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Obina Onyiah

Other Philadelphia CIU Exonerations
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On October 21, 2010, two men attempted to rob William Glatz Jewelers in northeast Philadelphia. The men entered the store and approached Margaret Colbridge, an employee, and asked her to remove a link from a watch band. They followed her into a back room and one of the men placed a gun to Colbridge’s head. Meanwhile the second man placed a gun to the head of Eric Steiss, another employee, and told him to drop what was in his hand. Steiss dropped a weapon to the floor.

Colbridge then struck one of the men and broke loose. She ran out the front door, yelling for help. The first man told the second man, “Get her. Shoot her.”

The second man ran out the door, but the woman was already at a nearby pharmacy, and the man got in a car waiting around the corner and left.

Inside the store, the first man was still pointing a gun at Steiss. Paul Brewington, a salesman, had his hands down and his back turned to show he wasn’t a threat. William Glatz, the store’s owner, then reached for his gun, and he and the would-be robber fired shots and hit each other. Steiss recovered his weapon and also shot the robber. Glatz died at the hospital. He was 67 years old. The robber, later identified as 22-year-old Kevin Turner, died at the store. He had escaped eight days earlier from Curran Fromhold Correctional Institution, where he was awaiting trial on a weapons charge.

The three witnesses inside the store gave similar descriptions of the second man. Each said he was a thin black man in his late teens, standing about 5’ 8” tall. Another witness who had seen the man running from the store also gave a similar description.

Police recovered the in-store surveillance video. The footage showed Turner visiting the store on each of the two days before the robbery. It also showed the robbery itself and the movements of the two men as they moved about the business. Working from the video, police created a still photo of the second man and released it to the public, where it was shown on TV and published in area newspapers.

On October 23, 2010, Raneisha Carter called the police and said that she believed the man in the photo was Donte Waters, her son’s father. Armed with that information, detectives with the Philadelphia Police Department re-interviewed Colbridge and Steiss. Both employees identified Waters as bearing a resemblance to the second man.

Waters had a previous robbery conviction and had been sent to jail on October 22, 2010 after violating conditions of parole for an unrelated assault arrest in August 2010. They searched Waters’s house on October 24, 2010, and found clothing similar to that worn by the man who ran from the store.

The next day, October 25, 2010, detectives received a call from the girlfriend of Donnell Cheek, who was in jail in Camden County, New Jersey, after being indicted on federal charges of drug possession and robbery. The girlfriend said Cheek had information about the murder.

After getting approval from Cheek’s attorney, detectives interviewed Cheek, and on November 4, 2010, Cheek said the man in the photo was 27-year-old Obina Onyiah, whom he had known since 1997.

At the time, Onyiah had a previous federal robbery conviction. Detectives examined Turner’s cell phone and call records, looking for any connection between the two men. They found none, but Onyiah became the main suspect, replacing Waters.

By now, Detective James Pitts was leading the investigation. On November 8, 2010, police searched Onyiah’s last-known address, his mother’s house. They didn’t find anything connecting him to the shooting. His mother said Onyiah had not lived there in months. Detectives also interviewed his sister, Christine Onyiah, and showed her the photo captured from the surveillance video. In his report, Pitts said that Christine identified the man in the photo as her brother.

Christine also agreed to help the police, calling her brother and arranging to meet him near a restaurant. When Onyiah showed up, just before 3 p.m., the police took him into custody.

While Onyiah waited at the police station, officers searched the house where he was living with his girlfriend, Katherine Cardona. Nothing was found, and Cardona said detectives then took her to the police station, where she sat outside the interrogation room.

According to police records, the interview with Onyiah began at 10:50 p.m., more than seven hours after he was taken into custody. The records said Onyiah was read his rights and then waived them. After being questioned, he signed a statement acknowledging his role in the robbery and murder at the jewelry store. Although all this activity took place on November 8 and the early morning of November 9, Onyiah wasn’t formally arrested until November 10, 2010, charged with second-degree murder, robbery, and numerous firearms violations.

Following his arrest, Colbridge, Steiss and Brewington went to view a live line-up. Colbridge and Steiss picked Onyiah out of the six men in the lineup. Brewington said he wasn’t sure.

Prior to the start of Onyiah’s trial in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, his attorneys moved to suppress his statement to police, arguing that Pitts and other officers had beaten Onyiah while he was in custody.

