Philadelphia man on death row for 21 years wins new trial

August 21, 2013 8:21:05 PM PDT
A federal judge has overturned the conviction of a man who's been on death row for the past 21 years, finding that his conviction in the death of a teenager killed over her earrings was based on "scant evidence at best."

It was an emotionally charged case at the time, and prosecutors said the conviction showed the public had had enough of wanton street crime.

That conviction was dismissed late Wednesday by a federal judge in a scathing ruling, but not before James Dennis had served two decades on death row.

"When I first heard it, I couldn't believe it. When the lawyer called, I was on my feet. I was dancing. I was giving God the praise, because this is something we have been praying for from day one," said Dennis' mother, Juanita Dennis.

It was back in October of 1992 that James Dennis, 22 years old at the time, was sentenced to death for the murder of 17-year-old Olney High School student Chedell Williams.

She was killed in 1991 for her $450 pair of gold earrings outside the Fern Rock subway station. Williams had told her killer to take the earrings. But after taking them, he shot her anyway.

"I'm sad and disgusted by this ruling. This was a tragic, tragic and brutal murder of a teenage girl on her way home from high school," said Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.

In her 46-page ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody stated "the Commonwealth covered up evidence that pointed away from Dennis. It ignored Dennis' own explanation for where he was at the time of the murder."

"It was a post-trial motion that dealt with this alibi that wasn't supported at that time by the trial court," said Williams.

Justice Brody further stated that "the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has committed a grave miscarriage of justice in convicting Dennis and sentencing him to die for this crime."

D.A. Williams said he has not decided if he will appeal or retry the case.

"We will review again the judge's opinion and make an appropriate decision about our next course of action. But my concern is, of course, for the victim's family," he said.

Meanwhile, Dennis, who will be 43 years old next Wednesday, spoke with his relatives by phone.

"He said, 'God is moving right now!' And he is extremely happy. He has his come-home plan. He is ready. His mindset is good. His mind is still strong," said Dennis' sister, Hope Dennis.

In a statement from the Washington, D.C. law firm representing Dennis pro bono, his attorneys said:

"Justice Brody's reasoned 46-page opinion awarding Mr. Dennis a new trial is a victory for justice. For Mr. Dennis, it is even more. It is an affirmation of his innocence, and a chilling reminder that he has spent over two decades on death row for a crime he did not commit."

Action News reached out to some relatives of Chedell Williams Wednesday night, but they said they were too emotional to speak to us.


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