“The official misconduct that contributed to Mr. Onyiah’s 2010 conviction for murder is unfortunately far too pervasive in Philadelphia and in jurisdictions across the country. The violations that occurred during the original investigation and trial led to the conviction of the wrong man.”
The District Attorney’s Office (DAO) Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) on Tuesday secured its 20th exoneration of a wrongfully convicted person since 2018, after District Attorney Larry Krasner took office and formed the unit.
Led by Assistant District Attorney Patricia Cummings, the CIU has supported the vacatur of 19 murder convictions and one rape conviction, the overwhelming majority of which were marred by police or prosecutorial misconduct or both. Twelve of the 20 wrongful convictions overturned under DA Krasner occurred during former District Attorney Lynne Abraham’s administration. All but two of the exonerees are Black men.
On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas vacated the 2010 murder conviction and sentence of Obina Onyiah (DOB: 4/14/1983), CIU agreed that he is actually innocent and is entitled to relief on Due Process claims under the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA).
Onyiah was convicted of felony murder resulting from the shooting death of William Glatz, the owner of a jewelry store during an attempted gunpoint robbery on October 21, 2010. Two men, one heavy-set Black male and one thin Black male, were captured on video inside the store committing the robbery. Three employees and the store owner were inside, when the shootout occurred between the heavy-set Black male (later identified as Kevin Turner) and Glatz. Glatz was murdered. And Turner (who had escaped from Curran-Fromhold Correctional Institution nine days prior) died from gunshot wounds inflicted during the crime.
The surviving witnesses described the thin Black male accomplice, who fled the scene, as smaller than Turner, “very slight of build,” and 5’7” or 5’8.” A still photo of the accomplice from the video surveillance was released by Philadelphia Police to the press. While tips and the initial investigation identified another male as a possible suspect, investigation of that individual stopped after a jailhouse informant led police to investigate Onyiah, who is 6’3”.
As part of the CIU review of Onyiah’s prosecution, multiple forensic experts utilized photogrammetry — a scientific technique used to investigate photographic crime scene images — and corroborated witness testimony that Turner’s accomplice was most likely shorter than 5’11”. The import of these expert evaluations is Onyiah is excluded as the second suspect in the 2010 attempted armed robbery and murder. And, in addition, it further exposed what Onyiah and his counsel had always professed: homicide detectives had used both physical and psychological coercion to extract incriminating evidence from Onyiah and at least one other witness in the case.
“The official misconduct that contributed to Mr. Onyiah’s 2010 conviction for murder is unfortunately far too pervasive in Philadelphia and in jurisdictions across the country. 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,” CIU Supervisor Cummings said. “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.”
“Prior to 2018, this office conducted no meaningful review of credible claims regarding unconstitutional or illegal investigations resulting in convictions. In fact, this office was more likely to defend the most problematic convictions every step of the way — no matter how clear the DNA test results or other exculpatory evidence,” District Attorney Krasner said. “By simply granting the CIU the authority and independence to do their work without interference, this office has overseen 20 exonerations in under four years. What Patricia Cummings and the CIU have accomplished in Philly should lead elected officials and residents in other jurisdictions to demand similar accountability and integrity from their criminal justice systems.”
The wrongful 2010 conviction of Onyiah also involved police misconduct resulting in a coerced confession and the Commonwealth’s use of a witness who was incentivized to implicate him.
Onyiah remains in custody because he is serving a sentence from an unrelated 2015 conviction for a different and factually dissimilar robbery offense.