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George Cortez

Other Philadelphia CIU Exonerations
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At about 8:33 p.m. on April 13, 2011, a gunman opened fire on West York Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, killing 34-year-old Nafis Murray and wounding the woman with him, 40-year-old Talena Johnson.

Johnson told police that she saw a flash, heard gunshots and recognized the gunman as 30-year-old George Cortez, whom she had met about a year earlier. A security surveillance video happened to record the incident and authorities believed the gunman resembled Cortez.

In May 2011, police arrested Cortez and charged him with first-degree murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and illegal use of a firearm.

Cortez went to trial in Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas in January 2012. Johnson testified and identified him as the gunman.

Cortez’s defense attorney presented a receipt from a bakery that was time-stamped at 6:56 p.m. and contended that Cortez had picked up the cake for a birthday celebration for his son, Elias. Cortez, according to the defense, took the cake home and then went pick up his wife when she got off work at 8 p.m.

Cortez’s wife, Natasha Padgett, testified that Cortez picked her up at work across town at 8 p.m. and that at the time of the shooting, they were home celebrating Elias’s birthday. A security video showed Cortez’s car picking up Padgett at her place of work, although the driver could not be seen.

Cortez’s defense attorney hoped to corroborate this alibi by presenting a cell phone video taken after Cortez took the cake home and before he left to pick up his wife. The video showed Elias sitting at a table with the cake, pretzels and cheese curls, and licking some icing. Padgett testified that Cortez’s voice was on the video.

During her testimony, Padgett played the video, but it was only visible to herself. Cortez’s attorney had not figured out how to remove the video from the phone to project it onto a large screen for the jury, so at the conclusion of her testimony—on the next to the last day of the trial—the judge suggested that the prosecution might have some “AV experts” who could determine how to project the video.

The following day, the prosecution reported that Cortez’s attorney had turned over the cell phone “to see if they could play the video.” The prosecutor reported that Detective Christopher Tankeliwicz had been assigned to extract the video.

Tankeliwicz was called as a witness and testified that the video was time-stamped at 6:28 p.m.—well before the cake was picked up based on the cake receipt that was time-stamped at 6:56 p.m.

The prosecution argued to the jury that the cell phone video had been created after Cortez was charged with the crime in an attempt to create an alibi.

On January 27, 2011, Cortez was convicted of first-degree murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and illegal use of a firearm. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

By 2014, Cortez was represented by new attorneys who filed a motion for post-conviction relief. The motion presented evidence showing that the cell phone had a glitch that prevented the phone from automatically switching to Daylight Saving Time. As a result, although the phone showed the video as taken at 6:28 p.m., it actually was recorded at 7:28 p.m.—which was consistent with the assertions of Cortez and his wife that he picked up the cake at 6:56 p.m. and dropped it off at home where he recorded the video of Elias, prior to picking up Padgett.

In addition, the motion said that another witness to the shooting had come forward days after the crime and reported to police that he believed the gunman was Cortez’s brother, Owen, who bore a resemblance to Cortez. Cortez’s defense lawyer had failed to investigate that witness or call him to testify at the trial.

The case was referred to the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit. When a re-investigation concluded that Tankeliwicz’s analysis of the cell phone video was incorrect, the prosecution agreed that the motion for a new trial should be granted.

In March 2015, the motion was granted and Cortez’s conviction was vacated. Cortez remained in custody for more than a year, until April 22, 2016, when the prosecution dismissed the charges and Cortez was released.
 
During the re-investigation, the prosecution obtained information from George Cortez and his mother that indicated that Owen Cortez had committed the crime.
 
The day after George Cortez was released, Owen Cortez was arrested and charged with Murray's murder. In October 2016, Cortez pled guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 18 to 36 years in prison.
 
On June 27, 2016, George Cortez was fatally shot and police suspected he was targeted by friends of Murray, the man Cortez was once convicted of murdering.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/14/2016
Last Updated: 11/15/2016
State:Pennsylvania
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Illegal Use of a Weapon, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:2011
Convicted:2012
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:30
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No