During a hearing on the motion to suppress on May 22, 2013, Cardona testified that she heard Onyiah screaming while the detectives interrogated him. She said she heard loud “thumps” and two men tell Onyiah to stop “f’ing around and tell us the truth.” She later heard him tell the police to stop hitting him and that he hadn’t done anything wrong.

At one point, Cardona said, a detective came out of the interrogation room, sat down next to her and expressed frustration. She said, “He’s like, ‘Man, this is not our guy.’” Cardona said that when Pitts came out of the interrogation room, she asked him what was happening. He told her to mind her own business.

Pitts testified at the suppression hearing. He said that he never touched Onyiah and that Cardona was lying about being at the police station. As proof, he noted that her name wasn’t in the Homicide Unit’s log of visitors and witnesses. In addition, prosecutors said that Onyiah’s booking photo, taken on November 10, showed no bruises on his face.

Onyiah did not testify at the suppression hearing. He would later say that the detectives beat him on the chest and shoulders to avoid leaving bruises that would be easily noticed by jailers or court officials. Judge Sandy L.V. Byrd denied his motion to suppress.

The trial began on May 23, 2013. Prior to trial, both sides had stipulated to a police report that said fingerprints found on the jewelry store display case could not be attributed to Onyiah, Turner or a third man, Jamal Hicks, whom police believed was involved in the robbery.

At trial, Colbridge and Steiss identified Onyiah as the second robber. Brewington, who had failed to make an identification after the live lineup, now also identified Onyiah. He said that he was able to do so after he independently reviewed the videotapes.

Jeremy Carrion, Onyiah’s parole officer, testified that Onyiah was the same person as in the still photo taken from the video. Cheek also identified Onyiah as the man in the photo. He testified that he had received a favorable sentencing recommendation in exchange for his testimony. Onyiah’s mother, Nena Agwu, testified that it was a case of mistaken identity. She said her son’s nose was longer and his face squarer than the person in the still photo.

Cardona testified about what she said she heard when she sat outside the interrogation room.

Carter testified for the state. While she didn’t retract her initial statement to the police, she said that she had called the police the day after a domestic-violence issue between her and Waters, when she was mad at him.

Pitts testified first about the investigation itself. He said he had not beaten Onyiah. At the pre-trial hearing, he had testified that he hadn’t spoken with Waters prior to dropping him as a suspect. But now Pitts told jurors that he had interviewed Waters at the Homicide division and then re-watched the surveillance video before “clearing” him as a suspect. There was no record of this interview in police reports.

Central to Onyiah’s defense was a key fact. He was 6’ 3” tall, and the eyewitnesses had all said the second robber was about 5’ 8” tall. That approximate height had even been included in the police department media release that included the still photo. Pitts testified that the release had been wrong and that the eyewitnesses had been mistaken about the second robber’s height. He did not say how the police arrived at this conclusion.

Detective Thorsten Lucke testified about the video footage and said that the two robbers in the video were about the same height. (Turner was 6’ 1”.) He said: “My personal opinion is that the height of the two would be close to each other because, again, we're looking at it from an angle from above and the second person appears to be several feet behind the first person; and therefore, you would see more of him than the person that's closer to the camera.”

During cross-examination, Onyiah’s attorneys attempted to show Lucke lacked the skill to testify about the heights of the suspects.

Lucke said he wasn’t testifying about how tall a person was, but rather the relative size between people in the video. But he said such an analysis was possible. “There is a way,” Lucke said. “It’s beyond my expertise to give you a height for either, other than to point out a difference between the two.”

He continued, “In order to determine height from a video – and again, I am not an expert in that, I have seen it done and I know a little bit about it, it all has to do with the resolution, the angles of the camera in reference so that you can – yes, it helps to have a fixed object in order to determine a moving person's height.”

Lucke also said that he had not consulted with any experts to do this work. He testified that the process was very elaborate and that he had only used these experts twice in six years.

Onyiah’s attorneys didn’t present any expert testimony of their own on height comparisons based on the video footage. At the conclusion of the trial, the court read a jury instruction on expert witnesses, thus implying that Lucke had been an expert, not a lay, witness.

