by Samantha MelamedUpdated May 13, 2021
The Philly DA has stipulated to coercion by Detective James Pitts, who helped build seven murder cases that were dismissed, acquitted, or overturned. He remains in the Philadelphia Police Department.
This is Part 2 of Losing Conviction, a series about homicide investigations in Philadelphia
As Morkea Spellman waited impatiently in the lobby of Philadelphia’s Police Administration Building, two homicide detectives came downstairs to usher her out the door. They told her she may as well leave. Her 17-year-old daughter, India — a high school student who had never been in trouble before — had confessed to murder.
In the parking lot, Spellman crumpled to the pavement and wailed, calling the detectives liars. “I was crying hysterically, not even knowing where to begin, because these people done took my child.”
According to Spellman and three other people who witnessed the conversation, that exchange occurred at 5 p.m. on Aug. 20, 2010. The police record shows that India’s interview with Detectives Henry Glenn and James Pitts began at 6:10 p.m. — about an hour after her mother said she refused to sign a form giving consent for her child to be interrogated, and left.
As India recounts it, once Pitts entered the interview room, that’s when it got violent. The record indicates she willingly waived her Miranda rights and promptly confessed to two gunpoint robberies, one of which ended in the fatal shooting of George “Bud” Greaves, an 87-year-old Navy veteran and revered member of his Cedarbrook community.
India and her family say the confession was a fabrication by Pitts — a detective who has faced an avalanche of similar accusations, all of which he called outrageous lies.
Seven murder cases Pitts helped build have fallen apart either before, during, or after trial — a pattern The Inquirer first began covering in 2013. At least six people who have named Pitts in lawsuits against the city have settled for a total of $1 million. According to court records, he has also been the subject of at least 11 citizen complaints and five internal investigations, and was twice accused of intimate-partner violence, once involving a woman who was a murder witness. During a 2011 trial, a witness also alleged that Pitts hit her inside the Stout Center for Criminal Justice after she’d finished testifying the night before; court proceedings on that allegation were conducted under seal. Pitts denied all of these allegations.
Yet, dozens of convictions fraught with similar allegations about Pitts remain intact. An Internal Affairs probe that’s at least two years old has not yielded any public action. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has noted concerns, but has not committed to a full review of Pitts’ cases. As of 2019, Pitts was reassigned to the Delaware Valley Information Center, a counterterrorism hub, but he remains employed by the Philadelphia Police Department. A department spokesperson declined to comment.
In an interview, Pitts attributed the allegations to personal vendettas, the anti-police agenda of the DA’s Office, and the respective desperate desires of defendants to evade justice and of witnesses to avoid snitching. He added that he’s never had a finding against him by the Police Board of Inquiry, which makes disciplinary findings on sustained Internal Affairs complaints.
He also suggested racist assumptions. “Since I hit Homicide, that’s the narrative. A Black man can’t conduct a conversation with somebody without being physically abusive?”
Pitts said any claim he struck or put hands on anyone is a lie, and noted he’s never seen a medical record proving otherwise. “I must be a damn ninja to beat people up all the time, and they bruise on the inside. That’s crazy.”
Yet, a small group of lawyers have been arguing, with mixed success, that he had a long-standing “pattern and practice” of coercive tactics that was improperly concealed from the defense. One, Teri Himebaugh, who created a site called the Police Transparency Project based in part on that research, said she first began tracking him after a client of hers alleged that Pitts and two other detectives chased him down and pinned him against a wall with an unmarked police car. (That claim was raised in a civil lawsuit that settled for $20,000.)
In 2017, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Teresa Sarmina agreed to overturn a murder conviction based on that pattern. After 10 people testified to such allegations, Sarmina wrote in her opinion: “Pitts continuously and systematically makes use of a distinct group of abusive tactics designed to overcome an interrogation subject’s resistance and coerce him or her into signing a statement.”
Since then, Patricia Cummings, chief of the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit, said she has advised her colleagues in other units to “at minimum stipulate that Pitts entered into a pattern and practice and then leave it up to the defense to prove the link” to a given case. The office has not uniformly pursued that path.
As a result of her guidance, the office did enter such a stipulation in the case of a man who was 15 when he signed a murder confession after three days in the Homicide Unit, including an interrogation by Pitts.
