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Rafiq Dixon

Other Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Rafiq_Dixon%20with%20family%20and%20Cooley.jpeg
At about 8 p.m. on April 27, 2011, Devon Collins and Shaquil Gressom were walking by a convenience store at the intersection of 51st and Race Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when 40-year-old Joseph Pinkney approached and offered to sell them Xanax pills. Before any transaction occurred, a man with a shirt wrapped around the lower half of his face came up, holding a pistol.

Pinkney, Collins and Gressom fled. The gunman chased Pinkney and fired multiple shots. Pinkney eventually collapsed in a store. He had been shot seven times and died.

The convenience store’s security camera showed that Collins immediately ran when the gunman first accosted Pinkney. Gressom was not seen in the video. The video did not capture anything after the men fled. Neither Gressom nor Collins contacted police immediately after the shooting.

On May 8, 2011, Zelenia Lomax told police that 29-year-old Rafiq Dixon had threatened to kill Pinkney. Lomax, who was dating a cousin of Pinkney’s, said that Dixon had purchased a defective cell phone from Pinkney and as a result, Dixon and some of his friends had jumped Pinkney. In response, Lomax said, Pinkney approached Dixon’s mother, Sonya Dixon, and the two “had words.” After Sonya told Rafiq about Pinkney threatening her, Dixon told Lomax, “I’m going to kill him when I see [him]; won’t nobody know what I did.” Lomax said she offered Dixon $100 to forget the matter, but Dixon said that “he didn’t want the money…it wasn’t about the money.” Lomax could not recall when any of these conversations occurred.

On May 16, 2011, police picked up Collins, who was questioned by the lead detective, Philip Nordo. According to Collins’s typewritten statement, he and Gressom were talking to Pinkney when the gunman shot Pinkney. Collins said he recognized the gunman as “Feek,” the nickname for Dixon. Collins identified Dixon in a photographic lineup. The statement contained no mention of the gunman wearing anything to mask his identity.

On May 22, 2011, police picked up Gressom for questioning. He said he didn’t know the gunman and that he “froze” when he saw the gunman accost Pinkney. He said he ran down Race Street after the first shot. He claimed that he looked back as he ran and saw the gunman shoot Pinkney four times. Gressom also identified Dixon from a photographic array. And like Collins’s statement, nothing was mentioned about the gunman wearing anything on his face.

An arrest warrant was issued for Dixon. On July 6, 2011, he was arrested in the basement of a home as he tried to flee when officers entered the home. Dixon was charged with first-degree murder and illegal possession of a firearm.

A preliminary hearing was held on October 5, 2011. Gressom testified that the gunman had a shirt around his face and all he could see were the gunman’s eyes. When the prosecutor asked Gressom if he could identify the gunman, Gressom said, “Not really.”

The prosecutor then asked, “Do you see the person in the room that was there that night?”

“No,” Gressom replied.

The prosecutor then impeached Gressom with his statement to police in which he identified Dixon. Gressom then identified Dixon in court.

During cross-examination, Gressom said he smoked marijuana every day. He said he was high at the time of the shooting because he had just smoked a bag of it. He said the shooting “happened real quick,” and that he ran after the first shot because was “scared to death.” He said he had never seen the gunman before. Gressom claimed that he had, in fact, told the detectives the gunman had a shirt covering his nose and mouth.

Gressom also testified during cross-examination that he picked Dixon out of the photographic lineup because the police told him to pick Dixon. “I didn’t pick it out,” Gressom said. “They [detectives] picked it out. I ain’t know who this man is.”

“Why did you sign it?” Dixon’s attorney asked.

“So I could go home,” Gressom said. “I wasn’t there that long. They was gonna keep me if I wasn’t going to tell them nothing.”

Collins testified that he did not see where the gunman came from, and he did not see the gunman shoot Pinkney because he fled as soon as he saw the shooter’s weapon. Collins said that he returned to the corner store a few days after the shooting and viewed surveillance footage. Collins claimed he recognized Dixon as the gunman by watching the video, although he never came to police to report the identification. He said he figured it was “none of my business.”

During cross-examination, Collins said he ran after the first shot, not after just seeing the gun. He also said he was able to identify Dixon because the shirt was “coming down.”

Collins said that when he was picked up, detectives told him he was under investigation for a homicide. He said he was handcuffed to a chair for two days before making the identification of Dixon. He also said he had been arrested in July 2011 on a material witness warrant and was still on house arrest at the time of the preliminary hearing.

