(CN) — Testimony by three confident eyewitnesses placed a Philadelphia father near the site of teenager’s grisly murder near a train station in 1991.
That was enough for a jury to send James Dennis to death row for 21 years, until a federal judge found three years ago that there was more to his case than met their eyes.
By a 9-4 margin, a decisive majority of the Third Circuit’s entire bench affirmed the decision on Tuesday in a ruling that skewered the state for depriving Dennis of a fair trial by withholding evidence corroborating his alibi and implicating a different perpetrator.
The ruling also bolsters a growing body of evidence that one of the most common grounds for a death-penalty conviction is also among the shakiest.
On the afternoon of Oct. 22, 1991, Dennis was spotted from afar near a train station in Northeast Philadelphia, where the teenage Chedell Williams died in a robbery-murder with a bullet in her neck.
At 5 feet six inches tall and 125 pounds, Dennis was considerably shorter and more slight than witness descriptions of the killer.
Of the nine witnesses at the scene, the state presented four — and only three of them picked Dennis out of a photo array. The fourth had told authorities that the suspect stood at 5 feet 9 inches and 170 pounds.
Dennis hoped to convince a jury that he had been on a bus from his father’s home to the Abbotsford Homes project at the time of the crime, and that a woman from his neighborhood saw him in transit.
But the woman had been fuzzy about what time she saw on her ticket — which was stamped in military time — and Dennis was convicted in 1992.
More than two decades would pass before Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody found that the state “covered up evidence pointing away from Dennis,” in a scathing opinion.
Early last year, a three-judge Third Circuit panel reversed Brody’s decision, inspiring a new round of en banc appeals before the Philadelphia-based appellate court’s full 13-judge bench.
But in upholding Brody’s ruling for the full court, Senior Circuit Judge Marjorie Rendell also ripped prosecutors for shirking their duties to provide exculpatory evidence, a right since the Supreme Court decided the case of Brady v. Maryland in 1963.
“The suppressed Brady material — a receipt corroborating Dennis’s alibi, an inconsistent statement by the commonwealth’s key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder — effectively gutted the commonwealth’s case against Dennis,” Rendell wrote for the majority. “The withholding of these pieces of evidence denied Dennis a fair trial in state court.”
For the dissenting judges, “the evidence against Dennis was strong — it is hard to discount the identification of three witnesses.”
But Chief Circuit Judge Theodore McKee questioned this premise in a concurring opinion that his colleagues called a “masterful” dicing of the science of identifications.
“In the last 30 years, over 2,000 studies have examined human memory and cognition and their relationship to the reliability of eyewitness identifications,” McKee noted. “This impressive body of scholarship and research has revealed that eyewitness accounts can be entirely untrustworthy. As the International Association of Chiefs of Police has concluded, ‘[o]f all investigative procedures employed by police in criminal cases, probably none is less reliable than the eyewitness identification.”
The Innocence Project, a New York-based advocacy group, has emphasized the same point repeatedly in their campaigns against wrongful convictions, and the group’s friend-of-the-court brief in the Dennis case made an impression on McKee.
As the judge noted, the project’s researchers found that mistaken identifications have factored into 75 percent of all wrongful convictions — comprising more than 300 cases.
To McKee, criminologists have now successfully tested an observation that late Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan made more than three decades ago.
“All the evidence points rather strikingly to the conclusion that there is almost nothing more convincing than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says ‘That’s the one!'” Brennan wrote in 1981, in a dissent over a robbery conviction in Kentucky.
A spokesman for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office declined to reveal whether prosecutors would put the troubled case to rest or pursue a final stage of review before the Supreme Court.
But the prosecutors praised what they called a “compelling dissent by four federal judges, who concluded that the evidence against Dennis remains ‘strong.'”
The Supreme Court has been tough on federal appellate rulings that overturn state convictions.
In one of Tuesday’s dissents, Circuit Judge D. Michael Fisher pointed out that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act — signed by then-President Bill Clinton — limited federal judges’ power to overturn the state-court convictions of even innocent defendants.
“Congress has decreed that we may not grant a writ of habeas corpus unless the judgment of the state court was clearly unreasonable, not merely incorrect,” he wrote.
Crunching some numbers, Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman wrote in a separate dissent that the Supreme Court has reversed 34 out of 46 cases for insufficient deference to state courts under the act.
“By my count, of the 19 cases arising under AEDPA in which the Supreme Court has granted certiorari, 14 involved questions of federal-court deference to state-court decisions,” he said.
Dennis’s attorney Amy Rohe, from the Washington-based firm Reisman Karron Greene, said that the uncertainties surrounding the case have not dampened the celebrations of her client and his family.
“As you can imagine they are overcome with emotion that their father, son, and brother might finally come home to them,” she told Courthouse News. “Mr. Dennis hopes, as he has hoped every day for more than 25 years, that his innocence will finally be known.”
She added, “While no decision can give him back those 25 years, he is grateful that a second federal court has now condemned the unconstitutional prosecution that put him there. We can only hope the DA’s office will waste no more of the people’s resources delaying his freedom.”
A countdown clock on a website for his supporters, JimmyDennis.org, shows Dennis hurtling steadily toward a grim benchmark: his 9,000th day behind bars.
“As of July 1, 2016, Jimmy Dennis has been stolen from his family for a total of 8,989 days for a crime he didn’t commit,” the page read on Tuesday afternoon.
For his attorney Rohe, there is another tragedy to the case.
“It’s important to remember that a young girl’s life was taken and that her family also deserves justice against the men who killed her,” she wrote in an email.
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