But at a hearing in that case, two homicide detectives testified they had never seen Pitts hit or threaten anyone. Pitts’ supervisor also testified he’d received no complaints. Common Pleas Judge Barbara McDermott concluded that there was no credible evidence of a single instance of misconduct, let alone a pattern.
Richard Sax, a former homicide prosecutor who worked with Pitts, agreed: “I never saw anything like that. He was always a very soft-spoken, laid-back guy.”
He did remember one such claim. That man stood accused of executing a witness who had gone to the store to buy his mother a bag of sugar. But he said Pitts choked, hit, and threatened him until he signed a confession, saying he shot the man out of fear.
“It was absurd because [the victim] was shot in the back of the head and the bag of sugar was still there,” Sax said. “Jimmy Pitts didn’t have to make anything up in that case. Not that I believe he would make anything up in any case.”
‘A million allegations’
What India Spellman remembers about the day police came to take her in handcuffs from her grandparents’ house was the confusion. That they could be surrounding the house with their guns drawn to arrest her, of all people, seemed impossible.
She was going into 11th grade at Martin Luther King High School, though she struggled with reading, and was a point guard with college basketball ambitions. She worked at Dunkin’ Donuts in the summers. Otherwise, she was a homebody, spending hours on Facebook or giggling on the phone — usually both at once.
According to Spellman, that’s exactly what she was doing when the crime spree occurred. Her father and her grandfather, a retired police officer, said they were with her the whole time. A friend also confirmed that she was on a 25-minute phone call with Spellman at the time of the shooting. And her cell-phone records, filed in court, align with those claims.
But at the Police Administration Building, she said, Glenn called her a liar.
“I was only 17 years old at that time, so I started crying and repeatedly asking for my father,” she said. He told her he’d gone home.
Then, she said, he left and Pitts stepped in, shouted at her, and demanded that she confess. “He punched me in my mouth,” she said. He showed her a statement taken from a 14-year-old boy, Von Combs, who accused her of masterminding the slaying. He wanted her to corroborate it.
Spellman doesn’t recall how long the interrogation lasted. It ended when Pitts put some papers in front of her. “He told me if you sign this paper you can go home,” she said. She complied, and asked Pitts to read her what was on the paper. She said he refused. Then, he sent her to booking. Her mug shot, which ran in the newspaper, shows a tear sliding down her cheek and, according to her family, her mouth swollen from the blow.
Pitts, in a recent interview, said he never touched her, never fabricated a statement, and never threatened, verbally abused, or mistreated anyone.
He has shouted, “been in people’s faces,” he’s testified. But mostly, he said, his approach was to listen for lies and inconsistencies, weak points in the story that could lead to fissures.
In depositions and trials, though, he at times displayed a temper — accusing lawyers of yelling, making things up, or swinging an arm near him too aggressively. In one tense deposition, he refused to reveal even his basic biographical facts, like where he attended high school.
“Your client is a killer, and I’m not giving him anything that can backtrack,” Pitts told the civil-rights lawyer for Nafis Pinkney, who had been acquitted of a double murder and was suing the city. (A different man had already confessed to the killings and is awaiting trial. Pinkney settled for $750,000.)
Pitts testified he attended a year and a half at Widener, studying hotel management, then accounting. He served in the Army Reserves, worked for the Free Library, and joined the department in 1996. In 1999, he made detective. And in 2006, he was assigned to Homicide.
Along the way, there was no formal training on how to investigate crimes or interrogate suspects, he said. Mostly, he learned on the job.
Like other detectives, he testified, he would conduct sometimes lengthy “informal,” unrecorded interviews that could last hours or days. Only at the end, he said, would it be memorialized in a final written statement.
“That’s happened quite often that I’ve interviewed people and they’ve said things and just in the end will not give a written interview,” he said. “There’s [other] times people do sign what they say — and come in the courtroom and make a million allegations, and the case doesn’t even become about what they said. It becomes about what they alleged happened to them.”
Despite all that, Pitts told The Inquirer, he misses the Homicide Unit, and wants to return.
“I enjoyed the sense of getting it right,” he said. “I enjoyed dealing with the victims when there were successful conclusions and even when there weren’t successful conclusions, just being able to have the conversations about life in general. I even enjoyed some of the conversations with defendants.”
Some on the other end of those interviews had a different perspective.
Donyea Phillips, who was 16 when he was arrested along with his cousin for shooting at police during a raid on a drug house, said Pitts used a range of intimidation tactics over 24 hours without sleep or food, except a cheesesteak that officers told him they had spit in.
