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Jimmy Dennis and Pennsylvania's Grave Miscarriage of Justice

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Jimmy Dennis has been on Pennsylvania's death row for two decades, and a federal judge calls it a "grave miscarriage of justice" by the Commonwealth.

Dennis was convicted of murder for the October 1991 fatal shooting of Chedell Ray Williams, 17, a student at Olney High School, at a SEPTA stop over a pair of $450 earrings. He was sent to death row in 1992.

Granting Dennis' habeas petition, Judge Anita Brody threw out his conviction and death sentence, and ordered the state to retry him within 180 days or set him free.

In a scathing and damning 46-page opinion, the judge concluded that Dennis "was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit." Brody noted that Dennis had no criminal history, other than a single conviction for possession of a controlled substance.

His defense counsel provided a paltry defense, and didn't interview a single eyewitness -- including a witness who pointed the finger at Dennis, and whose felony assault charges against his pregnant girlfriend in another case were miraculously dropped. And a girl who was with the victim said she knew the killers and their nicknames.

The prosecution failed to disclose evidence pointing to his innocence, including statements implicating three other men in the murder, and evidence undermining the reliability of the police investigation.

"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.

According to Judge Brody, the prosecution of Jimmy Dennis was based "on scant evidence at best." As a result, the Commonwealth covered up evidence that pointed to someone other than Dennis. "It 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.

The jury deliberated fewer than five hours, with only over three hours for the presentation of evidence in the penalty phase of the trial.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who has not decided whether he will appeal, said he was disappointed in Judge Brody's "acceptance of slanted factual allegations" and "a newly concocted alibi defense."

Death row exonerations are far more common than one would think. Jimmy Dennis would become the 143rd innocent person in the U.S. released from death row since 1973, and the seventh in Pennsylvania. With 1,348 people executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, one innocent person has been freed for every nine that have been executed. The stakes are so high -- literally life and death -- and yet the error rate is so high as well. Certainly a factory would be shut down if every ninth or 10th product coming off the assembly line was defective. And we're not including the countless innocent people who may still languish on death row, or even worse, were already executed.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Witness to Innocence, the only national organization of exonerated death row survivors in the U.S. On October 8, in WTI's home base of Philadelphia, Sister Helen Prejean and Danny Glover will help the organization celebrate a decade of leading the charge against the death penalty. And the death penalty is costly, arbitrary, unjust and unevenly applied, with prosecutors exercising broad discretion to seek death, with accountability only to the voters.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Philadelphia County has the third largest death row population in the nation. Yet, it ranks lowest in the state in paying attorneys who represent death row inmates. According to a new report from DPIC ("The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties produce Most Death Cases At Enormous Costs to All"), a small percentage of counties in the U.S. -- only 2 percent -- account for a majority of America's death row population and recent death sentences.

Only 15 percent of the counties have provided all state executions since 1976, and the 3,125 inmates on death row come from a mere 20 percent of the counties.

Further, those counties with the most death penalty usage -- such as Philadelphia -- suffer the most reversals and abuses. For example, Maricopa County, Ariz., which had four times the number of pending death penalty cases per capita as Los Angeles or Houston, recently had its district attorney disbarred for misconduct. And when a particular New Orleans prosecutor was in charge, four death row prisoners were exonerated due to misconduct in the D.A.'s office, resulting in repudiation from four U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Meanwhile, more Jimmy Dennises are created when bad lawyering, human error and malfeasance prevail, all in the name of rushing people to their deaths. The exonerated death row survivors of Witness to Innocence have called on the Philadelphia D.A. to issue a moratorium on new death penalty prosecutions. After all, you can release an innocent man or woman from prison, but not from the grave.