May 3, 2023 - News

How much detective-turned-felon Philip Nordo has cost Philadelphia

Illustration of crime scene tape reading CRIME SCENE and DO NOT CROSS over a dark background.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Philip Nordo, the disgraced former Philly detective convicted last year of sexually assaulting or exploiting witnesses, has cost the city $260,000 in victim settlements so far, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Legal experts expect the figure could rise as litigation unfolds in other civil cases brought by plaintiffs whose convictions were overturned because of Nordo’s misconduct.

Driving the news: Three of 13 lawsuits involving Nordo have been settled, according to city law department spokesperson Ava Schwemler.

  • The largest settlement so far – $200,000 – went to Gerald Camp, who spent two years behind bars on a gun case that was later dropped, Schwemler tells Axios.
  • Many of the cases involve homicides where convictions were overturned.

State of play: Eight cases are pending and two were closed without payouts, according to court documents and Schwemler.

  • Rafiq Dixon, who spent nearly 11 years in prison before his murder conviction was vacated, is the latest plaintiff to bring suit against the city and Nordo. In a complaint filed this week, he accused the ex-detective of coercing witnesses and withholding evidence that would’ve exonerated him.
  • He says the city’s “shocking failure to train, supervise, discipline or enforce the law or even basic standards of conduct” of its police officers has gone “unabated for more than 50 years,” per the complaint.

Catchup quick: Nordo, who worked for the department for two decades and handled many high-profile murder cases, was sentenced to 24½ to 49 years in prison last year on charges that included rape, sexual assault and official oppression — "a stunning downfall for the once-celebrated investigator," per the Inquirer.

Zoom in: The Nordo plaintiffs are suing in federal court, alleging municipal liability and arguing that the city and Nordo violated their rights to due process and a fair trial.

  • Many of the plaintiffs say Philadelphia police knew of Nordo’s misconduct as early as 2005 but didn’t stop him, and four years later, promoted him to the homicide unit, showing "deliberate indifference" toward his behavior, according to court records.

The other side: The city law department declined to comment further on the specifics of the cases.

  • In court filings, the city has argued it’s not liable for Nordo’s conduct because his actions weren’t government-sanctioned “policy.” The city did not admit wrongdoing in the three cases it settled, Schwemler says.

Nordo has denied “any factual allegations of corruption, wrongful behavior and/or illegal behavior,” pleadings show.

Details: Marvin Hill filed suit in March this year.

  • Hill alleges that, during an interrogation, Nordo asked him whether he watched gay porn, massaged his shoulders and rubbed his thigh while claiming he could help Hill make the case go away. Nordo was angered that Hill rebuffed his sexual advances and claimed he’d ensure Hill “never saw daylight again,” according to the lawsuit.
  • Hill was subsequently convicted of murder and spent more than a decade in prison. But the conviction was vacated after prosecutors compiled evidence showing Hill was elsewhere during the murder and witnesses stated they'd cooperated against Hill "under duress or coercion from Nordo," per the suit.
  • The city law department declined Axios' request to comment on the case.

Attorney Joshua Van Naarden, who represents three of the plaintiffs, tells Axios that his client James Frazier rejected an offer from the city to settle his case for $250,000.

  • Frazier spent seven years in prison for a double homicide before his conviction was vacated in 2019.
  • He says in his suit that a false confession he gave after rejecting Nordo’s sexual advances was the only evidence against him.

“When you have an individual who has been wrongfully incarcerated, that creates its own set of psychological trauma,” Van Naarden tells Axios. “It’s almost unfathomable.”

What they’re saying: Paul Hetznecker, a Philadelphia civil rights attorney not involved in the litigation, tells Axios the plaintiffs must show Nordo’s conduct was symptomatic of a pattern of misconduct inside the department to succeed in the lawsuits against the city.

  • He said the “real value” of the lawsuits isn’t monetary but whether they help “end the systemic abuse of power” at Philly Police.

The big picture: Settling police misconduct claims has cost the city almost $116 million since fiscal year 2016.

What's next: Federal judge Gerald Pappert will rule on each of the city’s requests to dismiss the lawsuits.


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