At the request of counsel representing James Dennis, an 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. The brief notes that multiple pieces of exculpatory evidence relating to Mr. Dennis’ innocence were not disclosed to the defense at trial, including 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. The judge wrote: “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 Commonwealth has appealed this decision. The amicus brief supports the federal 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 conduct to which prosecutors ought to hold themselves, as well as the public’s confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system. The Constitution Project thanks the law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr for its excellent research and drafting of the brief.