Joseph A. Slobodzian, Philly.com
September 13, 2017 — 3:57 PM EDT
The murder case against Dante Hill started out strange: Three years after the slaying of 34-year-old Raseen Wright, Hill was arrested as he waited in a Philadelphia courtroom for his preliminary hearing on unrelated drug charges.
It’s still strange.
On Wednesday, Common Pleas Court Judge Steven R. Geroff agreed to the prosecutor’s request to delay the start of Hill’s trial until Sept. 26 to investigate defense claims that police arrested the wrong man.
Geroff’s decision followed almost a day of argument Tuesday about defense attorney Michael J. Diamondstein’s claim that the police probe that led to Hill’s 2014 arrest was full of holes and tainted by the involvement of a homicide detective who has since pleaded guilty to impeding justice.
Assistant District Attorney Alisa Shver told Geroff on Wednesday that Diamondstein “provided the commonwealth with information that I feel must be investigated.”
Shver declined to elaborate after the hearing.
Diamondstein also was circumspect: “I can’t go into specifics, but I believe it is significant evidence to indicate that the investigation was flawed and they have the wrong man.”
Even without details of what Diamondstein told the prosecutor, Tuesday’s hearing showed no shortage of problems with the case:
The original homicide detective assigned to investigate the 2011 shooting of Wright was Ron Dove. Dove, 45, was fired from the department in November 2013, and this April pleaded guilty to helping his girlfriend flee from arrest in the slaying of her former lover.
Another veteran homicide detective who worked on the investigation, Philip Nordo, was suspended with intent to dismiss last month amid federal and local probes into how he developed relationships with witnesses and informants.
The original audio recording of the 911 call after Wright’s shooting cannot be found. Also missing is paperwork involving witness interviews and cellphones purportedly seized during the investigation.
On Tuesday, Shver worked to rehabilitate the integrity of the investigation incriminating Hill with testimony by Homicide Detective Thomas Gaul, one of two detectives assigned to review the case after Dove’s downfall.
Gaul called Dove’s handling of the investigation “sloppy” and “lazy detective work.” But Gaul said he “reaffirmed all the witnesses. … [Dove] was not out to get Dante Hill.”
What’s known about the death of Raseen Wright is that the Logan man was found shot in the head and back shortly after 2 a.m. July 11, 2011, near the now-shuttered Coo’s Sports Bar in the 800 block of North Broad Street. Another man, Byron Davis, 27, was wounded in the leg.
Hill was not arrested and charged with the slaying until Aug. 5, 2014, when Gaul took Hill into custody as Hill waited in Courtroom 603 of the Criminal Justice Center.
Shver said an unidentified witness had told detectives that Hill, now 28, was the gunman who killed Wright and wounded Davis.
Although Hill, of North Philadelphia, has been arrested 12 times since 2006, court records show just two convictions: a 2009 first offense for marijuana and a 2012 guilty plea to driving under the influence. Since his arrest, Hill was charged with possessing marijuana in prison. He pleaded guilty last month and is to be sentenced Oct. 18.
Problems with the prosecution’s case in Wright’s slaying have continued. Shver said the witness who incriminated Hill has recanted. Surveillance video from inside and outside Coo’s allegedly shows Hill at the scene, although Shver acknowledges that it’s blurry.
And Byron Davis, who purportedly was Hill’s friend and possibly an accomplice, is now a fugitive. Davis has not been charged in Wright’s slaying, Shver said.
What happens Sept. 26 is conjecture.
Shver argued that Diamondstein’s allegation about Dove is irrelevant because the detective’s romantic and legal problems did not happen until two years after Wright’s slaying.
Still, Geroff ruled that Diamondstein may mention Dove’s firing and prosecution when he questions other detectives about the fairness of the investigation.
Geroff, however, ruled that the defense attorney may not mention Nordo’s possible legal problems because the probe is ongoing and has not resulted in criminal charges.
Diamondstein told Geroff he expects the District Attorney’s Office to either withdraw charges or go to trial Sept. 26.
“Mr. Hill has been in prison for three years, and this is the second time he has had to gird himself for trial,” Diamondstein said. “Quite frankly, this is as triable a case as Mr. Hill could ever imagine.”