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Arkel Garcia

Other Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania CIU exonerations
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Shortly before 5 p.m. on November 30, 2013, 21-year-old Christian Massey was shot when a man attempted to rob him of his Beats by Dre headphones near 5850 Lebanon Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Two police officers who responded found Massey still alive and took him to the hospital in their squad car.

En route, Massey told the officers that he was attacked from behind by a man who tried to grab the headphones—purchased just a day earlier—and his cell phone. During the struggle, the man shot him. Massey was unable to describe his assailant. Shortly after he arrived at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Massey was pronounced dead.

There was little physical evidence. Police recovered .380-caliber shell casings at the scene. The headphones were recovered and tested for DNA, but nothing of value was found. No witnesses came forward although the case was highly publicized. Massey was well-known in the community. Although he had spent years in foster care and had special needs, he graduated from Marple Newtown High School. He had played varsity football and also played basketball in the Special Olympics.

Within a few days, the police investigation was assigned to Philadelphia Police Detective Philip Nordo. Building security cameras near the scene captured the crime as it occurred, although a power line obscured the face of the attacker. As the investigation progressed, other officers brought in people from the neighborhood who viewed the videos.

One of them was a confidential informant, who was identified only as CI-1436. The informant said that the attacker looked like Arkel Garcia or Malik Byers. The informant said that Garcia, who was 19, had been “going around robbing people in the neighborhood.” Nordo notified officers on the street that he wanted to talk to Garcia.

On December 7, 2013, two officers saw Garcia at a bus stop around 1:20 p.m. at the corner of 54th Street and Lebanon Avenue, about four blocks from the scene of the shooting. They brought him to the homicide unit, where he signed in as a witness at 2:20 p.m. Nordo was off duty and was not informed that Garcia was at the station until later that evening. Nordo arrived at the station around 10:15 a.m. on the following morning, December 8, 2013. Garcia had spent the night sleeping on a table. Although he was not handcuffed, officers later said he could not leave on his own accord and at least a portion of the night was spent in a locked interview room.

Nordo later testified that Garcia first denied involvement in the crime. However, after about 90 minutes, Nordo said, Garcia said that he was with two brothers named Leek and E and they saw Massey at a mini-market on 59th Street. Garcia said the two brothers followed Massey down an alleyway where they robbed and shot him. Garcia said he followed behind them and saw the crime occur.

That account differed considerably with the security videos, which showed only one perpetrator, not three. There was no evidence on the videos that Massey, E, Leek or his attacker were at the mini-market as well.

At that point, Nordo said he gave Garcia his Miranda warning. Garcia then said that he had been with his aunt at 5401 Lebanon Avenue at the time of the crime.

When Nordo asked Garcia if he understood that he did not have to talk to Nordo, Garcia replied, “Yes, I understand. But I didn’t kill anyone and I want to do what you said to me and clear my name.” At 7:30 p.m., Garcia signed a statement saying that Leek shot Massey three times with a .380-caliber pistol. Garcia identified photographs of Leek and E and then gave a video statement that mirrored the written statement. He was then charged with first-degree murder, robbery, and illegal possession of a firearm.

Leek and E were cleared of any involvement in the crime and that evidence would later be presented at Garcia’s trial.

Prior to trial, Garcia’s attorney moved to suppress his statement, claiming that his statement was not voluntary. That motion was denied.

In February 2015, Garcia went to trial in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. No physical or forensic evidence connected him to the crime.

Nordo testified that Garcia told him that he spent four nights at his aunt’s house because he “didn’t want the cops to pick [him] up and…didn’t want to get caught up in this.” Nordo said that a search warrant was executed at the address where Garcia said his aunt lived. The building turned out to be abandoned. Although there were some individuals there, Garcia’s aunt was not present, Nordo said.

During cross-examination, Nordo testified that he decided to speak to Garcia after the informant said he thought the attacker in the videos looked like Garcia. When the defense attorney asked for the identity of the informant, the prosecution objected and the judge said that the name did not have to be revealed.

Garcia’s mother, Lakasha Hardee, testified that he was living with her on Malvern Avenue at the time of the shooting. Hardee testified that between 4:45 p.m. and 5 p.m. on the day of the crime, she heard three gunshots. She said she called Garcia and he came to the kitchen from the basement. She said she asked him if he heard the gunshots and he replied that he was sleepy and went back to the basement.

Hardee admitted that she had told the media that Garcia was on the front porch at the time of the shooting. But, she said, that was incorrect and he was in the basement. The prosecution also confronted Hardee with a portion of a recording of a telephone call she had with Garcia from the jail after his arrest. When asked if she told him that the person in the security videos looked like him, Hardee said that “[i]f that’s what the audio say I said, I did say it.”

