A federal judge has overturned the conviction of a man who's been on death row for the past 21 years, finding that his conviction in the death of a teenager killed over her earrings was based on "scant evidence at best.''
Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody called the case against James Dennis "a grave miscarriage of justice'' and found that authorities withheld evidence.
In a ruling Wednesday, she ordered the 42-year-old Dennis released from prison unless prosecutors retry him within six months.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said his office was disappointed the judge accepted what he called the defense's "slanted factual allegations.'' He said he was reviewing the state's options.
“The defendant was convicted for the brutal murder of a teenage girl on her way home from school, in broad daylight,” Williams said. “Three passersby saw him do it and identified him in court, without any possible motive to lie.”
The judge found that Dennis was convicted based on ``shaky eyewitness identifications'' following the shooting at a transit stop in the city's Fern Rock section in 1991. The three witnesses described 17-year-old Chedell Williams' killer as much taller than the 5-foot-5-inch Dennis, according to the ruling.
The judge also questioned the identification techniques used during a police photo array and police lineup, techniques that have come under frequent scrutiny in death penalty appeals and that many police departments have since revised.
Chedell Williams, a high school student, had been at the train station with a female friend. Witnesses told police that at least two men were involved, and possibly a third as a getaway driver, but Dennis was the only person charged.
Also, the other girl told relatives that she knew the two assailants from high school, although she had never seen the men. The relatives passed the information to police, but they never followed up on it, the judge found.
“Improper police work characterized nearly the entirety of the investigation,'' the judge said.
Dennis was about 20 and had only a minor drug arrest on his record when he was charged in the girl's death. He had a child born after he went to prison, said pro bono lawyer Ryan Guilds, who has worked on his appeal since 1999.
“For him, as a father, for him to have been accused of this horrible crime has really taken a toll on him,” Guilds said.
Dennis now hopes to be reunited with his mother and two daughters, Guilds said.
Dennis had maintained that he was on a bus the afternoon of the shooting and offered an acquaintance who saw him there as an alibi witness. The woman told police she had taken the bus several hours later. However, the appellate lawyers, after the 1992 trial, found a receipt from a stop she made that day that makes it more likely that she had taken the bus earlier than she recalled.
Lawyers from the federal public defender's office and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project also worked on the case.
“The eyewitness identifications were highly suspect,” said Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. “When we have convictions based entirely on eyewitness identification, there have been calls to disallow the death penalty at all. ... The risk of a misidentification is so great that that should be off the table.”