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‘A Grave Miscarriage Of Justice’: Court Tosses Out Conviction Of Man Who Spent 21 Years On Death Row

By Ian Millhiser

"‘A Grave Miscarriage Of Justice’: Court Tosses Out Conviction Of Man Who Spent 21 Years On Death Row"

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jimmy_dennis1Twenty-one years ago, James Dennis was sentenced to die for a murder that he almost certainly did not commit. Police cherry-picked witnesses that seemed to implicate Dennis in the crime, while covering up witnesses that could have exonerated him. They ignored evidence that someone else committed the crime. They lost evidence. They kept silent about a document that would have corroborated Dennis’ alibi. And, after all of this, Dennis was represented by an attorney who didn’t even bother to interview the eyewitnesses to the murder. As Judge Antia Brody wrote in her opinion tossing out Dennis’ conviction yesterday, “[t]he Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has committed a grave miscarriage of justice in convicting Dennis and sentencing him to die for this crime.”

Judge Brody devotes nine pages of her opinion to laying out the many flaws in Dennis’ trial and conviction. Dennis is 5’5″ and weighs only about 130 pounds. Yet most of the eyewitnesses described a taller shooter and “[n]ot a single eyewitness described the shooter as small, short, or petite.” Indeed, as Brody points out, the victim was a 5’10″ woman and the murderer stood immediately behind her before shooting her in the neck, yet not one witness commented that the shooter was shorter than the victim — even though this fact would likely have stood out if Dennis had indeed committed this crime.

Police interviewed nine eyewitnesses, but only four picked Dennis out of a photo array — and three of those expressed uncertainty when they did. Yet, when Dennis volunteered to participate in a line-up, police stacked the deck by excluding the five witnesses who had not previously identified him. And even under these circumstances, one of the four witnesses fingered a different suspect at the line-up.

The victim’s aunt and uncle told police that they recognized the perpetrators from the victim’s high school and they named two additional witnesses. Police never followed up on these leads. An inmate told police that he had a phone call with two friends, neither of whom was Dennis, who confessed to committing the murder. And yet police did not follow up on this lead either. Police never found a gun, ammunition or a pair of earrings that were stolen from the victim after the shooting. And they never turned over a receipt that could have proven Dennis’ alibi until after he was already sentenced to die.

Indeed, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the state was determined to convict Dennis, even if it had to nudge the evidence a bit in its direction to do so — and that Dennis’ attorney was whole inadequate to the task of representing his client. The only witness linking Dennis to a firearm was a member of a singing group he belonged to who testified that he saw Dennis with a gun the night of the murder. Yet, as Judge Brody points out, this witness “first told police about seeing Dennis with a weapon when he was under arrest for a violent assault of his pregnant girlfriend that left her in the hospital. Six months after Thompson gave police this statement claiming to have seen Dennis with a gun, the Commonwealth dropped the felony assault charges, without explanation. When Thompson testified at trial, Dennis’ counsel could not question him about his possible motive to lie, because he never investigated Thompson’s criminal history and never discovered the dropped charges.”

For 21 years, James Dennis woke up each morning in a prison cell, surrounded by guards who believed him to be a dangerous murderer. He spent every single minute of those 21 years believing that someday soon he would be strapped to a gurney, rolled into a secluded chamber and injected with enough poison to stop his heart. And we now know that he was placed in that prison cell by shady police tactics, uncertain witnesses, and an incompetent lawyer.

Between 1989-2012, 101 death row inmates were exonerated of a murder they did not commit. It looks exceedingly likely that James Dennis belongs on this list. Nevertheless, it also seems likely that prosecutors will continue to fight to allow Dennis to be executed. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams labeled Judge Brody’s findings “slanted factual allegations,” and he says he is reviewing the state’s opinions following her decision.

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