigned to a new judge to review the evidence and render a decision. The Court ordered new trials for Kingwood and Davis, and the CIU immediately moved to dismiss the charges. The Court accepted the Commonwealth’s motion to dismiss the charges against the defendants, securing Kingwood’s freedom after a decade of wrongful imprisonment. (Davis remains incarcerated, serving a sentence for an unrelated non-fatal shooting in 2012.)

“Equal application of accountability to law enforcement and others with great powers is critical for achieving true community safety and peace,” DA Krasner said. “The Philadelphia criminal legal system continues to unwind wrongful convictions and other injustices tied to former detective Philip Nordo’s outrageous crimes with no immediate end in sight – because too many officials in powerful positions tolerated his corruption for too long. Two wrongfully convicted men are exonerated today for a terrible crime – but there is no guarantee that Christopher Lee and his loved ones will ever see justice. I extend my deepest condolences to all who may be still grieving his murder, on behalf of a system that wronged them, too.”

“The expectation that police abide by the law and departmental regulations and wield their specialized powers over civilians responsibly, is necessary for the public to have trust in the system,” CIU Supervisor Michael Garmisa said. “The system’s failure to intervene in 2005 when PPD leadership and the then-District Attorney became aware of Philip Nordo’s disturbing crimes has resulted in incalculable harm to individuals Nordo targeted, the families of murder victims, and the public at-large. The District Attorney’s decision to acknowledge these wrongs is an important step toward regaining the public’s trust.”

Court Vacates 1996 Murder Conviction After DA’s Office Concedes Constitutional Violations

The Court of Common Pleas on Thursday agreed that Eddie Ramirez’s conviction for a brutal 1995 robbery-murder in a Northeast Philadelphia laundromat should be vacated, following a concession by District Attorney Larry Krasner’s administration that Ramirez’s constitutional rights had been violated at his 1996 trial.

Ramirez and co-defendant William Weihe were convicted by a jury for the February 20, 1995, killing of Joyce Dennis – who was found viciously beaten to death late at night, after the laundromat had been robbed of approximately $1,100 in paper currency. With no physical evidence tying him to the crime, Ramirez was convicted of First Degree Murder and sentenced to life imprisonment on the strength of statements from friends implicating him, including testimony from co-defendant Weihe.

In exchange for his cooperation against Ramirez, Weihe was permitted to plead guilty to Third Degree Murder. He served five years in prison before being released. Nearly all statements implicating Ramirez from fellow teenagers in his friend group – several of which were obtained after questioning by a police detective without a partner, guardian, or attorney present – have since been recanted. Several of the witnesses have since independently alleged that they were threatened and coerced by police into implicating Ramirez in the murder.

One of the detectives involved in the investigation, Paul Worrell, is known to the court for a pattern and practice of eliciting false confessions dating back to at least 1992, and has been implicated in other wrongful convictions that have since been vacated.  

After investigating claims made by Ramirez in a Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition and disclosing the full homicide file to defense counsel – which was not the practice of prior DA administrations – the DA’s Law Division Federal Litigation Unit on August 1, 2023, formally informed the court that Ramirez’s constitutional rights had been violated, that new information further undermined the integrity of his murder conviction, and that he should be granted relief.

“I want to thank ADA David Napiorski of our Federal Litigation Unit for conducting a vigorous review of Mr. Ramirez’s PCRA claims, as well as all police and prosecutor materials related to the investigation of the horrific murder of Joyce Dennis – including numerous exculpatory files that were not properly disclosed to defense counsel at trial,” DA Krasner said. “The relief granted today is an acknowledgement that Mr. Ramirez’s rights were violated, that he did not receive a fair trial, and that had certain information not been suppressed by police and prosecutors at the time, that the jury might well have reached a different conclusion. We must also acknowledge the pain and trauma that Joyce Dennis’s loved ones have endured these many years. The criminal legal system also badly failed the victim of a horrendous violent crime and their loved ones.”

Following the vacatur of Ramirez’s conviction, the DA’s Office will conduct another comprehensive review and will inform the court of its intent to re-try or nolle prosse the vacated charges within the next 30 days.

The DA’s response to Ramirez’s PCRA petitions can be found on Information on exonerations — which occur when a court both vacates a conviction and grants a motion to nolle prosse the charges — secured by the CIU and Federal Appeals Unit can be found on the DA’s DATA Dashboard

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