A murder conviction that a ‘13 alumnus successfully erased has become the latest chapter in an unfolding high-profile scandal involving a former Philadelphia homicide detective who has been charged with raping, stalking and intimidating young men during a career on the force.
Edward Foster, ‘13, of counsel with Alva & Shuttleworth LLC, represents James Frazier, who served nearly seven years of a life sentence for his conviction in a 2012 double murder in which he played no role.
On March 5, Foster’s efforts on Frazier’s behalf bore fruit, when a Common Pleas Court judge vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial, paving the way for the Philadelphia man’s release on April 4.
Since his release, Frazier has filed a lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia and former Philadelphia Homicide Det. Philip Nordo, who was fired in 2017 and has since been charged with sexually abusing young men he encountered through investigations. The suit Frazier filed was reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 19. Though attorneys from Ross Feller Casey are representing Frazier in the lawsuit, Foster appears with him and his mother in a prominent photograph accompanying the Inquirer story.
Foster said in an interview that his efforts on Frazier’s behalf focused not on Nordo, but on the ineffective counsel his client had received at trial. Frazier’s defense counsel had made no effort to establish that he had a strong alibi, Foster said, noting that the young man was in a recording studio with others at the time the double murder occurred.
“He had an alibi, which was never litigated properly,” Foster said.
The lone piece of evidence at trial was Frazier’s confession, which the defense counsel made a half-hearted effort to suppress and then withdrew, Foster said. Withdrawing the motion to suppress left a confession that jurors viewed as a compelling piece of evidence against Frazier, Foster said.
When he began representing Frazier in 2016, Foster had no idea that his client had been coerced by Nordo into making a confession.
Frazier had alluded to Nordo, not by name, but as “a federal agent,” having believed the false narrative the detective had spun to pressure him into signing the confession, Foster explained.
“There were weird things, but nothing I could substantiate,” Foster said. He developed a hunch about the story, after Nordo was fired and details of his treatment of young men during interviews and interrogations emerged in the press.
In late 2017, Foster solved the mystery when he showed Frazier a picture of the disgraced detective.
“He said, ‘That’s the federal agent,’” Foster said, adding that he then contacted the Conviction Review Unit created by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, seeking a reconsideration of Frazier’s case. It wasn’t Foster’s first effort to spark interest from the DA’s Office. But, he said, “Krasner came in in 2018, and everything kind of changed.”
Frazier’s is one of three suits filed to date against Nordo and the city, and the Inquirer reported that prosecutors do not know how many more cases will face review because of the former detective’s involvement. Nordo’s attorneys told the Inquirer that allegations against the former detective are untrue.
Meanwhile, Foster is beginning to rack up a number of victories through his post-conviction advocacy.
In January, a judge overturned the conviction of Robert Outlaw, who had served 15 years in prison for a 2000 murder. Foster had been the lead attorney in Outlaw’s post-conviction relief efforts.
With help from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, Foster had uncovered evidence that police had not followed up on a credible tip about a different suspect and a letter from a witness to a police detective that mentioned his expectation of leniency in exchange for implicating Outlaw at trial.
In both Outlaw and Frazier’s cases, Foster uncovered mandatory discovery material that prosecutors had not shared with defense counsel.
The results are gratifying for Foster, who credits the law school with laying a sturdy foundation for his work.
“Seeing guys who don’t belong in prison out is fantastic,” he said. “It’s exciting, knowing I had a hand in it.”
Foster graduated with Pro Bono Service Honors, reflecting his extensive work with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.