Intro: I wrote the following article a few years back. This past week, a Federal Appeals Court Judge ruled that James Dennis’ trial was a miscarriage of justice. The District Attorney of Philadelphia has 6 months to either release Jimmy or retry him. I’m not going to repeat all the points made in the aforementioned article. I have, however, made a couple of modifications to correct either grammatical mistakes or to correct a factual error based on reading the Judge’s decision, which is linked below. I urge the reader to take the time to read the decision for themselves. What I am writing below relies on extensive quotes from the Judge’s decision. I ask the reader to be patient with the number of quotes, which are a powerful indictment of police and prosecutorial misconduct. For more information http://www.jimmydennis.org/
“James Dennis was wrongly convicted and sentenced to die…there can be no question that the Commonwealth violated his right to due process…”
After years of hearings at the State level, a Federal court has ruled that James “Jimmy” Dennis was wrongly convicted and should be either set free or retried by the State. The District Attorney of Philadelphia, Seth Williams, has 180 days to either set Jimmy free or retry him.
This travesty of justice has gone on long enough. Pressure should be put on the DA’s office to push for Jimmy’s immediate release. The DA has 30 days to appeal the decision. Free Jimmy Dennis!
The Judge upheld Jimmy’s petition “on the basis of exculpatory and impeachment evidence that the Commonwealth improperly withheld from the defense at the time of the trial, in violation of Brady v Maryland.”
“Dennis’ conviction was based solely on shaky eyewitness identifications, the testimony of a man (Thompson) 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. In short, Dennis prosecution was based on scant evidence at bests. In the process, the Commonwealth covered up evidence that pointed away from Dennis.”
This withheld evidence was:
1. failure to reveal the existence of a witness who identified others as the real killers (Frazier)
2. failure to reveal to the defense a receipt in the possession of cops that would have confirmed Jimmy’s alibi (Cason)
3. failure of police to follow up on the allegation that a witness, Howard, had said she knew the shooter from high school.
The Judge also criticized the defense saying, “Overall, Dennis’ lawyer provided only a bare minimum defense.”
The prosecution also failed to reveal to the defense that Thompson had been facing charges, thus denying the defense the opportunity to impeach Thompson’s testimony.
1. Frazier: “Police and prosecutors also failed to turn over a series of documents relating to the statement of William Frazier with detailed, credible information about the murder – even though police turned over numerous tips and statements relaying neighborhood rumors. Frazier, an inmate in the Montgomery County Jail, gave a statement…relaying a phone call he had had with two friends who told him that they and a third friend had committed the Williams murder…Police failed to investigate fully Frazier’s claims and the defense never learned of Frazier’s statement until a decade after trial.”
2. Cason: “The jury also never heard about an important document that could have significantly buttressed Dennis’ alibi. Dennis had told police that he saw a neighborhood acquaintance, Latanya Cason, on the K bus, the afternoon of the murder.” Cason told police “that she saw Dennis when she got offr the bus and that she waved…The only discrepancy was what time the interaction took place. Dennis testified that he boarded the 1:56 PM bus – right at the time the murder occurred.”
“Cason, however, testified that their interaction much later…She explained that she left work around 2 PM, took the subway to North Philadelphia, (and) picked up her welfare check…” Cason took the bus after running some errands.
What is at issue is the time-stamp on the receipt given to Cason at the time she picked up her welfare check. It was stamped “13.03.” In military time this is 1:03 PM. The time-stamp proves that Cason could not have gotten off of work at 2 PM, but at an earlier time, which demonstrates that Dennis’s claim to have seen Cason about 2:15 PM.
“”Uncontroverted affidavit testimony demonstrates that the Commonwealth possessed the receipt, and the clearly established rules of Brady and its progeny demonstrate it was improperly withheld.”
3. Howard: Zahra Howard, a friend of the victim, allegedly told the aunt and uncle of the victim, that “shortly after the murder, that she recognized the shooter from her high school, and that two people she knew, ‘Kim’ and ‘Quinton,’ were there.” A “police activity sheet” relating to these statements “was never turned over to the defense. There is no question that this statement was helpful to the defense and that it was suppressed by the Commonwealth.”
(all quotes in the above are from the Judge’s decision, unless otherwise noted.)
Free Jimmy Dennis From Pennsylvania’s Death Row
By John Leslie
PHILADELPHIA—On a sunny afternoon, Oct. 22, 1991, Chedell Williams and her friend, Zahra Howard, went to the Fern Rock Transportation Center here to buy a transpass. Outside of the station, they were approached by two men who demanded Williams’ gold earrings. As the two young women tried to flee, one of the men shot Williams, killing her, and took her earrings. The men fled in a waiting car driven by a third person.
In the weeks following the shooting, police focused their investigation on a young aspiring gospel and R&B singer, James “Jimmy” Dennis. In fact, Jimmy heard a rumor that he was a suspect, went to the police station to inquire about this, and was turned away. A month later, on Nov. 23, Jimmy was arrested.