Dixon was bound over for trial, which began in July 2012 in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.

Gressom testified, “Somebody came around the corner with a gun and just waved it and I just stood there.” He said the gunman stood there for a second and then approached Pinkney. The gunman was pointing it at Pinkney, holding the gun in both hands. Gressom said he heard Pinkney say, “Stop, chill, don’t, don’t.” Gressom backed up and ran after the first shot. He said he heard four more shots.

Gressom now said that the gunman did not have “anything covering his face.” After first saying he “really couldn’t” see the gunman’s face, Gressom then said he had “seen his face.

“Did the shooter have his face covered or not?” the prosecutor asked.

“No,” Gressom said.

“Did you see the shooter’s face?”

“Yes,” Gressom said. “I seen the man’s face. He is in this courtroom. He is right there. There is no if, ands or buts.” He said he had picked Dixon out in a photographic array.

During cross-examination, Gressom was confronted with his preliminary hearing testimony, when he said the gunman had a shirt around his face. Gressom said his preliminary hearing testimony “was a lie.”

Dixon’s defense lawyer noted that Gressom had said at the preliminary hearing that detectives told him to pick Dixon’s photograph. Gressom claimed that his preliminary hearing testimony was not true. Gressom admitted that he gave a statement initially to police because the police told him he was not going home until he gave one.

When the defense asked Gressom once more, “So, you didn’t know who that man was they were showing you? They told you to pick that picture out, didn’t they?”

“Yeah,” Gressom said.

When the cross-examination was finished, the first question asked by the prosecutor was: “Do you agree that you just said two different things to me and to defense counsel just now about who picked out the person’s picture who did the shooting?”

Gressom then backtracked and said he picked Dixon on his own. He also said that when the gunman came around the corner, he was holding the gun in one hand and holding a T-shirt over his nose with his other hand. He said the shirt came down for a “split second,” allowing him to capture a glimpse of the gunman’s face.

Collins testified that he recognized the gunman as Dixon, whom he knew as “Feek.” Collins said the gunman had a shirt around his face, exposing only his eyes and nose. Collins said that the video showed that as the gunman turned the corner, the shirt fell from face.

However, during cross-examination, the defense played the video to show the jury that the shirt did not fall.

“You can’t see his face there, can you?” the defense attorney asked.

“No,” Collins said.

“As a matter of fact, what you do see is a person round around the corner with something over his head. Isn’t that right?”

“Yes,” Collins replied.

Collins said he gave his statement to police after he was picked up and taken to the station, where he was handcuffed to a chair in an interrogation room. He said he was questioned for two days before giving a statement.

Lomax testified that she knew Pinkney because she dated his cousin. Over defense objection, Lomax said that two or three weeks before his death, Pinkney and Dixon were fighting over a cell phone. Lomax said that based on her conversation with Pinkney, she went to Dixon’s house. She claimed that Dixon told her Pinkney had pulled a gun on his mother.

Lomax testified, “At one point I was like all of this is about a cell phone. I could give you a few dollars and [Dixon] said to me, ‘If I kill him, nobody would know because he burnt so many people in the neighborhood.” She said she offered Dixon $100, but he said, “It ain’t about the money.”

The jury began deliberating on July 19 and continued to deliberate on July 20, 24, and 25. The jury requested numerous exhibits, including the surveillance video, the crime scene photos, the photographic arrays, and the testimony of Collins and Lomax. At one point, the jury said it was deadlocked—unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The judge instructed them to continue deliberating and on July 25, 2012, the jury convicted Dixon of first-degree murder and illegal possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the conviction and sentence in 2014.

In 2015, Dixon filed a Post-Conviction Review Act petition seeking a new trial. Attorney Craig Cooley filed an amended petition in 2016. The petition claimed that Dixon had received an inadequate legal defense because his trial defense lawyer failed to call Ima Francis. The petition said that Francis would have testified that at the time of the shooting, Dixon was with her and their two sons more than four miles away at their residence at 622 Spruce Street in Darby, Pennsylvania.

