December 01, 2016

Pennsylvania Death Sentence Overturned After Court Finds Prosecutorial Misconduct, Questions Guilt

Volunteer lawyers at Arnold & Porter recently achieved a remarkable victory for their client, Pennsylvania death row prisoner Jimmy Dennis. In 1991, high school student Chedell Williams was shot and killed in Philadelphia. Eyewitnesses described a 5’10” man between 170 and 190 pounds at the scene, yet four of the nine hesitantly selected Jimmy Dennis, a much shorter and smaller man, as the shooter. Mr. Dennis claimed he was on a bus at the time of the shooting, and that a neighbor could corroborate this alibi. Despite a lack of physical evidence, Mr. Dennis was sentenced to death in 1992.

Federal District Judge Anita Brody overturned Mr. Dennis’s conviction in August 2013, finding that the State improperly withheld a receipt showing that Mr. Dennis was on a bus at the time of the shooting and failed to disclose evidence that cast further doubt on the eyewitness testimony and implicated a different perpetrator. Judge Brody’s ruling was subsequently overturned by a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in February 2015. This year an en banc panel of the Third Circuit vacated that decision, and on August 24, 2016, it upheld Judge Brody’s original reversal of Mr. Dennis’s sentence. The State has a period of 90 days in which to free Mr. Dennis, re-try him, or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.