Death Sentence for Wrongfully Accused Arnold & Porter Client James Dennis Vacated After 20 Years in Prison
Judge Anita Brody of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued on August 21 a ruling vacating the murder conviction and death sentence of James Dennis in connection with the 1991 robbery and murder of 17 year-old Chedell Williams, after the defendant had wrongfully served over 20 years in prison.
Arnold & Porter LLP has represented Mr. Dennis in his capital habeas appeals on a pro bono basis since 1999. Mr. Dennis had just lost his appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a 4-3 decision when the Arnold & Porter legal team began reinvestigating the original charges against him as well as the trial proceedings leading up to his conviction. What they found, in the Court's words, was extensive withheld evidence that "would have proved immensely cogent to the defense in pointing to an entirely new and otherwise unknown investigatory path, in strongly supporting Dennis' alibi, and in seriously discrediting the investigation that led to Dennis' arrest."
Mr. Dennis ultimately filed a state habeas appeal raising numerous constitutional violations, including ineffective assistance of counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, and suppression of exculpatory evidence. That appeal remained in state court proceedings for over a decade, until 2011. Mr. Dennis filed his petition seeking a writ of habeas corpus in federal court in 2012. Judge Brody's 46-page ruling and opinion vacated Mr. Dennis' conviction and death sentence based on the Commonwealth's suppression of numerous items of exculpatory and impeachment evidence from Mr. Dennis and his defense counsel, and its cumulative effect on Mr. Dennis' jury trial. According to Judge Brody, Mr. Dennis is, therefore, "entitled to receive a new trial or his freedom" based on a "grave miscarriage of justice."
Having served almost two decades on death row, Mr. Dennis asked his attorneys to express his deep gratitude to the family and supporters who have believed in his innocence.
Mr. Dennis' legal team includes Arnold & Porter's Ryan Guilds, Amy Rohe, Rebecca Gordon, Meghan Martin, Ingrid Epperly, and James W. Cooper. Former firm attorney and now federal public defender Melanie Gavisk also served on the team. Also members of the team were Stuart Lev and Kerry Levy of the Capital Habeas Unit, Federal Community Defenders Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.