If Jimmy Dennis was unjustly sentenced, why is he still on death row?

     Harold Wilson, left, is shown at a 2007 rally against the death penalty on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. Wilson was acquitted of a triple murder after a 2005 retrial. Ray Krone, right, cleared of murder through DNA evidence after spending 10 years in prison, looks on. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)

    Harold Wilson, left, is shown at a 2007 rally against the death penalty on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. Wilson was acquitted of a triple murder after a 2005 retrial. Ray Krone, right, cleared of murder through DNA evidence after spending 10 years in prison, looks on. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)

    On Aug. 21, 2013, a judge in Philadelphia said Jimmy Dennis, convicted 21 years ago of the murder of Chedell Ray Williams, deserved to be retried within 180 days or to be set free.

    He is still on death row.

    I remember hearing about the murder of Williams in 1991 at Fern Rock station. At that time, I lived in Olney and was in 7th grade at Masterman. I used Fern Rock station with my friends nearly every day, just like Chedell, an Olney High School student. My girlfriends and I all wore large gold earrings, usually with our names in the center, just like the pair Chedell lost her life for. Three people that day say they saw two people walk up to Chedell and ask for her earrings, shoot her as she resisted, and then get into a waiting car. The earrings and the murder weapon have never been seen again.

    One of the witnesses, a young woman walking with Chedell at the time of the murder, identified the two men. Neither of them was Jimmy Dennis, who has insisted since his arrest that he was riding a bus nearly half way across town at the time. The two men identified were mentioned by their nick-names and known to Chedell’s friend as classmates from high school. That lead was never fully investigated, and no other lead in the case was properly investigated, including a supposed confession from the cousin of a Montgomery County prison inmate, according to the recent ruling of Judge Anita Brody. In her August ruling, Brody overturned Dennis’ conviction because of the tremendous problems she found with the initial trial.

    Another case of bad prosecution

    Brody’s decision echoed the September 2012 ruling by Judge Teresa Sarmina on the case of Terrance Williams. Sarmina cited extensive issues with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s handling of the Williams case.

    “Because of the eye witnesses and his pattern of behavior, I am only left to conclude the federal judge’s ruling was less to do with the facts or settled law than her own political opinion or philosophy,” current District Attorney Seth Williams said of the case.

    The DA’s statement got me thinking: Is it more important that the law be settled, or that the judgment be correct? In my opinion, it is the latter, particularly when a person’s life is at stake. The current DA’s Office does not have to support the mistakes of its predecessors.

    A friend among the not-guilty

    Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, six people have been exonerated from death row in Pennsylvania. The sixth man was Harold Wilson, sentenced to death for a brutal murder of three people in 1989. It was not until 10 years later, when it was confirmed that the district attorney who prosecuted the case used racially discriminatory tactics, when Wilson won the chance to have the case heard again. After a full 16 years on Pennsylvania’s death row, Wilson was finally released in 2005 when DNA evidence proved not only that he was not at the scene of the crime, but that another person — who remains unidentified — was.

    While on death row, Wilson was two cells down from Dennis, whose nickname Wilson tells me is Shorty. They were and still are very close, and Wilson has been following the recent developments in Dennis’ case. The time Judge Brody gave to either file to retry the Dennis case or release him — 180 days — seems like a lifetime to me. Six months knowing that the justice system sees the errors of your prosecution but will still keep you sitting in solitary confinement.

    For Wilson that wait ended up lasting six years.

    Wilson took note of the similarities among revelations of prosecutorial misconduct in not only his case and Dennis’, but in so many others from particularly dark eras in the late 1970s and on through the turn of the century in the Philadelphia criminal justice system.

    “I have great concern about Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania death penalty,” Wilson said. “Fear keeps people from acting against the death penalty, and people don’t want to come to terms with their mistakes. It’s a long, drawn-out process that is politically motivated, and November is an election year.”

    Time for an alternative

    As for the psychological effects of remaining on death row for so long while the innocence you have always maintained is finally and laboriously decided in court, Wilson said he was left exhausted in almost every way imaginable, but said he “could not accept” being imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.

    He spent much of his time inside learning what he could, explaining that once he “got to county,” he realized he did not have the education he needed to merely survive in solitary confinement for nearly 23 hours each day, let alone to fight for his freedom.

    “Let’s at least come up with an alternative to the torture of solitary confinement,” Wilson said as we finished our Oct. 28 phone conversation.

    My thoughts returned to Jimmy Dennis, at that moment finishing day 66, not even half-way through his 180 days, alone in an 8’x8′ cell, waiting for the DA’s office in Philadelphia to decide how to proceed. Like Harold Wilson eight years ago, he would be surrounded on all sides by so many others on death row — some of them innocent men, waiting decades to merely prove it.

    It is time that Pennsylvania cease fearing a conversation about the death penalty and face the fact that capital punishment simply does not work.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.