Jimmy Dennis: A System Not Designed for Innocence

Jimmy Dennis' case reveals a great deal about a hopelessly broken system that administers the law, but does not necessarily dispense justice.
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Jimmy Dennis has been a prisoner on Pennsylvania death row for 23 years. Dennis was convicted of the 1991 fatal shooting of Chedell Ray Williams, 17, a student at Olney High School in North Philadelphia, at a bus stop over a pair of $450 earrings. He was sent to death row in 1992. And his case reveals a great deal about a hopelessly broken system that administers the law, but does not necessarily dispense justice.

On August 21, 2013, the City of Brotherly Love witnessed one of those rare moments in time when the criminal justice system was forced to confront itself, its flaws and abuses, the corruption of public servants that send the innocent to prison, sometimes for decades, and sometimes to death. Judge Anita Brody, a federal district judge, wrote a damning 46-page opinion in which she granted Dennis' petition for habeas corpus. Throwing out his conviction and death sentence and ordering the state to retry Dennis within 180 days or release him, Judge Brody declared that Dennis "was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit."

Calling the conviction a "grave miscarriage of justice," the judge noted that the prosecution, whose case was based "on scant evidence at best" covered up evidence pointing to Dennis' innocence, including evidence undermining the reliability of the police investigation, and statements pointing the finger at three other men in 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," the judge said.

Further, the court wrote that the Commonwealth "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," she added.

In addition, the defense counsel was ineffective, having failed to interview a single eyewitness--including a girl who was with the victim at the time and said she knew the killers and their nicknames, or a witness whose felony assault charges against his girlfriend suddenly were dropped after he implicated Dennis.

The jury deliberated fewer than five hours, and evidence was presented for a mere three hours in the penalty phase of the trial.

Seth Williams--the city's first black district attorney who was elected in 2010 on a reform platform of alternatives to incarceration and executions--surprised Philadelphians when he appealed the case. Williams said he was disappointed in Judge Brody's "acceptance of slanted factual allegations" and "a newly concocted alibi defense."

Meanwhile, on February 9, a panel of the three most conservative judges on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals--all white men appointed by President George W. Bush--vacated Judge Brody's order. In the coming days, that court is expected to rule on whether it will hold an en banc rehearing of the case, before the judges of the entire court. Meanwhile, Jimmy Dennis remains in prison. But what does this say about the pursuit of justice? How can the public have faith in a legal system that goes through the motions, and fails to provide justice to the innocent because it is more concerned about expediency and protecting an inherently broken system and its caretakers?

One of Jimmy Dennis' supporters knows far too well about the consequences of wrongful convictions, and placing innocent people behind bars. "When I look at the Jimmy Dennis case, and you have eyewitnesses that were far away and saw him for two or three seconds, you have to realize how many mistakes were made in the I.D.," said Jennifer Thompson.

In 1984, Thompson, then a 22-year old college student in Burlington, North Carolina, was brutally raped by a man who had broken into her home. She kept her eyes open during the attack, and was absolutely confident when she identified Ronald Cotton n a lineup as her attacker. Cotton was tried and convicted, and served over 10 years in prison before he was released due to his innocence. A man named Bobby Poole was the real rapist. "There was no malice in my story. There was no malice or bad intent in what happened to me in my witness identification," said Thompson. "I had 10 to 15 minutes to look at his face. I could describe him in great detail."

Thompson--who, prior to her own horrifying experience, would not have believed innocent people are sent to prison--reacted to the appellate court ruling on Jimmy Dennis with a dose of realism. "As far as the decision, I was excited when the lower court made the decision, but I can't say I was surprised when the higher court pulled the C.Y.A. move," she said. "Let's face it-- the D.A.'s office has an awful lot of power."

"We know the shooter in the Jimmy Dennis case is still on the street. And I can guarantee is inflicting more harm," said Thompson, referring to the "wrongful liberty" of the real murderer. "Politicians and legislators should be concerned."

"If there's a tiny possibility we got the wrong person, it behooves us to know who shot that girl. And the reality is there's only one winner in this, and that's the perpetrator. The victim's family loses, the community loses, the other victims harmed by the actual perpetrator. The police, the D.A.'s office, everybody loses," she added.

Now on a mission to reform the system, Jennifer Thompson wants to believe the vast majority of the actors in the criminal justice system are upholding the law and doing the right thing. And yet, she is concerned about the capacity of the system to deliver justice. "They say we try to look at the criminal justice system in a logical way. The criminal justice system is not logical. It is not designed for innocence," Thompson lamented. "It is designed for guilt and for punishment, and I hate this word, but finality. Just because it's final doesn't mean it's right."

Another supporter of Jimmy Dennis is Susan Sarandon, the actress, activist and death penalty opponent who portrayed Sister Helen Prejean in the film Dead Man Walking, and death row survivor Sunny Jacobs in the film adaptation of The Exonerated. Sarandon--who opposes the death penalty on spiritual grounds and believes it is arbitrary, capricious and a waste of taxpayers' money--says the Jimmy Dennis case is both capricious and unforgivable.

"When Judge Anita Brody overturned his sentence, clearly she listened to what the facts were," Sarandon said. "His case is a condemnation of the whole system. There were so many flags raised in terms of his hearing-- no physical evidence, shaky eyewitness identification, no weapons, no earrings.... It's crazy, it's like something in a Russian novel."

"And when you're a jury who has to make a decision in the case and you find evidence withheld after you've sent someone to death, that is horrible for someone who has to make that decision," Sarandon also offered. "And it ruins their lives. They see someone murdered based on a decision they made based on misinformation, poor representation, police corruption, police inadequacy or the inadequacy of the defense lawyer."

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, since 1989 there have been around 1,600 known exonerations of the wrongfully convicted. 60 percent are people of color. The innocent are imprisoned due to perjury and false accusations (in 56 percent of cases); official misconduct (46 percent); mistaken witness identification (34 percent); false or misleading forensic evidence (23 percent), and false confessions (13 percent). Further, since 1973, 150 prisoners have been released from death row in America due to innocence. However, a recent study suggested as a conservative estimate that at least 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death--around 340-- are innocent.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Thompson reminds us of the personal consequences of a broken system on the wrongfully convicted. "Jimmy Dennis is someone's son, Jimmy Dennis is someone's brother. Jimmy Dennis has family, he is loved. Decades of is life have been wiped from his personal calendar. Not only have I understood the system and how the system doesn't work, but I also understand that these men and women are our brothers and sisters and we are all required to care."

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