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Following Grand Jury Investigation, PPD Homicide Det. James Pitts Charged for Role in 2013 Wrongful Murder Conviction

PHILADELPHIA (March 3, 2022) District Attorney Larry Krasner on Thursday announced the arrest of veteran Philadelphia Police Homicide Detective James Pitts, after an Investigating Grand Jury recommended he be criminally charged for his role in a 2013 wrongful conviction for murder.

In a presentment that was unsealed by the Court of Common Pleas today, the Thirty-First Philadelphia County Investigating Grand Jury recommended that the District Attorney charge Detective Pitts with two counts of Perjury (F3) and three counts of Obstructing Administration of Law (M2) for an allegedly violent interrogation of Obina Onyiah in 2010 and false trial testimony in 2013. On May 4, 2021, the Court of Common Pleas vacated Onyiah’s murder conviction and dismissed all charges against him after 11 years of incarceration with support from the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), making him the 20th individual exonerated under DA Krasner’s administration. A total of 24 exonerations have been secured since 2018, the vast majority resulting from wrongful homicide convictions under former DA Lynne Abraham, followed by former DA Seth Williams.

Onyiah had been convicted of a gunpoint attempted robbery and murder of William Glatz at his jewelry store on October 21, 2010. One male accomplice was killed during a shootout with Glatz before he was fatally shot, and a second male accomplice, described by surviving witnesses as “very slight of build” and 5’7” or 5’8”, escaped. Onyiah, who s 6’3”, was implicated by a jailhouse informant and gave a false confession to Detective Pitts.  

According to the Investigating Grand Jury presentment released today, “Homicide Detective James Pitts not only obtained Onyiah’s purported confession to the crime, he also served as a critical witness for the Commonwealth at trial…. During his trial in 2013, Onyiah argued unsuccessfully that the purported confession obtained by Detective Pitts had been physically coerced, making it both involuntary and illegal. Later, during post-conviction proceedings initiated by Onyiah, new scientific evidence provided by photogrammetry experts demonstrated the falseness of Onyiah’s purported confession.”

The presentment continues, “At bottom, this Grand Jury finds that Onyiah’s wrongful conviction occurred because Detective Pitts physically coerced Onyiah during the 2010 interrogation, and made materially false statements about that interrogation while testifying under oath in his official capacity as an employee of the PPD.”  

The Grand Jury recommended Perjury charges for Pitts’ “subsequent illegal acts of lying under oath” during a 2013 pretrial motion hearing and jury trial of Onyiah for the attempted robbery of Glatz Jewelry Store in Northeast Philadelphia and murder of William Glatz.  

For these reasons, and at the recommendation of the Grand Jury, the DA’s Office has charged Pitts as follows:

  • For the assaultive acts without lawful justification on November 8, 2010: 1 count of Obstructing Administration of Law (M2)

  • For the testimonial acts of May 22, 2013: 1 count of Perjury (F3), 1 count of Obstructing Administration of Law (M2)

  • For the testimonial acts of May 29, 2013: 1 count of Perjury (F3), 1 count of Obstructing Administration of Law (M2)

DA Krasner said: “As with all criminally charged defendants, Detective Pitts is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. This remains an open and active criminal investigation. Members of the public who wish to report potential crimes of public corruption or official misconduct may do so by contacting the Special Investigations Unit at [email protected].”

Detective Pitts’ history of allegations of official misconduct were conceded by the Commonwealth during proceedings related to Onyiah’s 2021 exoneration and reaffirmed by the Investigating Grand Jury presentment, which states:

“Detective Pitts became a police officer in 1996 and was promoted to detective in 1999. He joined the PPD Homicide Unit as a detective in July 2006. He remained active in that unit throughout Onyiah’s 2013 trial. Although he was administratively reassigned, Detective Pitts remains a PPD employee. 

“This Grand Jury finds that Detective Pitts was acting within his official capacity as a PPD employee when he committed these crimes.”

The Grand Jury also issued findings regarding Pitts’ conduct based on witness testimony that was separate and apart from his alleged conduct related to the William Glatz murder investigation and wrongful conviction of Onyiah, parts of which are described in the presentment:  

“The Grand Jury considered the substance of a single PPD Internal Affairs investigation… because it sustained a finding against Detective Pitts for an off-duty act of domestic violence, in which he punched his then-wife one time in the stomach, and specifically did not sustain Detective Pitts’ false allegation that his spouse struck him in the face during the incident. This resulted in a guilty verdict for the charge of Conduct Unbecoming an Officer by the Police Board of Inquiry (‘PBI’). The IA investigation reveals that police officers responded to Detective Pitts’ apartment after his wife [also a PPD officer] called 911 to report the fact that Detective Pitts punched her [in] the stomach, causing her to fall to the floor, which occurred during the pendency of divorce proceedings. Detective Pitts lied to the responding officers by falsely claiming that his wife assaulted him. Later, Detective Pitts repeated this lie in a formal written statement to IA investigators who were investigating this act of domestic violence.

“In both instances, Detective Pitts described an injury to his eye (that he had self-inflicted) in an effort to fabricate evidence that would substantiate his false allegation that his wife hit him first. The injury was not observed by any of the officers who saw Detective Pitts at the scene of the crime.” 

The presentment continues:

“This evidence is not necessary for this Grand Jury to recommend charges. However, the Grand Jury finds that Detective Pitts made false statements on October 28, 2002, during an official investigation by IA, and did so in an effort to cover-up the fact that he illegally assaulted his wife….

“[The] Grand Jury finds that while acting in his official capacity Detective Pitts habitually used coercive interrogations techniques when interviewing suspects and witnesses in the Homicide Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department, and lied under oath to conceal his criminal acts.”  

The Grand Jury presentment can be found on the PhillyDA.org website.

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The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million residents of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for the prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually. Learn more about the DAO by visiting PhillyDA.org.