Last week, after 21 years on Pennsylvania’s death row, James Dennis of Philadelphia finally had his moment of justice. Federal district court Judge Anita Brody ruled that the 1992 conviction of Dennis for the murder of Chedell Ray Williams was “a grave miscarriage of justice,” citing highly questionable eyewitness identification, evidence that was withheld from the defense by the prosecution, and ineffective assistance of defense counsel.
Judge Brody went so far as to say that “in all probability he did not commit” this crime.
But half of the witnesses to the crime described someone who was taller and heavier than Dennis and didn’t pick Dennis from a photo lineup. Even those three who did pick him and testified initially identified him with hesitation. Ms. Williams’ companion that day described the perpetrators as people she recognized from her high school, which Dennis did not attend. And a witness who could have confirmed Dennis’s alibi that he was on a bus miles away from the shooting gave the incorrect time of day that she saw him, an error of which the prosecution was aware.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office withheld this critical evidence from Dennis’s defense counsel. Meanwhile, his trial attorney never interviewed a single witness.
Judge Brody vacated Dennis’s death sentence and conviction and ordered a new trial within six months. Otherwise, Dennis must go free, according to the ruling.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has yet to announce his next move, but in a statement reminiscent of his predecessor, Lynne Abraham, he claimed that Dennis’s appeals team is lying. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
This case should shock the senses. The commonwealth of Pennsylvania sought to execute a man under these highly questionable circumstances. Governor Corbett even signed a death warrant for Dennis in 2011, which was vacated by the federal court.
While those of us who work regularly on this issue- I’ve been doing it for 13 years- don’t really lose the outrage factor when we hear about a case like this, we are certainly not surprised by the circumstances that created it. Mistaken eyewitness identification is the number one reason why innocent people are convicted of crimes. According to the Innocence Project, 75 percent of people who have been exonerated by DNA testing were convicted by eyewitness identification.
Regrettably, official misconduct by public officials too often plays a role in wrongful convictions. While the Innocence Project does not quantify how often prosecutorial misconduct occurs, it notes, “DNA exonerations have exposed official misconduct at every level and stage of a criminal investigation.”
Finally, the commonwealth’s broken indigent defense system regularly leads to breakdowns in the criminal justice system. More than 200 death sentences have been vacated in Pennsylvania since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, and a majority of those involved ineffective assistance of defense counsel.
The confluence of these missteps in this case led to the conviction of and a death sentence for a man that a federal judge now says is likely innocent.
The death penalty in Pennsylvania is a failed government program. Jimmy Dennis’s day in the sun has finally come. And the day of reckoning for capital punishment should not be far behind.
Cross-posted at Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty