UPDATED: Third Circuit Throws Out Pennsylvania Murder Conviction Due to Brady Violations; TCP Brief Instrumental

UPDATE: On August 23,  the Third Circuit Court of Appeals  overturned the murder conviction of James Dennis because prosecutors in Philadelphia withheld crucial evidence from the defense in violation of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brady v Maryland, which requires prosecutors to disclose information favorable to the defense.  The majority of the Third Circuit held that prosecutors in this case intentionally withheld from defense counsel a receipt corroborating Dennis’ alibi, an inconsistent statement by the Commonwealth’s key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder, all of which were material to Dennis’ claim that he did not commit the murder.  His lawyers say the decision reflects the importance of TCP’s work to organize friend-of-the-court filings by unlikely allies — such as the judges and prosecutors who served as amici in this case.

Dennis was convicted for the 1991 murder of Chedell Williams, and sentenced to die.  He has maintained his innocence for more than 24 years.  The decision orders the Commonwealth to release Dennis unless it commences a new trial against him within 90 days.

ORIGINAL POST (May 6, 2015):  At the request of counsel representing James Dennis, a death row inmate on Pennsylvania’s death row, The Constitution Project — through its Clearinghouse of New Voices on Criminal Justice Reform — recruited a distinguished group of former prosecutors and judges from 3rd Circuit states to sign on to a brief in support of habeas relief for Mr. Dennis before the US Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

Multiple pieces of exculpatory evidence relating to Mr. Dennis’ innocence were not disclosed to the defense at trial. These include a prior inconsistent statement by the prosecution’s star witness that tended to exculpate the defendant, a document that undermined the credibility of an important government witness and bolstered the defendant’s alibi defense, and a file of investigation reports exploring the possibility that someone else may have committed the crime. While Mr. Dennis found no relief in state court for these Brady violations, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted Mr. Dennis habeas relief in August of last year, concluding that: “I am concerned that James Dennis was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit. Regardless of Dennis’ possible innocence, there can be no question that the Commonwealth violated his right to due process of law by withholding exculpatory evidence that would have made a difference at his trial. As a result, after serving over 20 years in prison, Dennis is entitled to receive either a new trial or his freedom.” Dennis v. Wetzel, __F.Supp.2d__, 2013 WL 4457047, *26 (E.D. Pa. 2013)

The amicus brief supports the District Court’s findings, emphasizing that the standards employed by the state courts to deny Mr. Dennis relief not only unreasonably apply Brady and its progeny, but also threaten to erode the standards of fairness to which prosecutors ought to hold themselves and the public’s confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system.

While the Third Circuit panel reviewing the case declined the prosecutors and judges’ request to file a brief, and then issued a ruling that overturned relief for Dennis, the full panel of the Third Circuit accepted the brief and vacated the panel’s decision on May 6, 2015 when it ordered a rehearing en banc. The Constitution Project thanks the law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr for its excellent research and drafting of the attached brief.

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