In spite of the fact that witnesses could not initially identify Jimmy from photo arrays, he was charged, tried, and convicted, and now sits on Pennsylvania’s death row.
Jimmy’s’ conviction was won by the prosecution on the basis of five witnesses. There was no physical evidence tying him to the crime. No gun was ever recovered and Jimmy was never found to be in possession of a firearm. There were no forensic tests for gunshot residue on Jimmy’s clothing. No fingerprint evidence was found linking him to the crime, and the earrings were never recovered.
The car used in the crime was never found; in spite of the fact that several witnesses gave descriptions of the vehicle and at least one provided a partial license plate number. Jimmy Dennis never owned a car and had no driver’s license.
One witness who allegedly tied Jimmy to the crime was Charles Thompson, a member of Jimmy’s’ singing group, Sensation. Brought in for questioning on an unrelated crime, a physical assault on a pregnant woman, Thompson found himself pressured by cops to identify Jimmy Dennis as the shooter. They implied that if he did not link Jimmy to the murder, they might charge him with the killing.
After intense pressure, he told detectives that he had seen Jimmy in possession of a .32 caliber revolver—the type used in the shooting. Later, as the prosecution prepared to go to trial, Thompson tried to retract his testimony but was told by prosecutor Roger King, that at that point nothing could be changed.
At the time of the trial, Thompson was facing drug possession charges, which were dropped in exchange for his testimony. After Jimmy’s conviction, Thompson recanted his testimony.
The strongest witness for the prosecution was Zahra Howard. Her initial identification of Jimmy from a photo array was vague. According to accounts, she identified Jimmy from a photo and then said, “but I can’t be sure.” Later, she allegedly told friends that she was unsure of the identity of the shooter and also supposedly told relatives of the victim that possibly it was someone else. Another witness, James Camaron, was equally unsure of his identification during police questioning.
Witnesses gave conflicting accounts of the perpetrators’ clothing and height. Most witnesses, including some whose testimony was excluded from the trial, described the shooter as tall and heavy; about 5’9″ or 5’10″ and 180-190 pounds. Jimmy is 5’4″ inches and was 125-130 pounds at the time. The victim herself was tall, 5’10″, and the difference in height between her and Jimmy would have been obvious to witnesses.
A third prosecution witness, Thomas Bertha, only saw the shooter “for a second” and gave a description of the shooter’s clothing that conflicted with other witnesses. Three witnesses were not called who either could or would not identify Jimmy as the perpetrator.
Studies have shown that eyewitness testimony is unreliable. There are cases of exonerated death row prisoners who have been convicted on eyewitness identifications and later cleared through DNA evidence.
“According to the Innocence Project…in 36 percent of the Innocence Network DNA-based exonerations, multiple witnesses misidentified the same innocent person.” “…Mistaken eyewitness identifications are responsible for more wrongful convictions than all other causes combined…” “In a study of 250 cases in which defendants were exonerated after conviction…eyewitnesses misidentified 76 percent of the exonerees. (190 of 250 cases)” from the 2013 Federal Court decision.
The final witness was the alibi witness, Latanya Cason. Cason had testified that she saw Jimmy on a bus about 4 or 4:30 p.m. This was based on her memory of cashing her check an hour to an hour-and-a-half beforehand. She had misread the check cashing receipt as being 3:03 pm. The receipt said that the check had been cashed at 13:03 hours (military time), or 1:03 p.m.This would have placed her on the bus with Jimmy between 2 and 2:30 p.m.—the time of the crime.
Mr. Dennis’ original trial attorney failed to grasp the significance of this key piece of evidence and did not establish Jimmy’s alibi. Cops and the DA would have known well what the correct time on the receipt was and the significance of this evidence.
The emerging facts about the lack of evidence and the unreliability of the witnesses calls into question the whole prosecution case against Jimmy Dennis. This is not the first time the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office has sent a poor African-American to prison on flimsy evidence. The DA’s office is notorious for its racist frame-up tactics and for excluding Black jurors from juries involving Black defendants.
The Philly cops are also known for their dishonesty and brutality. The infamous frame-up trial of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal is a case in point. The 39th Police District scandal is another example of police abuse of power. Cops in the 39th framed hundreds of people, planted or faked evidence, extorted money from drug dealers and committed burglaries to steal drugs and cash.
The death penalty is an instrument of class and racist terror against workers and the oppressed. Nationally, the percentage of people of color on death row is more than 40 percent. In Pennsylvania, there are 225 prisoners on death row. Of these; 134 are African American, 18 are Latino, two are Asian, and 72 are white. There are five women under a death sentence in the state. (Figures from 2009)
In December 2008, supporters were in court to hear testimony in a Philadelphia court based on questions of witness reliability and new evidence that has emerged. This hearing was ordered by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. A court decision is pending. Supporters are working to stop this this racist injustice. Free Jimmy Dennis
On March 17, 2010, the PCRA court dismissed Mr. Dennis’ petition for relief. This dismissal was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme court in January of 2011. The Federal court decision, issued by the Third Circuit, Is in response to a habeas corpus petition filed by Jimmy’s defense team.