Philadelphia detective accused of beating confession out of an innocent man who was convicted of murder

Officer James Pitts is accused of forcing a confession out of a man who couldn’t have been involved in the crime.

 Philadelphia Police Department headquarters at 7th and Race streets (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY, file)

Philadelphia Police Department headquarters at 7th and Race streets (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY, file)

A veteran Philadelphia homicide detective now faces charges for a violent interrogation of a suspect who spent 11 years in prison before being exonerated for the murder of a jewelry store owner.

Detective James Pitts is accused of assaulting Obina Onyiah during an interrogation into the 2010 murder. After the alleged beating, Onyiah confessed, and eventually served 11 years in prison for a murder of jewelry store owner William Glatz. A crime he did not commit.

Onyiah was cleared of all charges last May.

“The grand jury recommended charges related to the conduct in the interrogation room, punching with a closed fist, poking or as Mr. Onyiah described it as ‘doinking’ him in the chest and grabbing him by the neck and forcing his head down between his legs,” said Mike Garmisa, supervisor of the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit.

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Garmisa said Pitts is also accused of perjury at a pretrial hearing for lying about allegedly coercing the confession out of Onyiah.

After a thorough review of the video from the jewelry store robbery, the grand jury found that Onyiah could not have been the robber since the person who escaped was no taller than 5’11”, while Onyiah is 6’3” tall.

District Attorney Larry Krasner said there had been rumors about the activities of Detective Pitts for years. He added that charging Pitts will help strengthen his office’s ability to convince other witnesses to come forward to testify.

Krasner said he cannot calculate the enormous damage that was done to a public sense of trust in law enforcement by those kinds of tactics.

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Almost two dozen cases have been overturned with the assistance of the Conviction Integrity Unit since Krasner took office just over four years ago. He hopes this will help bring more victims and witnesses forward to testify in cases in the future.

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