A federal judge overturned the 1992 murder conviction of Pennsylvania death row inmate James Dennis Wednesday based on several questionable eyewitness identifications, among other reasons. The
Pennsylvania Innocence Project
, with the Innocence Network, filed an amicus brief in the case citing the perils of eyewitness misidentification.
In Judge Anita B. Brody’s ruling, she said city police and prosecutors ignored, lost, or “covered up” evidence that Dennis was not the man who fatally shot a high school student for her gold earrings near the Fern Rock SEPTA station in 1991, reported the
“The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has committed a grave miscarriage of justice,” Brody concluded in her 40-page opinion. She ordered the state to retry Dennis within six months or set him free.
Dennis was a 21-year-old aspiring singer when he was the only suspect arrested and charged in the shooting murder of Chedell Ray Williams. According to eyewitnesses, two men approached Williams and demanded her earrings. Dennis told the police he was on the bus at the time of the crime, which was corroborated by another passenger.
The police never found Williams earrings or the murder weapon, and despite a lack of forensic evidence linking Dennis to the crime, he was convicted largely based on eyewitness testimony and sentenced to death.
In March 2011, Gov. Corbett signed Dennis’ death warrant. After the execution was stayed by a federal judge, the case landed before Brody who reversed his conviction yesterday.
In addition to questionable eyewitness identifications, Brody’s opinion cited shoddy police work, lost evidence and an inadequate trial lawyer in her ruling. She also found that prosecutors withheld critical evidence that could have bolstered Dennis’ innocence claims, including a welfare check receipt that would have substantially bolstered Dennis’ alibi.
After learning that his conviction was overturned, Dennis called home and spoke to his family who has been waiting two decades for this news. His mother, sister and godmother were joined by his daughter who was born shortly after his arrest and an infant granddaughter he has never met.
The District Attorney’s office has not decided whether or not it will appeal.