A Pennsylvania federal judge has vacated the murder conviction of a man who’s spent more than 20 years on death row, saying the government built the case around “shaky” eyewitness identification and withheld evidence.
The prisoner, James Dennis, was represented by a team of lawyers from Arnold & Porter, which provided pro bono service in the long fight to exonerate Dennis.
"The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has committed a grave miscarriage of justice in convicting Dennis and sentencing him to die for this crime," Judge Anita Brody of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania wrote in her August 21 ruling.
Dennis was convicted for the 1991 killing of 17-year-old Chendell Williams based solely on eyewitness testimony, Brody said. In October 1992, Dennis was sentenced to death. Brody wrote that his "prosecution was based on scant evidence at best" and "in the process, the Commonwealth covered up evidence that pointed away from Dennis."
The conviction was overturned after it was revealed that, among other things, Pennsylvania prosecutors withheld multiple pieces of evidence from the defense, violating Dennis' right to due process and Brady v. Maryland, the judge said. Dennis was the only person arrested or convicted for the homicide.
Brody wrote: "Dennis’ conviction was based solely on shaky eyewitness identifications from three witnesses, the testimony of another man who said he saw Dennis with a gun the night of the murder, and a description of clothing seized from the house of Dennis’ father that the police subsequently lost before police photographed or catalogued it."
The judge also said “there were numerous flaws with the investigation and prosecution of this crime, flaws that significantly diminish confidence in the outcome.”
In 1999, a team from Arnold & Porter—counsels Ryan Guilds and Rebecca Gordon, staff attorneys Amy Rohe and Meghan Martin, associate Ingrid Epperly and partner James Cooper—took Dennis' state habeas appeal as a pro bono case.
"Most of us were first years when we took the case back in 1999," Guild said. The Arnold & Porter attorneys got new discovery and looked into the original charges. In all, they found evidence of inadequate representation by trial counsel and alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
“It's truly overwhelming for the lawyers who have been on this case and it has served as the backbone for our pro bono work,” Guild said. He added that the team would continue to represent Dennis and encouraged young lawyers to take pro bono cases like Dennis’.
Pennsylvania has 180 days to retry Dennis or set him free, Brody said. The state could also decide to challenge Brody’s ruling on appeal.