The petition also said that the trial defense attorney had failed to call Dixon’s mother, Sonya, as a witness to rebut Lomax’s testimony. “Before trial, Mr. Dixon informed trial counsel Lomax’s statement was completely false, including the claim Pinkney ‘had words with’ or ‘threatened’ his mother,” the petition said. “Sonya Dixon would have testified that she did not know a Joseph Pinkney, that a Joseph Pinkney never had words with her about being jumped by Mr. Dixon, and that a Joseph Pinkney never threatened her with a gun.”

Dixon asked his lawyer to talk to Sonya, but he never did, the petition said. The police reports confirmed that Sonya and Dixon had not communicated in months. On June 4, 2011, Detective Nordo noted that he had interviewed Sonya in an attempt to locate Dixon. The report said, “[M]other explains of a physical fight between herself & Rafiq out front of the house six months ago—haven’t seen or heard from him since nor do they know of a cell phone #--cell phone contacts checked—no cell phone numbers found and nothing to indicate fugitive lives in that residence.”

The trial judge, Rose DeFino-Nastasi, denied the petition without a hearing in November 2017.

In April 2019, the Pennsylvania Superior Court vacated the dismissal and ordered a hearing be held. The court noted that Judge DeFino-Nastasi had relied heavily upon the testimony of Collins and Gressom to decide that calling Ima Francis or Sonya Dixon would not have made any difference in the outcome of the trial. The judge said the evidence of Dixon’s guilt was “overwhelming.”

“Our review of the record indicates otherwise,” the Superior Court said. Beginning with the preliminary hearing and continuing at the trial, testimony from Collins and Gressom was “riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions, and both witnesses were impeached by the prosecutor and [defense] counsel at the preliminary hearing and the trial,” the court said.

“Other than blurry video, the Commonwealth presented no physical evidence linking Dixon to the shooting or the crime scene (i.e. a weapon, fingerprints, clothing etc.)” the court said.

“Moreover, the jury deliberated for four days, submitted eleven questions to the court during that time, and was also temporarily deadlocked,” the court said, emphasizing its point by using text highlighted in bold. “Based on the questionable evidence linking Dixon to this crime, and the jury’s struggle in deliberations, if the jury found the alibi witness credible, Dixon could have been acquitted.”

That same month, the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) dismissed the murder conviction of James Frazier because it was indelibly tainted by misconduct by Detective Nordo.

Nordo first came under judicial scrutiny in 2017 in the illegal firearm possession case of Gerald Camp. In that case, evidence showed that Nordo and the prosecution’s key witness had been communicating frequently. Nordo had promised to intervene in a criminal case against the witness, who was in prison. In addition, comments were made suggesting that Nordo and the male witness had a sexual relationship. Nordo also had deposited at least $400 in the witness’s prison commissary account.

In November 2017, Nordo was suspended with intent to dismiss after an investigation showed he paid a witness in another case. A criminal investigation commenced.

On December 6, 2018, following an investigation by the CIU, the murder conviction of Jamaal Simmons was vacated and dismissed based on misconduct by Nordo.

​​In February 2019, Nordo was indicted on charges of sexually assaulting witnesses and suspects, including once in an interrogation room. On June 1, 2022, a jury convicted him on two assault charges​, as well as ​obstruction of justice, and official oppression.

On April 19, 2019—10 days before the dismissal of Dixon’s PCRA was reversed—the CIU dismissed Frazier's case.

In May 2019, the CIU dismissed the 2016 murder conviction of Sherman McCoy, who falsely confessed during an interrogation by Nordo. And in 2021, the CIU obtained a dismissal of the 2015 murder conviction of Arkel Garcia, who had been sentenced to life in prison without parole after Nordo obtained a false confession from him.

Cooley filed an amended PCRA detailing Nordo’s misconduct and claiming that Dixon’s trial had been unfair because the defense was unaware of Nordo’s misconduct.

On April 6, 2022, Judge DeFino-Nastasi vacated Dixon’s conviction, but only on the basis that Dixon’s trial defense attorney failed to call the alibi witness. She refused to grant a new trial based on Nordo’s corruption. On April 21, 2022, the CIU dismissed the case and Dixon was freed.

Assistant District Attorney Michael Garmisa said the case was “frankly quite weak.” He noted that Nordo had been involved in the questioning of the witnesses. Garmisa said that the “questionable” evidence at Dixon’s trial along with Nordo’s history of misconduct left the prosecution unable to take the case to trial again.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/27/2022
Last Updated: 6/2/2022
State:Pennsylvania
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2011
Convicted:2012
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:Life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No