The Beat Goes On

It would be easy to say that a perfect storm hit Philadelphia’s justice system yesterday – an extremely aggressive and often reversed prosecutor rolls over an inept defense attorney whose clients often seem to end up on death row, and then both of them run into the outraged federal judge who orders a new trial for the unjustly convicted accused after 20 years of wrongful incarceration. And indeed all of that happened yesterday – except that we wouldn’t call it a perfect storm, because a perfect storm implies that the factors making the storm rarely come together, and that would not be the case. The truth is that the James Dennis case is more like a routine summer shower than a perfect storm.

First let’s cover the facts: After a short trial and an even shorter penalty phase, James Dennis was sentenced to death for the brutal and pointless murder of Chedell Williams in 1991. The evidence against him was not strong, largely three very tentative eyewitness identifications and some clothes allegedly seized by the police and then “lost” by them before trial. Even the eyewitness testimony identifying Mr. Dennis suggested a reasonable doubt – the descriptions were almost uniformly of a man 5’9” or 5’10”, while Dennis is a very small 5’5”, 130 pounds. In addition, the Commonwealth failed to reveal that four other eyewitnesses did not identify Mr. Dennis at all.

And that wasn’t all the Commonwealth failed to reveal. There was a receipt given to the police by an alibi witness that somehow only turned up 10 years after trial. (Seth Williams, the present District Attorney of Philadelphia, complained that the Judge accepted a “newly concocted alibi defense,” but Mr. Williams has apparently never read the transcript of the trial or the opinion in the Dennis case, since the alibi defense was presented at trial.) The Commonwealth also buried a series of documents in which a witness presented compelling evidence that others committed the crime; that witness named names, provided corroborating evidence, and was taken by police on a drive-along to identify various relevant locations aimed at solving the crime. Yet these six documents were never revealed to the defense until Mr. Dennis had spent a decade on death row.

And what might the defense have done with all these documents? An effective defense team would have made a compelling case for innocence. But Mr. Dennis did not have an effective team; in fact, he barely had a lawyer. A competent lawyer would have interviewed all the eyewitnesses – had this lawyer done so, he would have learned that many of the witnesses had failed to identify Mr. Dennis, and that one had actually identified someone else. A competent lawyer would have prepared Mr. Dennis’s alibi witnesses, thus learning about the missing receipt that would have been strong corroboration. Mr. Dennis’s lawyer didn’t do any of these things – indeed, it is unclear what in fact this lawyer did do, other than appearing in court every day to collect his $400 per diem.

Once again the city of Philadelphia is embarrassed by its justice system. Ironically, its court administration believes that it has improved representation by hiking its fees a meager amount. But the same lawyers – not screened for merit, not trained for improvement – continue to receive appointments to our most serious murder cases. In fact, the lawyer in James Dennis’s case has been appointed to a very serious murder case going to trial in the near future in…Philadelphia.

It would be nice to think that our District Attorney, seeing reversals like this one over and over again, might form a real Wrongful Convictions Unit to examine past mistakes and rectify real injustices? Many District Attorney offices, in Dallas and Brooklyn and Manhattan and other jurisdictions, have done so. Instead Seth Williams doggedly defends the outrages of the past, accusing the judge in the Dennis case of accepting “slanted factual allegations.” 

And the beat goes on. It is easy to believe that things have improved, that we are not living in a time where such injustices could occur. In fact nothing at all has improved; and as sure as I’m typing this I am certain that similar injustices will be found 20 years from now, because we have done nothing to prevent them.