James Dennis has spent most of his adult life in prison after being convicted of robbing and murdering 17-year-old Chedell Williams at Fern Rock Transportation center in 1991. A ruling today by U.S. District Judge Anita Brody, overturning the conviction, could see Dennis a free man as early as February of next year.
In her ruling, Brody cited numerous flaws in the case against Dennis, calling it "a grave miscarriage of justice.”
The case begs the question, what landed Dennis--a now innocent man--on death row in the first place?
Attorney and Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center Richard Deiter says Pennsylvania’s overuse of the death penalty could be the root cause of the mishandling of this case and others like it.
“I think these mistakes come from what we call the overuse of the death penalty. They just have a system of using the death penalty frequently. And when you do it frequently, you don’t always apply the necessary resources; getting the best defense lawyers and the cases are tried more quickly without enough oversight of whether the prosecutors have turned over all of the necessary evidence,” Deiter said.
“In Pennsylvania they use the death penalty a lot and as so may not be as careful when they do have a trial, and that’s why sometimes I think you get these mistakes. You get low paid defense attorneys, doing the minimum job, as the judge described and that’s how sometimes you get these cases where the wrong person is convicted.”
The Death Penalty Information Center is a national non-profit that promotes informed discussion about use of the death penalty in the United States.
In the 35 years since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the use of the death penalty in the United States, Pennsylvania has executed three death row inmates. In that same time, the State has freed double that amount of inmates—six in total—after the prisoners were found to have been wrongfully convicted. Deiter believes Dennis could be number seven.
“They’ve had more people freed from death row as innocent than they’ve had executed; that’s a disturbing ratio. It’s still too early to tell but this might well be the seventh case, which would put Pennsylvania up there with some states with the most wrongful convictions in the country,” Deiter said.
According to Deiter, Pennsylvania has the fourth largest death row in the country, with 202 inmates pending execution. Nearly half of those inmates are from Philadelphia.
Over the years, Dennis’s case has garnered the support of anti-death penalty activists as near as Illinois and as far Germany.
Tonya Sneed manages www.jimmydennis.org, a website dedicated to supporters of Dennis. Sneed says she’s hopeful that Dennis will be able to go home soon.
“We are very elated with this news. We consider it a victory and we think it’s quite likely that he eventually will be coming home,” she said.
“I think anybody who would actually take the time to read the entire trial transcripts, as I have, and all of the briefs and witness statements, it’s very clear that Jimmy is innocent.”
District Attorney Seth Williams does not agree. In fact, Williams’s office is currently debating whether it will appeal Brody’s decision.
“I am disappointed in the federal court’s decision,” Williams said in a statement. “This defendant was convicted for the brutal murder of a teenage girl on her way home from school; in broad daylight… three passersby saw him do it and identified him in court, without any possible motive to lie.”
Sneed says the District Attorney’s office will have very little evidence to stand on if it decides to appeal or retry the case.
“I can’t imagine that they would retry the case because they really don’t have anything on Jimmy anymore,” she said.
“One witness has recanted and the only thing they really have left are three strangers who by their own testimony and statements say they only saw the assailant for one second, five seconds and 20 seconds. I think stranger identification is very dangerous; it’s very clumsy evidence, and in a lot of cases it’s the number one reason people are wrongfully convicted.”
The Dennis case also brings into question the investigative work of the attorneys on the case, including veteran homicide prosecutor Roger King. King, who retired in 2008, put more than a dozen convicted killers on death row during his 35 year career in the city’s District Attorney’s office.
Tasha Jamerson, a spokesman for William’s office says Brody’s ruling puts a slanderous shadow on King’s career.
“The court's opinion casts gratuitous aspersion on Mr. King's long career in public service, despite the absence of any evidence that he personally did anything wrong in this case. In fact, convictions in cases tried by Mr. King have been regularly upheld on review. So was this case -- by 4 different courts, including the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania -- before the ruling yesterday of a single federal trial judge,” Jamerson said.
The District Attorney’s office could hold a new trial in the case, or it could appeal to the Third Circuit Court to have Brody’s order overturned. Dennis will have to wait 30 days at minimum and six months at maximum to see if Brody’s order will be challenged.
“We have 30 days to file an appeal and will decide how to proceed before then,” Jamerson said.