A federal judge has vacated the conviction and death sentence of a Pennsylvania man this week, citing withheld evidence and shaky witness testimony.
James Dennis was 21 years old when he was arrested for the 1991 murder of a 17 year old high school student. Chendell Williams was robbed and killed at a train station for her gold earrings. Dennis was sentenced to death the following year.
In her 46-page opinion, Judge Anita Brody of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania said prosecutors and investigators withheld evidence that supported Dennis’ claims to innocence and would have given jurors reasonable doubt. There was no forensic evidence tying Dennis to the scene of the crime, and police never recovered the murder weapon or the stolen earrings. Brody based her ruling on the Commonwealth’s failure to disclose exculpatory and impeachment evidence to Dennis’ attorney under Brady v. Maryland.While each piece of withheld evidence is, on its own, sufficiently prejudicial to entitle Dennis to a new trial, there can be no question that the cumulative effect of the Commonwealth’s Brady violations abridged Dennis’ constitutional right to due process of law.
Brody outlines three pieces of suppressed evidence that undermine the jury’s verdict in Dennis’ case: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… All five of the nine eyewitnesses who provided an estimate of the shooter’s height in their statements to the police described the shooter as between 5’7” and 5’10”, with four describing him as 5’9” or 5’10”. Not a single eyewitness described the shooter as small, short, or petite. However, Dennis is only 5’5” and 125-132 pounds, significantly smaller than the descriptions of the shooter… [A key eyewitness]’s aunt and uncle, Diane and Mannasset Pugh, told police that Howard had told them only two days after the murder that she recognized the perpetrators from her high school, and that two people named “Kim” and “Quinton” had been there…However, police never asked Howard about her inconsistent statements—and never informed the defense of these comments… Frazier, an inmate in the Montgomery County Jail, gave a statement first to the Montgomery Police and then to the Philadelphia police relaying a phone call he had had with two friends who told him that they and a third friend had committed the Williams murder. The statement included credible details, such as describing where on her body Williams had been shot and identifying Williams as “Kev’s” girlfriend. Frazier Stmt., Pet’r’s Br. Ex. 42. Frazier described the three men as all being taller than 5’7”. Importantly, at least one of the men knew Howard from her high school; in this way, both Frazier’s statement and Howard’s statement to the Pughs corroborate each other—and neither were turned over to the defense. Police failed to investigate fully Frazier’s claims, and the defense never learned of Frazier’s statement until a decade after trial.
The judge concluded that the withheld evidence “would have allowed the defense to forcefully attack the adequacy of the Commonwealth’s investigation.”
John Martin of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Seth Williams, the Philadelphia DA who continues to oppose the resentencing of Terry Williams despite the fact that the prosecutor in that case covered up evidence of the defendant’s sexual abuse by his victims, also opposes Dennis’ release.[Williams] said he was disappointed in what he called the judge’s “acceptance of slanted factual allegations” and “a newly concocted alibi defense” that he contended was a lie.
DA Williams has not decided yet whether he will appeal Brody’s ruling.