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How a Philadelphia DA Who was Elected to Reform Criminal Justice is Keeping More Innocent Black Men in Jail

Jimmy Dennis

Jimmy Dennis

The case of Jimmy Dennis in Philadelphia provides evidence as to why the death penalty is part of an unfair, unjust system that is rife with corruption and racial discrimination.  In August, a federal appeals court ruled that Dennis, who was sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of a teen girl over earrings, should be released or granted a new trial due to the prosecution and police withholding evidence of his innocence.

Dennis, now 45, was 21 at the time of the trial, in which he was convicted for the killing of Chedell Ray Williams, 17, by someone who tore off the young woman’s earrings before shooting her in the neck.

“Evidence suppressed by the prosecution — a receipt corroborating Dennis’ alibi, an inconsistent statement by the commonwealth’s key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder — effectively gutted the commonwealth’s case against Dennis,” wrote Judge Marjorie O. Rendell of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in the 102-page 9-to-4 majority opinion.  “The withholding of these pieces of evidence denied Dennis a fair trial in state court,” she added.

The decision by the appeals court upheld the lower court decision.  In that August 2013 ruling, Judge Anita Brody, a federal district judge, threw out Dennis’ conviction in a scathing 46-page opinion.  It was a rare sight in a criminal justice system known for a heavy hand and grave injustices to the poor and to people of color.  The judge had ordered the state to give Dennis a new trial within 180 days or set him free, proclaiming that Dennis “was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit,” and calling his conviction a “grave miscarriage of justice.”

But Brody went further, offering that the prosecution built a case based “on scant evidence at best” and covered up, ignored and lost evidence pointing to Dennis’ innocence.  It included evidence which undermined the reliability of the police investigation, and statements suggesting that three other men were culpable in the murder.  There was no forensic evidence, including neither gun nor earrings, tying Denis to the murder.

“Dennis’ conviction was based solely on shaky eyewitness identifications from three witnesses, the testimony of another man who said he saw Dennis with a gun the night of the murder, and a description of clothing seized from the house of Dennis’ father that the police subsequently lost before police photographed or catalogued it,” Brody said.

Further, the judge noted that the state “ignored Dennis’ own explanation for where he was at the time of the murder. … It allowed a witness who saw Dennis on that bus to give incorrect testimony about what time that interaction occurred. Police never recovered a weapon, never found the car that witnesses described, and never found the two accomplices.”

In addition, Dennis suffered from an ineffective defense counsel, who failed to interview a single eyewitness. This included a girl who was with the victim at the time and said she knew the killers and their nicknames, and another witness whose felony assault charges against his girlfriend suddenly disappeared after he pointed the finger at Dennis.

Meanwhile, the jury deliberated for less than five hours, and in the penalty phase of the trial, evidence was presented for only three hours.

seth-williams-minPhiladelphia District Attorney Seth Williams — the city’s first Black chief prosecutor who was elected on a platform of reform to a system of mass incarceration and capital punishment, and the heightened criminalization of young Black men — appealed the decision.  Williams expressed his disappointment in Judge Brody’s “acceptance of slanted factual allegations” and “a newly concocted alibi defense.”

In the most recent appellate decision, Williams did not indicate whether he would continue to prosecute Dennis.  According to Cameron Kline, a spokesperson for Williams, the D.A.’s office “is reviewing the Third Circuit’s ruling and will determine whether to seek further review on the basis of the compelling dissent by four federal judges, who concluded that the evidence against Dennis remains ‘strong,’ ” as Philly.com reported.

And when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf issued a death penalty moratorium in the state, D.A. Williams sued the governor, claiming he had overstepped his bounds.  The state supreme court upheld Wolf’s death penalty moratorium.

Williams, who ran under the slogan “A New Day, A New D.A.,” also attacked Wolf’s decision to issue a reprieve for Terrance “Terry” Williams, who had been scheduled for execution in March of last year.  Williams, who had been the victim of rape, beatings, neglect and trauma from age 6, was sent to death row for killing one of the two men who sexually abused him.  But prosecutors had hidden this evidence from the jury, and the jury never had a chance to review said evidence, as Counterpunch reported.  Numerous people supported a commutation of Williams’ death sentence, including the widow of the victim, five of the jurors, and a multitude of judges and prosecutors, law professors, child advocates, mental health professionals and religious leaders, as The Huffington Post noted.   But D.A. Williams insisted that Williams the defendant had received an appropriate sentence, and is one of those rare individuals deserving death.

And this year, Tony Wright, 44, another Black Philadelphia man, was released after spending over 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.  Wright was sentenced to life for the 1991 rape and fatal stabbing of a 77-year old woman.  He was 20 at the time.  Although the Innocence Project came forward with DNA evidence indicating that someone else had committed the crime, in 2014 Williams decided to retry Wright anyway, according to 6abc.com.

The Death Penalty Information Center has found that people of color are 61 percent of those who are released from death row due to innocence.  Further, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, of the 1,884 people on record who were exonerated from crimes they did not commit, the majority are of color, including 878 Black and 222 Latino. Moreover, 51 percent of the wrongfully convicted were placed in prison due to official misconduct — the second most prevalent contributing factor in innocence cases, after perjury and false accusations at 56 percent.

Now, in the case of Jimmy Dennis, the first Black D.A. of Philadelphia has a decision to make: Retry a Black man whose conviction has been overturned twice — by two federal courts and 10 judges who say he is innocent — or set him free.

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