“He would put his knee to my knee and put his hand to the back of my neck, and he would growl,” Phillips said. He was handcuffed to a chair for hours, he said, while Pitts hit him with a leather binder and shouted into his ear. “I was like, ‘Oh man, they’re going to kill me in there. I’m going to die in this room.’ ”
Phillips maintains that he is innocent, but he ended up signing a confession. His cousin signed a statement implicating Phillips that he, too, has recanted. At the time, though, Phillips said, he felt he had to plead guilty, and was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison.
Witnesses — including the girlfriends and elderly relatives of suspects, as well as bystanders — have described similar encounters with Pitts.
One man, Andre Cunningham, described being held for 18 hours in a Homicide interview room because police thought he’d witnessed the 2011 murder of Dwayne Isaacs, 48, in a public housing complex.
At one point, he said, he put his head on the table and fell asleep — but was awakened when Pitts slammed a pile of phone books down next to his head. “He grabbed me and choked me and said I’m going to give him the information he needs to close his case,” he said.
In the end, he alleged, detectives fabricated a statement accusing Christopher Goodwin — a man Cunningham says he knew to be innocent, because he saw Goodwin sitting nearby when the gunshots were fired.
“When I left out of there the next day, my T-shirt was ripped down the middle,” Cunningham said. “Being a Black male, any time you go down there you have to know and expect for them to put their hands on you.”
Cunningham and another witness who signed a statement both recanted at trial, testifying they were coerced. Goodwin was convicted anyway.
Pitts’ name does not appear on Cunningham’s interview record. That’s typical, according to witnesses and defendants who describe multiple detectives passing through during lengthy unrecorded interviews.
Many were able to identify Pitts by his distinctive appearance, including a large scar on his neck.
In court filings, affidavits, Internal Affairs records, and interviews, at least 31 people have accused Pitts of physical abuse. At least 25 said he or a partner pressured them to sign fabricated statements. Dozens have alleged threats, isolation or verbal abuse in the course of investigations.
Reasons to lie
According to Pitts, the first person to implicate India Spellman and Von Combs in the murders was Shawn Combs, Von’s mother. Police were called to her house after she was heard screaming hysterically that “the streets got him.”
Mother and son were taken in separate police cars to the Homicide Unit. Once there, Von signed a confession.
Afterward, he became the star witness against Spellman, smiling and laughing as he testified, according to newspaper accounts.
Through his mother, Von declined an interview request. At trial, he described Spellman as the mastermind and shooter. “She said, ‘I want to rob this lady,’ ” he testified. “I looked at her like she was crazy.”
After Spellman was tried as an adult and found guilty, Assistant DA Thomas Lipscomb asked for a sentence of 40 years to life.
“I think the word senseless is overused,” the prosecutor said of Greaves’ murder. “I would call it nihilistic: betraying a belief in nothing, that nothing is sacred. Not old age, not property, not life itself.”
As for Von Combs, his case was resolved in juvenile court. The sentence: two years in a secure detention facility.
Like Spellman, Combs appealed, saying the detectives had improperly extracted his confession. He argued that he was not given a chance to consult privately with his mother and that, in any case, she was “hysterical,” incompetent to consent on his behalf and a “pawn” of the police, pressuring him to confess. The Pennsylvania Superior Court credited detectives’ accounts that the statement was voluntary and proper.
The problems with evaluating allegations of misconduct in such cases are numerous.
For one thing, it’s the word of the detective against people whom judges and jurors may not believe for any number of reasons: They have criminal records. They’re teenagers. They’re heavy drug users. They’re illiterate. They have mental health diagnoses or intellectual disabilities.
Also, many have compelling reasons to lie. Some, like Combs, received favorable sentences. Others, Pitts and many others have suggested, accused detectives of fabricating their statements because they feared being labeled a snitch.
One man, Cornell Drummond, was incarcerated on federal drug and gun charges, when he gave what he later said were false statements about two murders. He also identified then-teenagers Tyrik Perez and Khaleef Mumin in a shooting that left Drummond paralyzed. Four men were convicted of the various crimes.
Starting in 2018, Drummond tried to recant, accusing Pitts of collusion in one case. Drummond said he lied at the time in return for a lenient sentence in an unrelated case — as well as to get revenge over old beefs.
