After spending 21 years on death row for shooting to death an Olney High School student in 1991, convicted murderer James Dennis' sentence was overturned Wednesday.
Calling the case "a grave miscarriage of justice," U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody ruled the Commonwealth not only improperly withheld evidence from the defense at the time of the trial, but actually covered up evidence pointing away from Dennis.
"James Dennis, the petitioner, was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit," Brody wrote in a memorandum accompanying her opinion.
The decision almost immediately touched off a war of words between the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office and members of Dennis' legal defense team.
District Attorney Seth Williams said in a statement Wednesday he was "disappointed" in the court's decision, "in particular its acceptance of slanted factual allegations by the defendant’s criminal defense lawyers."
"This defendant was convicted for the brutal murder of a teenage girl on her way home from school, in broad daylight at Broad and Olney, in order to rip the earrings from her ears," Williams said.
"Three passersby saw him do it and identified him in court, without any possible motive to lie.
"The defendant had a record of arrests for armed robberies, and after this case he pleaded guilty to shooting yet another robbery victim in a different case.
"His newly concocted alibi defense in this case was based on allegations that were proven to be lies at a post-trial hearing."
Defense attorney Amy Rohe, of Arnold & Porter, LLP, shot back in a message to Williams' office contending "several statements in the release are misleading."
"At the time of Mr. Dennis’ conviction, his only prior conviction was for a simple drug possession, as the court record reflects, and as you know was the subject of a claim in this case," she wrote.
"Second, Mr. Dennis did not plead guilty to the crime you mention. As you also know, the multiple armed robbery arrests you mention were all dropped, with the exception of one conviction that took place well after the unfair trial and conviction in this case."
She concluded by saying the firm believes "the court’s decision speaks for itself as to Mr. Dennis’ innocence and the reasons for his wrongful conviction."
Williams said in a release officials in his office "are studying the court’s opinion and considering available options for further action."
The Commonwealth must retry Dennis by Feb. 18 or set him free.
Dennis was convicted of first-degree murder for the death of 17-year-old Chedell Williams, who was shot and killed as she and friend Zahra Howard walked home from Olney High School the afternoon of Oct. 22, 1991.
Court documents state the teens were climbing the steps of SEPTA's Fern Rock Station at 10th Street and Nedro Avenue when Dennis, then 21, and a second man blocked their path and demanded their earrings.
Howard hid behind a nearby fruit stand, while Williams ran into the street with the two men in pursuit.
Prosecutors claim Dennis caught Williams, ripped the jewelry from her ears and fatally shot her in the neck. Records state he and the second man then jumped into a car and sped away.
A jury in 1992 returned a guilty verdict for charges of first-degree murder, criminal conspiracy and firearms offenses.
Williams was then sentenced to death on the basis of one aggravated circumstance – that he killed Williams during the commission of a felony, which the jury found outweighed the fact Williams had no significant history of prior criminal convictions.
Brody in her memorandum called the Commonwealth's evidence "scant at best."
She noted police never recovered a murder weapon, found the car described by witnesses at the scene nor arrested any accomplices.
"There was virtually no physical evidence presented at trial," Brody wrote.
"Dennis was convicted almost entirely through eyewitness identification."
Brody further branded the testimony of the three eyewitnesses who provided the identifications – Howard, a stone mason and a SEPTA cashier – as "shaky."
She said none of the witnesses "confidently selected Dennis right away" from a photo array and that three additional witnesses did not pick Dennis' photo, while a fourth chose another suspect, a development that didn't come to light until years after the trial.
She said the only witnesses police called to identify Dennis from a lineup were those four that had already picked him out of a photo array.
"Police also failed to follow up on important leads," Brody continued, claiming "improper police work characterized nearly the entirety of the investigation."
A police activity sheet stated Howard told Williams' aunt and uncle she recognized the men who robbed and killed her friend as Olney High School students named "Kim" and "Quinton," while another of Williams' aunts told police Howard had also mentioned their presence.
Brody further noted police never followed up on the claims of an inmate in the Montgomery County Jail, who gave a statement to police alleging a friend had called him and admitted to conspiring with two other men to murder Williams.
Dennis has repeatedly claimed the eyewitnesses misidentified him and that he was on a bus traveling to his father's residence at the Abbottsford Homes in Allegheny West during the time of the murder.