Jimmy Dennis served more than two decades on death row for a crime that he maintains he did not commit. Arnold & Porter has advocated for Jimmy’s claim of innocence since 1999, and thanks to their investigation and vigorous representation, Jimmy walked out of prison a free man on May 13, 2017.
Jimmy was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of a 17-year-old girl. A witness to the crime, Zahra Howard, who told relatives she recognized their two assailants from her high school and they relayed this information to the police. Other eye witnesses told police that the two boys escaped in a getaway car driven by a third person. A prisoner at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility reached out to police after one of the perpetrators called him and admitted to committing the crime with two other people. The prisoner described details of the crime and gave officers the names and addresses of the perpetrators and a description of the car they used to escape the scene. Despite this information, the police directed their investigation to Jimmy Dennis, who had an alibi supported by disinterested witness testimony that he was on a bus far from the scene at the time of the crime.
Arnold & Porter’s investigation into Jimmy’s case revealed three pieces of evidence that prosecutors withheld from defense counsel that would have helped Jimmy build his defense: 1) Howard’s statement implicating two high school boys; 2) the statement from the prisoner that gave a detailed description of the phone call he had with individuals who admitted to committing the crime; and 3) a receipt from Jimmy’s alibi witness that helped establish the timeline when she saw him on the bus. As a result, Judge Anita Brody sitting for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted habeas relief to Jimmy in 2013. She ruled that the Commonwealth’s failure to disclose this exculpatory information violated Jimmy’s rights under Brady v. Maryland. Judge Brody wrote that Jimmy “was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit.” She required the Commonwealth to initiate a new trial within 180 days or set Jimmy free, but Philadelphia’s district attorney appealed the case. A panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the decision, but after a rehearing en banc, the Third Circuit upheld the grant of habeas relief.
After the Third Circuit’s decision, the prosecutor threatened to issue new proceedings, but with the help of his attorneys, Jimmy was able to reach a deal to win his freedom and avoid the risk of another erroneous conviction. Under the deal, Jimmy plead “no contest” and was released on time served. While he would have liked to prove his innocence, Jimmy explained that he accepted the deal because he “just want[ed] the nightmare to end.” After his release, he expressed, “I am so full of gratitude for the support I received from friends, family and the lawyers who stuck with me through this long and difficult process.” Jimmy’s attorneys accompanied his family to greet him when he finally set foot outside of the prison walls. Speaking on behalf of herself and the Arnold & Porter team committed to this case, volunteer attorney Rebecca Gordon said, “It was one of the most incredible, meaningful experiences of our professional and personal lives.”