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.
Arkel Garcia, then 19, confessed to the 2013 slaying during an interrogation by former Detective Philip Nordo of the Philadelphia Police Department. However, a judge reversed his conviction Friday after both sides presented evidence that Nardo had sexually groomed witnesses in the case and prosecutors had suppressed his misconduct.
The victim, 21-year-old Christian Massey, was apparently killed 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 explained that new testing on the DNA found on the headphones, which were left at the scene, have 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 groomed and propositioned by Nardo, they 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 because of a serious gunshot wound.
“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.
Mozenter had declined to take the murder case initially because Garcia’s family could not afford his fees. Years later, after appeals failed, Garcia wrote a pro se petition that gained traction as Nordo was coming under investigation. Mozenter then signed on to help.
Garcia is not yet out of prison, however, and was not in court Friday to hear the judge undo his conviction. 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 that Mozenter still needs to address.
He hopes to resolve it 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 the detective made with the confidential witness in the case, who was groomed, sexually lured and promised money from the detective, according to the document.
Nordo also made sexual advances on Garcia, asking him to view pornography with him. Garcia refused, his lawyer said.
Nordo was set to go on trial in March 2020, just as the court shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. His trial is now set for October. His lawyer did not have an immediate comment on Garcia's case.
Mozenter hopes his client, who never finished high school, will be out of prison by then 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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Maryclaire Dale, The Associated Press