Annesa Young testified she was at the home as well, in the basement with Garcia when she heard the gunshots. She said she heard Hardee call for Garcia. She said she also went upstairs into the kitchen.

The prosecution argued to the jury that the inconsistencies between Garcia’s statement and what was seen on the security videos was the result of Garcia attempting to avoid responsibility for the crime. The prosecution also suggested that Garcia was engaged in a sexual relationship with Young, who had testified that she was 14. Specifically, the prosecutor said that “a 19-year-old man should not be with someone unless they are above the age of 16.” The defense objected and asked for a mistrial. The judge overruled the objection and denied the motion for mistrial.

On February 17, 2015, the jury convicted Garcia of second-degree murder, robbery, and illegal possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the convictions in April 2017. The court did rule that the prosecution’s comments about Young and her relationship with Garcia was improper. The Superior Court found the defense objection to this “improper argument should have been sustained,” but at the same time, the Superior Court ruled that the denial of a motion for a mistrial was not an abuse of discretion. The court also noted that Garcia could later file a post-conviction relief act petition based on his lawyer’s failure to raise a pretrial claim that Garcia’s constitutional rights had been violated because he essentially had been held in custody without probable cause to do so.

In September 2017, Nordo was fired as a police officer. In 2019, he was indicted on charges that he forced and coerced witnesses to sign interview statements that were not true recitations of what witnesses said during interviews. The statements could later be used to impeach witnesses who denied saying what was in the statements. He also was accused of submitting fraudulent crime-reward requests to the city of Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office began investigating convictions in which Nordo was involved. In 2017, the illegal weapon conviction of Gerald Camp was vacated and the case was dismissed. In 2018, the District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) began examining Nordo cases. That year, the murder conviction of Jamaal Simmons was vacated and the case was dismissed after a witness testified that he was held in the homicide unit for more than a day and was pressured by Nordo to falsely accuse Simmons. In 2019, two more convictions based on misconduct by Nordo were vacated—the 2012 conviction and life without parole sentence of James Frazier for a double murder and the 2016 murder conviction of Sherman McCoy who falsely confessed during an interrogation by Nordo.

On June 4, 2021, following a re-investigation by the CIU, Garcia’s conviction was vacated, the charges were dismissed, and Garcia was released.

Michael Garmisa, assistant CIU supervisor, and Patricia Cummings, CIU supervisor, filed a motion joined by Garcia’s attorney Robert Mozenter. The motion said that the prosecution had failed to disclose evidence that Nordo engaged in multiple instances of misconduct as a police officer. The prosecution was aware as early as 2005 that Nordo was engaging in misconduct in other cases, the motion declared.

The motion said that Nordo had attempted to sexually groom the confidential informant and failed to reveal that he had obtained favorable treatment for the informant as well as promising to put through a $20,000 reward claim for the informant. That claim was never paid because the informant was charged with murder. In addition, Nordo attempted to sexually groom an acquaintance of Garcia’s who had been questioned during the investigation, the CIU said.

In addition, another detective who worked on the Garcia case, Nathanial Williams, was arrested in 2019 in an unrelated case. He was charged with tampering with public records, unsworn falsification, tampering with evidence, and obstruction of justice.

The CIU said that the security video was “of insufficient quality and from such a vantage-point that no one could be included or excluded as a possible suspect.” The CIU also said that the prosecution had used portions of recorded phone calls from Garcia in jail that were excised to exclude the exculpatory or neutral content of the calls. The CIU noted how the prosecution had portrayed the conversation between Garcia and his mother to suggest that she believed the person in the video resembled Garcia. The prosecution left out that Garcia’s mother said that the person in the video was “heavier than you—and he’s taller than you.”

The CIU said that it was “clear that Garcia’s mother did not say that Garcia was the person in the video.” Moreover, the defense never sought to rebut the prosecution by using the full contents of the recordings, the CIU noted. The recordings of the calls were released only after Garcia’s trial had begun and the defense lawyer contended that he was limited in his ability to try to listen to and decipher the calls while the case was on trial.

The CIU declared, “The Commonwealth’s case against Garcia was never strong. It was based on a purported confession obtained by Nordo, after Nordo was alone with Garcia for two hours. That purported confession did not match the facts of the crime recorded on video.”

“Had the jury known about Nordo’s history of sexually-based official oppression, and his acts toward [the informant and witness] in this case, there is a reasonable probability the jury would have not returned a guilty verdict,” the CIU said.

On the day the case was dismissed, Garmisa said, “Nordo had ulterior motives during this investigation that had nothing to do with solving this murder.”

In June 2021, Nordo and Williams were awaiting trial.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/16/2021
Last Updated: 7/16/2021
State:Pennsylvania
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Gun Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:2013
Convicted:2015
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No