A young man serving life without parole was exonerated Friday in the death of a special-needs athlete in a case stained by a Philadelphia detective now charged with sexually assaulting witnesses.
Prosecutors say at least eight murder cases have fallen apart, before or after conviction, because of the involvement of former Detective Philip Nordo. He’s been in custody since 2017, accused of stalking, intimidating and sexually assaulting male suspects and witnesses during his career. His trial is set for October.
In the latest case to unravel, a judge Friday reversed the 2015 conviction of Arkel Garcia, who confessed to murder during an interrogation in which, his lawyer said, Nordo asked the teenager to view pornography with him. The ruling came after both sides presented evidence that Nordo had sexually groomed witnesses in the case and trial prosecutors had suppressed his misconduct.
The victim, 21-year-old Christian Massey, was apparently killed in November 2013 for his $300 headphones, a pair of Beats by Dre he had bought just the day before. His family listened in court Friday as prosecutors said that new testing on DNA found at the scene has not helped identify another suspect.
Nordo, 55, was fired from the force after his 2017 arrest in a lengthy indictment that charges him with 38 counts of rape, institutional sexual assault, stalking and other crimes.
Garcia, now 27, had been identified by a confidential witness who was paid and propositioned by Nordo, prosecutors said. And his confession made little sense. He told the detective there were two accomplices in the alley with him, although security footage showed only one assailant. He also identified the shooter as a man prosecutors say could not have pulled the trigger. Garcia’s mother insisted he was home at the time.
“Look, it’s sad for everybody. The shooter was never found, they never arrested anybody for this homicide, an innocent man was convicted unlawfully, and there’s no peace for this family,” defense lawyer Robert Mozenter said after the hearing.
The case marks the 21st exoneration for the office of District Attorney Larry Krasner, who frequently sued police during his long career as a civil rights lawyer.
Massey, beloved as a “gentle giant,” had played football and basketball in high school and competed in Special Olympics.
“Nordo used the investigation of Massey’s murder as an opportunity to groom two individuals he sexually exploited. Both testified before investigating grand juries,” Assistant District Attorney Michael Garmisa told the judge Friday. Had the jury known that, he said, it might not have returned a guilty verdict.
Garcia is not yet out of prison, however, and was not in court Friday. As he was being sentenced in 2015, he snapped, getting into a brawl with court security officers. That cost him an additional five- to 10-year term.
Mozenter hopes to resolve the issue quickly since Garcia has served seven of those years.
“He was an angry young man, and who wouldn’t be under these circumstances?” Mozenter said. “The whole criminal justice system in this case failed him from the moment he was arrested. The courts failed him. His lawyers failed him. The DA failed him.”
That office, under a former district attorney, failed to disclose exculpatory evidence about Nordo, according to a stipulation signed by both sides. It includes transcripts of prison calls he made with the confidential witness in the case.
Nordo’s lawyer did not have an immediate comment on Garcia’s case, but has previously said Nordo maintains his innocence.
Mozenter hopes his client, who never finished high school, will be out of prison long before his trial — and out of Philadelphia.
The plan, he said, is “we get him out, get him to go to a trade school and go to high school, and get the hell out of this city, because the streets here are terrible.”
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