This week, Jimmy Dennis was released after more than 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
by John Leslie
The crime and the frame-up
On Oct. 22, 1991, Chedell Williams and her friend, Zahra Howard, went to the Fern Rock Transportation Center in Philadelphia to buy a transpass. Outside of the station, they were accosted by two men who demanded Williams’ gold earrings. As the two young women tried to flee, one of the men shot Williams, killing her, and took her earrings. The men fled in a car driven by a third person.
Police soon focused their investigation on a young aspiring gospel and R&B singer, James “Jimmy” Dennis. After hearing that he was a suspect, Jimmy went to the police station, and was turned away. On Nov. 23, Jimmy was arrested. No witnesses could identify Jimmy from photo arrays, but he was charged, tried, and convicted, and sent to Pennsylvania’s death row.
Jimmy’s’ conviction was won by the prosecution on the basis of five witnesses. There was no physical evidence tying him to the crime. No gun was ever recovered and Jimmy was never found to be in possession of a firearm. There were no forensic tests for gunshot residue on Jimmy’s clothing. No fingerprint evidence was found linking him to the crime, and the earrings were never recovered. The car used in the crime was never found; in spite of the fact that several witnesses gave descriptions of the vehicle and at least one provided a partial license plate number. Jimmy Dennis never owned a car and had no driver’s license.
The appeal and Judge Brody
In 2013, Federal Appeals Court Judge, Anita Brody heard Jimmy’s case. In her decision, the Judge gave the District Attorney’s office 180 days to either set Jimmy free or retry him. The resulting appeal delayed justice for Jimmy for years.
Brody ruled that “James Dennis was wrongly convicted and sentenced to die…there can be no question that the Commonwealth violated his right to due process…”
The Judge upheld Jimmy’s petition “on the basis of exculpatory and impeachment evidence that the Commonwealth improperly withheld from the defense at the time of the trial, in violation of Brady v Maryland.”
“Dennis’ conviction was based solely on shaky eyewitness identifications, the testimony of a man (Thompson) 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. In short, Dennis prosecution was based on scant evidence at best. In the process, the Commonwealth covered up evidence that pointed away from Dennis.”
This withheld evidence was a failure to reveal the existence of a witness who identified others as the real killers (Frazier), the failure to reveal to the defense a receipt in the possession of cops that would have confirmed Jimmy’s alibi (Cason), and the failure of police to follow up on the allegation that a witness, Zahra Howard, had said she knew the shooter from high school.
Prosecutors also concealed credible evidence of the identities of the real killers.
“Police and prosecutors also failed to turn over a series of documents relating to the statement of William Frazier with detailed, credible information about the murder – even though police turned over numerous tips and statements relaying neighborhood rumors. Frazier, an inmate in the Montgomery County Jail, gave a statement…relaying a phone call he had had with two friends who told him that they and a third friend had committed the Williams murder…Police failed to investigate fully Frazier’s claims and the defense never learned of Frazier’s statement until a decade after trial.”
Further, “shortly after the murder, that she recognized the shooter from her high school, and that two people she knew, ‘Kim’ and ‘Quinton,’ were there.” A “police activity sheet” relating to these statements “was never turned over to the defense. There is no question that this statement was helpful to the defense and that it was suppressed by the Commonwealth.”
(all quotes in the above are from the Judge’s decision, unless otherwise noted.)
It is unconscionable that District Attorney Seth Williams chose to appeal rather than admit that the DA’s office had perpetrated a miscarriage of justice. Williams, once touted as a “progressive,” delayed justice for Jimmy for years. Now, Williams himself faces numerous charges of corruption and malfeasance.
Jimmy is not the only one. The criminal justice system is rife with corruption and prosecutorial misconduct. The Philadelphia DA’s office is famous for the exclusion of people of color from juries and sending a disproportionate number of people to Pennsylvania’s death row. The City of Philadelphia has sent 11 times more people to death row than Pittsburgh and has sentenced more people to die than 28 out of 38 states with the death penalty.*
Police and prosecutors are key to the maintenance of the regime of mass incarceration which targets and imprisons and Brown people at a disproportional rate. More than six million people, more than were enslaved in the pre-Civil War South, are either in prison or under the supervision of the criminal “justice” system. One in ten Black men in their 30’s are in prison or jail every day.
It’s time to abolish the current prison system. All non-violent offenders should be released immediately, their records expunged, and alternatives to incarceration put in place — alternatives that emphasize treatment, education, and rehabilitation. Crime under capitalism is primarily the result of a system that distributes wealth to the richest and leaves the poor and oppressed to scramble to survive. Under capitalism, the state serves to keep the oppressed and exploited in check by any necessary. This includes police violence and the threat of prison and jail.
*Executing Justice: An Inside Account of the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal by Daniel R Williams, p 202