“Det. Pitts filled me in on what details I should talk about,” he said in an affidavit for one of the men, Donte “Tae” Hill, “like what kind of gun, the time of day and the color car Tae was supposed to be driving. … Detective Pitts said he already had Tae charged, we just need more evidence, like words from him. Detective Pitts told me to say that Tae told me that he emptied the whole clip.”
Pitts said in an interview that he had never interacted with Drummond.
So far, judges have declined to overturn any convictions based on Drummond’s new testimony. In a brief phone call, he expressed both a fear of retaliation and a total loss of faith in the system.
“The police are the police. The streets are the streets,” he said. “I tried to make that s— right — and, once I tried to do that, the police were on me, the DA, it was getting real freaky.”
Perez was a teenager when he was arrested. He still has years left before he’s eligible for parole. His mother, Derrell Hawkins, frets for his safety in prison, where she said he was recently stabbed.
“There were times I couldn’t eat. I had to pay these lawyers. I gave my car back. I had to take the bus. I went through so much. I felt like I was in jail with him,” she said. “I keep telling Tyrik, ‘Be patient.’ But I’ve been saying that for 11 years.”
‘Didn’t see the face’
Spellman is 27 now, an inmate at State Correctional Institution Cambridge Springs, about as far from Philadelphia as you can get and still be in Pennsylvania. Before the pandemic canceled visits, her family would line up at 1 a.m. for the Pennsylvania Prison Society bus, a journey that takes 24 hours round-trip.
She learned to read and write in prison, got her high school diploma, and began taking college courses. She gets up early each morning to wheel elderly prisoners to their medical appointments.
Her family hired Todd Mosser, one of a handful of lawyers who has developed a subspecialty in challenging cases Pitts worked on.
“The working belief among a number of us is that Pitts isn’t the only one. The real problem is that there are these Internal Affairs complaints against him, and nothing’s done about it,” he said.
In court filings, Mosser argued the pattern of alleged misconduct in Spellman’s case should be enough to raise serious questions about a case built on two shaky witness identifications, and the conflicting statements taken from the two minors.
In addition to Spellman’s two alibi witnesses and her exculpatory cell-phone records, her lawyer’s filings include the original, conflicting statements from eyewitnesses.
The first gunpoint-robbery victim, Shirley Phillips, had described the perpetrators as a Black teenage boy with a teardrop tattoo under his right eye, and a dark-skinned woman, aged 25 to 30, 5-foot-6, and weighing about 180 pounds, “heavyset” and “dressed in all black Muslim clothes.” Another witness, Greaves’ neighbor Kathy Mathis, similarly told police the woman was dark skinned and “thick,” around a size 14, and “wearing Muslim head garb” that left only her eyes exposed.
Spellman was a thin, light-complexioned 17-year-old girl, who weighed about 115 pounds. Even so, both Phillips and Mathis identified her in court. “I’ll never forget those eyes,” Phillips said.
Phillips, who worked as a home health aide, died in 2017. Her daughter, Nyshema, said Phillips was profoundly traumatized by the attack.
“She was confident in the conviction, but they were young so she still was [conflicted] about it. But they knocked her down and they took her belongings and then they shot the man right afterward. That put my mom down in a big depression and she was hurting,” she said. “She loved kids and they were young, and she couldn’t understand.”
The other witness, Kathy Mathis, had called the DA’s Office and left a message someone transcribed as: “Never saw faces. Didn’t see the face.” That document was not disclosed to Spellman’s lawyer before her trial, according to Mosser’s filing. Lipscomb, the prosecutor, did not respond to an interview request.
Recently, Mathis confirmed to a defense investigator that India did not resemble the shooter, that she looked younger, thinner and lighter-skinned. Mathis said she was only able to identify Spellman in court because the prosecutor “told me where she would be sitting.”
At the same time, Mathis told The Inquirer, she’s confident in the verdict. “I feel like they have the right person,” she said. “My story remains the same. It’s done. It’s over.”
But after Spellman’s December 2020 filing, the DA’s Office did not oppose her request for a hearing. It’s given her some hope that she might get a new trial.
If she’s released, she said, she’d like to advocate for the women she’s met in prison, many of whom were victims of abuse before they ended up killing their abusers and were sentenced to life terms.
“I’m praying that one day I’ll be able to be home,” she said. “I just pray that everybody just tells the truth about everything.”