The Third Circuit’s recent opinion in a capital case is important to both the defendant, James Dennis, and to anyone interested in ongoing developments around Brady issues. Due to the now-notorious prosecutorial and police misconduct in the great city of Philadelphia, James Dennis spent over 20 years on death row for a crime he likely did not commit. In this case, prosecutors hid a time-stamped receipt which would have helped to corroborate his alibi—among other evidence it kept from the defense team. Despite the fact that federal judge Anita Brody recognized the “grave miscarriage of justice in his case” in 2013, vacating his conviction and death sentence, he finally won relief last week when the Third Circuit ordered a new trial after their second consideration of Judge Brody’s decision.
Last week’s decision came from the en banc court and rejected the earlier decision of a three-judge panel; those three judges and one additional judge dissented from the latest opinion, while the nine other judges agreed that Mr. Dennis deserves a new trial because the State suppressed a range of exculpatory evidence. The latest decision appears likely to stand unless the prosecution decides to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court and that Court takes the case—statistically a very unlikely outcome.
Mr. Dennis was convicted over two decades ago for the murder of a young woman named Chedell Williams who was killed at the Fern Rock transit station and robbed of her large gold earrings. Despite earlier statements which were inconsistent, the State’s based its case on the identification of Dennis by three witnesses: the victim’s friend, Zahra Howard; a man working near the intersection where the shooting occurred; and a transit employee who was standing just outside of the station during the crime. No physical or forensic evidence linking Mr. Dennis to the crime was presented. In his defense, Mr. Dennis and his father testified that they were together around the time of the crime, and that Mr. Dennis was aboard a bus to meet up his singing group for rehearsal when the crime occurred.
Another key State witness was Latanya Cason, someone who knew Mr. Dennis from the neighborhood. Mr. Dennis claimed that he saw Ms. Cason and waved to her as he got off the bus. The witness confirmed seeing Mr. Dennis, but when she tried to reconstruct the events of the day, she used a mistaken understanding of military time on a receipt from picking up a check to do so. She then testified in error to seeing Mr. Dennis two hours later than the time he recalled. Police took the woman’s copy of her receipt and illegally failed to disclose it prior to trial. Years later, after he had been sentenced to death, Mr. Dennis’s lawyer obtained a copy of the receipt which proved that Ms. Cason’s testimony should have supported the alibi rather than opposed it.
It turned out that the prosecution failed to turn over three categories of exculpatory and impeachment evidence: (1) Cason’s time-stamped receipt; (2) a police document indicating that Howard gave an inconsistent statement about the perpetrator’s identity to other individuals shortly after the crime; and (3) documents indicating that police received a tip from an inmate who said he had had a conversation with someone who identified himself as the real killer. It turns out that often when it rains Brady evidence, it pours.
The Third Circuit’s sprawling 227-page compilation contains five different opinions: the 9-judge majority opinion authored by Judge Rendell, a concurring opinion by Chief Judge McKee, a partial concurrence and partial dissent by Judge Jordan, and two dissents, one by Judge Fisher and one by Judge Hardiman. The majority’s opinion—the most important one—found that the Pennsylvania state courts had improperly denied each of the three Brady claims outlined above. The majority thus reached the same conclusion that judge Brody reached three years ago when she first granted Mr. Dennis a new trial. Although the wheels of the justice system churned slowly, it appears they finally arrived at the right place.
In finding that the State’s failure to disclose the three categories of exculpatory evidence independently and cumulatively required a new trial, the court carefully explained the significance of each bit of evidence. For example, the receipt showing that Ms. Cason picked up her welfare benefits at 1:03 p.m. gutted her testimony that she worked until 2:00 p.m. that day and thus did not see Mr. Dennis until hours after that. And, Ms. Howard’s statements to others that she recognized the shooter from Olney High School—a school that Mr. Dennis never attended—would have impeached her identification of Mr. Dennis at trial and may have facilitated a further defense investigation into plausible alternate suspects. Lastly, the tip from inmate Frazier explicitly pointed to other suspects, and Mr. Dennis’s defense team could have used that information both to highlight the possibility that someone else committed the crime and to cross-examine police officers to cast doubt on the quality of their follow-up investigation.
The Third Circuit’s opinion is not only significant for Mr. Dennis—a man who has maintained his innocence from the get-go—but is also legally consequential throughout the Third Circuit and possibly beyond it. The court resolved many questions commonly that arise in Brady cases:
- It rejected the State’s attempt to shift the burden of finding Cason’s welfare receipt to the defense attorneys. The evidence indicated that Cason had given the detectives the only copy of her time-stamped receipt. The court denied the State’s claim that the defense had to exercise “due diligence” to try to obtain a copy from the governmental department responsible for welfare benefits. The court held, wisely, “[t]he imposition of an affirmative due diligence requirement on defense counsel would erode the prosecutor’s obligation under, and the basis for, Brady ”
- It held that the state court was incorrect in deciding that because certain undisclosed evidence would not have been admissible at trial that evidence was not subject to the Brady disclosure obligation. The Third Circuit held that Brady definitively applies to inadmissible evidence, especially because such evidence could lead defense counsel to other exculpatory evidence. In its words, “[t]here is no requirement that leads be fruitful to trigger disclosure under Brady, and it cannot be that if the Commonwealth fails to pursue a lead, or deems it fruitless, that it is absolved of its responsibility to turn over to defense counsel Brady”
- Perhaps most poignantly, it refuted the claim that the prosecution’s assessment of whether something was favorable to the defendant was a relevant consideration. The Third Circuit wrote, “making Brady disclosure depend on a prosecutor’s own assessment of evidentiary value, as opposed to the benefit to defense counsel, is anathema to the goals of fairness and justice motivating Brady.”
- It found that the state court failed to abide by Brady because they never conducted a cumulative analysis of all of the undisclosed evidence to determine whether their collective disclosure to the defense could have altered the trial’s outcome. Instead, the state court did an isolated, piece-by-piece analysis that deprived the defendant of a real review of how the State’s actions perverted the trial.
Beyond Brady, the Third Circuit’s ruling also has important implications for how courts should interpret the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Both dissents focused their attention on the claim that the majority misapplied AEPDA, failing to defer adequately to the decisions made in the Pennsylvania state courts. While AEDPA certainly constrains the federal courts when they review state court convictions, the majority here deftly analyzed how the state courts’ rulings were the very kind that the federal courts could revisit and reverse even under AEDPA.
Another interesting wrinkle is Chief Judge McKee’s concurrence. Rather than rehash any of the Brady claims, his separate opinion is a comprehensive 55-page guide to understanding all of the problems with eyewitness identifications. Chief Judge McKee documents the problems not only as they took form in Mr. Dennis’s case, but also as they generally arise in the criminal justice system. His concurrence is a reminder to law enforcement officials that they must exercise caution and do all they can to avoid relying so heavily upon the testimony of eyewitnesses.
In all, the Third Circuit’s opinion is an important read and we hope its guidance on both Brady and AEDPA help other victims of prosecutorial misconduct, like Mr. Dennis, find relief.