On Oct. 22, 1991, Chedell Williams and her friend, Zahra Howard, went to the Fern Rock Transportation Center in Philadelphia to buy a transpass. Outside of the station, they were accosted by two men who demanded Williams’ gold earrings. As the two young women tried to flee, one of the men shot Williams, killing her, and took her earrings. The men fled in a car driven by a third person.
soon focused their investigation on a young aspiring gospel and R&B
singer, James “Jimmy” Dennis. After hearing that he was a
suspect, Jimmy went to the police station, and was turned away. On
Nov. 23, Jimmy was arrested. No witnesses could identify Jimmy from
photo arrays, but he was charged, tried, and convicted, and sent to
Pennsylvania’s death row.
conviction was won by the prosecution on the basis of five witnesses.
There was no physical evidence tying him to the crime. No gun was
ever recovered and Jimmy was never found to be in possession of a
firearm. There were no forensic tests for gunshot residue on Jimmy’s
clothing. No fingerprint evidence was found linking him to the crime,
and the earrings were never recovered. The car used in the crime was
never found; in spite of the fact that several witnesses gave
descriptions of the vehicle and at least one provided a partial
license plate number. Jimmy Dennis never owned a car and had no
appeal and Judge Brody
2013, Federal Appeals Court Judge Anita Brody heard Jimmy’s case.
In her decision, the judge gave the District Attorney’s office 180
days to either set Jimmy free or retry him. The resulting appeal
delayed justice for Jimmy for years.
ruled that “James Dennis was wrongly convicted and sentenced
to die…there can be no question that the Commonwealth violated his
right to due process…” The judge upheld Jimmy’s petition “on
the basis of exculpatory and impeachment evidence that the
Commonwealth improperly withheld from the defense at the time of the
trial, in violation of Brady
wrote: “Dennis’ conviction was based solely on shaky eyewitness
identifications, the testimony of a man (Thompson) 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. In
short, Dennis’ prosecution was based on scant evidence at best. In
the process, the Commonwealth covered up evidence that pointed away
withheld evidence was a failure to reveal the existence of a witness
who identified others as the real killers (Frazier), the failure to
reveal to the defense a receipt in the possession of cops that would
have confirmed Jimmy’s alibi (Cason), and the failure of police to
follow up on the allegation that a witness, Zahra Howard, had said
she knew the shooter from high school. Prosecutors also concealed
credible evidence of the identities of the real killers.
and prosecutors also failed to turn over a series of documents
relating to the statement of William Frazier with detailed, credible
information about the murder—even though police turned over
numerous tips and statements relaying neighborhood rumors. Frazier,
an inmate in the Montgomery County Jail, gave a statement …
relaying a phone call he had had with two friends who told him that
they and a third friend had committed the Williams murder. … Police
failed to investigate fully Frazier’s claims and the defense never
learned of Frazier’s statement until a decade after trial.”
“shortly after the murder, that she recognized the shooter from her
high school, and that two people she knew, ‘Kim’ and ‘Quinton,’
were there.” A “police activity sheet” relating to these
statements “was never turned over to the defense. There is no
question that this statement was helpful to the defense and that it
was suppressed by the Commonwealth” (all quotes in the above are
from the Judge’s decision,
unless otherwise noted).
is unconscionable that District Attorney Seth Williams chose to
appeal rather than admit that the DA’s office had perpetrated a
miscarriage of justice. Williams, once touted as a “progressive,”
delayed justice for Jimmy for years. Now, Williams himself faces
numerous charges of corruption and malfeasance.
is not the only one. The criminal justice system is rife with
corruption and prosecutorial misconduct. The Philadelphia DA’s
office is famous for the exclusion of people of color from
juries and sending a disproportionate number of people to
Pennsylvania’s death row. The city of Philadelphia has sent 11
times more people to death row than Pittsburgh and has sentenced more
people to die than 28 out of 38 states with the death penalty.
and prosecutors are key to the maintenance of the regime of mass
incarceration that targets and imprisons Black and Brown people at a
disproportional rate. More than six million people, more than were
enslaved in the pre-Civil War South, are either in prison or under
the supervision of the criminal “justice” system. One in 10 Black
men in their 30s are in prison or jail every day.
time to abolish the current prison system. All non-violent offenders
should be released immediately, their records expunged, and
alternatives to incarceration put in place—alternatives that
emphasize treatment, education, and rehabilitation. Crime under
capitalism is primarily the result of a system that distributes
wealth to the richest and leaves the poor and oppressed to scramble
to survive. Under capitalism, the state serves to keep the oppressed
and exploited in check by any necessary. This includes police
violence and the threat of prison and jail.
>> The article above was written by John Leslie, and is reprinted from Resistance.