THE BLOG
10/30/2014 01:12 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

We Need an Accounting of America's Innocent Prisoners

A recent study found that wrongful death row convictions are higher than previously thought, with a conservative estimate that 4 percent of the roughly 3,000 prisoners languishing on death row across America -- at least 120 people -- are innocent.

And Jimmy Dennis is almost certainly one of them.

On November 5, the Third Circuit federal appeals court in Philadelphia will hear oral arguments in Jimmy Dennis' case. Last year, Judge Anita Brody, a federal district court judge, overturned Dennis' death sentence, declaring he "was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit." He was sentenced to die for the 1991 murder of Chedell Ray Williams, 17, a student at Olney High School, over a pair of $450 earrings. Brody said Dennis' conviction was based almost entirely on "shaky eyewitness testimony from three eyewitnesses" and the prosecution was "based on scant evidence at best."

Judge Brody also said there was virtually no physical evidence presented at trial. The police lost clothing evidence in the case -- actually a detective later testified the clothing was thrown in the trash. Further, police focused solely on Dennis based on neighborhood rumors, even as it was clear the crime was committed by at least two people. In addition, eyewitnesses said the shooter was between 5' 7" and 5' 10", while Dennis was only 5' 5" and 125-132 pounds. And the prosecution and police covered up credible evidence that pointed away from Dennis as the murderer and supported his alibi that he was somewhere else at the time of the shooting.

Roger King, the assistant district attorney in the case, had secured more death convictions than any prosecutor in the history of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. King was responsible for supplying Pennsylvania with 20 percent of its death row, and was known as the Babe Ruth, the Hank Aaron of prosecutors. "I blew out a marriage doing this," King said in a Philadelphia Daily News interview about prosecuting homicide cases. "I gave up a lot. Time with my family, vacations."

And King ruined lives in the process, sending innocent people such Jimmy Dennis to prison and to death row. For example, William Nieves spent six years on death row due to bad defense lawyering, and a conviction King helped to secure through questionable eyewitness testimony, and by reportedly withholding evidence by eyewitnesses who said the shooter was a short black man, as opposed to the taller, light-skinned Nieves, who was Puerto Rican. Nieves was released in 2000 after spending 2,190 days awaiting his death for a murder he did not commit, but died in 2005 from liver problems -- a consequence of the Hepatitis he contracted in prison which was left untreated until after his release.

Meanwhile, Frederick Thomas died of liver failure in prison before he could clear his name. Thomas -- who was sent to death row for the 1993 fatal stabbing of a FedEx driver, in a case with no physical evidence that took the jury only four hours to decide, was granted a new trial in 2002. His lawyers maintained he was framed by an officer named James Ryan. Ryan, the officer who had supplied the key eyewitnesses to King in Thomas' case, pleaded guilty in 1995 to corruption and served 42 months in federal prison, in a scandal in which officers falsified police reports, made false arrests and robbed drug dealers of more than $100,000. Hundreds of cases were overturned as a result and innocent people were released.

Further, King prosecuted the wrong men in what was supposedly a "slam-dunk" in the famed Lex Street Massacre case. Four men -- Jermel Lewis, 23, Hezekiah Thomas, 23, Sacon Youk, 19, and Quiante Perrin, 19 -- were charged in the 2000 murder of 10 people in a West Philly crack house, the worst mass murder in the city's history. With no physical evidence, one witness and the coerced confession of one of the defendants, the judge dropped all charges against the men, who had spent 18 months in jail. They sued for their wrongful incarceration and shared $1.9 million among them. In 2002, four different men were charged and convicted.

Meanwhile, Seth Williams, the Philadelphia District Attorney, appealed Judge Brody's overturning of Jimmy Dennis' murder conviction. Williams, who was "sad and disgusted" by the ruling, all but suggested the federal judge did not know what she was doing.

Jimmy Dennis, William Nieves, Fred Thomas, the original Lex Street Massacre defendants and others are not aberrations. Surely there are more, many more, in prisons in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation. But will we ever know all of their names, and who will own up to these mistakes, the crimes that condemned these men and women? How credible is a system of justice when its prosecutors and other actors cover up their own wrongdoing or the transgressions of others, and are rewarded for doing so?

And what does innocence really get you when innocence is not valued? Ask Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who really seems to care little if the innocent are executed. The attitude seems to reflect a justice system that demands more punishment as a means of social control and to offer up scapegoats, what Pope Francis referred to recently as the "maleficent power" of society's "sacrificial victims, accused of the disgraces that strike the community."

We need an accounting of the innocent in America's prisons, as we have barely scratched the surface.