The jury convicted Onyiah on May 31, 2013 of second-degree murder, three counts of robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, and a violation of the Uniform Firearms Act. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Separately, Onyiah pled guilty to an unrelated 2009 robbery on December 9, 2014 and was sentenced on February 27, 2015 to between eight and 20 years in prison, to run concurrently with his life sentence.

On October 13, 2017, Onyiah’s appellate attorney, Teri Himebaugh, filed a motion for post-conviction relief. The motion said that Onyiah’s trial attorneys had provided ineffective representation.

First, they had not let Onyiah testify at the suppression hearing, which would have corroborated Cardona’s testimony that Onyiah was beaten before he gave a statement. While Onyiah didn’t testify at the trial, in part because his previous federal robbery conviction could have been introduced to jurors, no such danger existed at the suppression hearing.

Second, the motion said the attorneys had not vigorously cross-examined Pitts and forced him to explain how Waters had been eliminated as a suspect.

Third, the motion said the attorneys had failed to adequately challenge or exclude Lucke’s testimony, which buttressed the state’s case that Onyiah was the other robber in the surveillance video. Prosecutors presented Lucke as a lay witness, but Himebaugh said Lucke "impermissibly testified as an (unqualified) expert witness," and his testimony went far beyond his perception of events and relied on technical and scientific expertise that Lucke acknowledged he lacked.

Separately, since Onyiah’s conviction, additional information had emerged about Pitts and his interrogation tactics. In June 2017, Judge M. Teresa Sarmina held a four-day hearing based on a petition filed by attorneys for Dwayne Thorpe, who claimed that Pitts had threatened a witness in order to secure his testimony against Thorpe in a murder trial.

At the hearing, 10 witnesses detailed how Pitts extracted false statements from them. Thorpe’s motion was granted, and he was exonerated in 2019. Pitts’s misconduct was also a factor in the exoneration of Hassan Bennett.

This history from Thorpe’s hearing was included in Onyiah’s motion, which said this pattern supported Onyiah’s claim that he was beaten while in custody.

Before Onyiah’s motion was heard, the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) of the District Attorney’s Office (DAO) of Philadelphia County began its own investigation into the case, including a new examination of the surveillance video. By now, the jewelry store was closed, making it impossible for a measurement of fixed items, such as door frames.

The CIU hired George Reis, a forensic video analyst based in California. He analyzed still shots of the video, using the known heights of people in the frames, such as Turner and the employees, as well as reference points such as the display cases. He concluded that the second suspect was no taller than 5’ 11”, including his hat.

Reis recommended that a second analyst independently examine this evidence. Scott Kuntz, a forensic analyst in Wisconsin, examined the footage. He reached the same conclusion as Reis.

These findings were presented in the state’s answer to Onyiah’s motion as well as a joint stipulation by the CIU and Himebaugh. Neither document addressed the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel, but the stipulation said the evidence showed Onyiah was innocent of this robbery.

“Onyiah is 6’3”, so the video analysis has conclusively excluded Onyiah as the thin black male seen in the surveillance video," the stipulation said. "In other words, Onyiah is at least four inches taller than the second suspect, the thin black male seen in the video.”

The responses also said that Pitts’s history of misconduct, including three documented incidents prior to Onyiah’s conviction, were not disclosed. The CIU said there is no evidence that prosecutors knew about this misconduct. Disclosure wasn’t the practice at the time.

“As part of its investigation of this case as well as its investigation into other cases involving Detective Pitts,” the joint stipulation said, “the CIU discovered that the DAO had a general policy where it not only did not obtain and disclose such records to defense counsel, it notified defense counsel of said policy and advised defense counsel that they should subpoena such records themselves.”

On May 4, 2021, Judge Tracy Brandeis-Roman granted Onyiah’s motion to vacate his conviction and then approved the dismissal of the charges. Onyiah remains in prison on the unrelated robbery conviction.

“The violations that occurred during the original investigation and trial led to the conviction of the wrong man, while the individual actually responsible for William Glatz’s murder has evaded accountability,” said CIU Supervisor Patricia Cummings. “The integrity of our criminal legal system demands accountability from all actors, most especially from those with the power and authority to deprive people of their freedom, whether that be for days at a time during an interrogation, months following an arrest, and for decades after a conviction.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 5/22/2021
Last Updated: 6/2/2021
State:Pennsylvania
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2010
Convicted:2013
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:27
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No