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Brady Violations Result in Habeas Relief for Pennsylvania Death Row Prisoner

Brady Violations Result in Habeas Relief for Pennsylvania Death Row Prisoner

by David Reutter

To correct a “grave miscarriage of justice,” Pennsylvania U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody granted a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner and vacated his conviction and death sentence for a murder that “in all probability he did not commit.” The court found violations under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) due to the state’s withholding of evidence.

James A. Dennis was convicted in Philadelphia for the October 22, 1991 killing of high school student Chedell Williams. Williams, 17, and a friend, Zahra Howard, were approached by two men who demanded they give up their earrings. The girls fled; Howard hid behind a fruit stand while Williams ran into the street.

The men chased Williams. One of them held a gun to her neck and shot her; they then jumped into a car and sped away. Williams was pronounced dead shortly after her arrival at a hospital.

Dennis’ conviction was “based on scant evidence at best,” the district court wrote in an August 21, 2013 ruling. “It 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.”

The police never recovered a weapon, never found the car used by the assailants and never found two accomplices described by witnesses. Judge Brody said confidence in Dennis’ conviction was significantly diminished by flaws with the investigation and prosecution of the case, and noted “There was virtually no physical evidence presented at trial.”

All five of the nine witnesses who provided estimates of the shooter’s height put him at 5’7” to 5’10”, with four describing him as 5’9” or 5’10”. Dennis, however, is only 5’5”. None of the witnesses confidently identified Dennis right away, but three ultimately became the only testifying witnesses for the state. The other witnesses did not testify – a fact the district court found to be a troubling flaw in trial counsel’s investigation and trial preparation.

Of the witnesses not called to testify, four did not identify Dennis as the shooter, three did not pick him from a photo array and another chose a different suspect from a line-up. A witness who had looked the shooter in the eye definitively said Dennis was not the shooter, but the state never informed defense counsel of that fact.

Upon considering Dennis’ habeas petition, the federal district court found several Brady violations. First, it found violations in the suppression of six documents. The state did not dispute that it failed to disclose the documents to Dennis until a decade after his trial.

One of those documents was a statement from a jail prisoner who had corroborated evidence in the case and pointed to two other suspects. Another involved a witness who saw Dennis on the day of the murder; she gave police an original receipt from the Department of Public Welfare that would have corroborated Dennis’ alibi that she had seen him on a bus at the time of the murder.

The prosecution also suppressed statements from Zahra Howard’s aunt and uncle, who said she had recognized the shooter from her high school and two people she knew were present during the shooting.

As for the witness who said he had seen Dennis with a gun on the day Williams was killed, he only made that statement after being arrested “for a violent assault of his pregnant girlfriend that left her in the hospital,” and six months later prosecutors dropped the felony assault charges against him “without explanation.”

The district court found that Dennis was prejudiced under Brady by the prosecution’s withholding of documents related to the two witness statements and the receipt that would have corroborated his alibi. It also held the cumulative effect of the Brady violations provided a basis for granting habeas relief.

“[T]here can be no question” that the state had violated Dennis’ right to due process by withholding exculpatory evidence that would have made a material difference at his trial, Judge Brody wrote. “As a result, after serving over 20 years in prison, Dennis is entitled to receive either a new trial or his freedom.”

As of July 2014, however, he has received neither. The state appealed the district court’s judgment, which has been stayed pending a decision by the Third Circuit. Meanwhile, Dennis remains on Pennsylvania’s death row. He is represented pro bono by the law firm of Arnold & Porter, LLP. See: Dennis v. Wetzel, 966 F.Supp.2d 489 (E.D. Pa. 2013).

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Related legal case

Dennis v. Wetzel