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Media Alerts - Dennis v. Secretary, PA Dep't of Corrections - Third Circuit
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February 17, 2015
  Dennis v. Secretary, PA Dep't of Corrections - Third Circuit
Headline: Third Circuit vacates conditional writ of habeas corpus for defendant in 22 year old murder case, calling the Pennsylvania Supreme Court "reasonable."

Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus, Brady violation

Issue(s) Presented:
Did the prosecution, in its case against James Dennis, suppress three key pieces of evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland?

Brief Summary: James Dennis was convicted of the murder of Chedell Williams and sentenced to death. Over the course of several appeals and Post-Conviction Relief Act claims, he alleged that the prosecution suppressed three key pieces of exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland. The PA Supreme Court disagreed and affirmed his conviction. The District Court found that the prosecution had violated Brady and that the PA Supreme Court had based its decisions on unreasonable applications of federal law and unreasonable determinations of fact, granting a conditional writ of habeas corpus. The Third Circuit vacated this decision agreeing with the PA Supreme Court that: 1) requiring admissibility is not an unreasonable application of Brady and it progeny; 2) that Brady does not require the prosecution to turn over evidence that is also available to the defense with reasonable diligence; and 3) that certain possible impeachment evidence provided no reasonable probability of a different result because "impeachment evidence, if cumulative of similar impeachment evidence used at trial . . . is superfluous and therefore has little, if any, probative value." Accordingly, the Third Circuit vacated the District Court's order granting Dennis a conditional writ of habeas corpus and remanded the case for consideration of Dennis's remaining claims in a manner consistent with this opinion.

Extended Summary: On October 22, 1991 Chedell Williams and her friend, Zahra Howard, were approached by two men at a subway station in Philadelphia. One of the men shot Williams in the neck with a silver handgun. In late 1992, James Dennis was convicted of first-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy, carrying a weapon without a license, and possessing the instruments of a crime, and was sentenced to death. In a series of decisions over thirteen years, the PA Supreme Court affirmed Dennis's conviction and sentence and denied his petition for post-conviction relief. Dennis then filed for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition turned on three pieces of evidence from the initial investigation which Dennis contends were withheld from him in violation of Brady v. Maryland and its progeny.

Dennis alleged that on the day of the murder, he took a bus for approximately 30 minutes to the intersection of Henry and Midvale Avenues. There he saw a woman he knew named Latanya Cason between 2:00 and 2:30, and "[w]hen we got off the bus I waved to her." He then walked about a half of a mile to Abbottsford Homes, a public housing complex, and spent the rest of the day with his friends there. When officers interviewed Cason, she said that she had seen Dennis that day, but at a different time. She said that she got off work at 2:00 p.m., collected her public-assistance funds, and ran a few errands before taking the bus to the Henry and Midvale Avenues intersection. Therefore, she estimated that she saw Dennis that day between 4:00 and 4:30 p.m.

Dennis's appellate counsel later went to the regional Department of Public Welfare and found the receipt from when Cason picked up her public-assistance funds which showed that she had picked them up at 13:03 (1:03 p.m.), rather than after 2:00 p.m. as she initially remembered. Cason informed him that officers had already had a copy of that receipt when they interviewed her the first time during the initial investigation, that she had reviewed it then, and had likely been confused because it listed the military time.

Officers also interviewed Chedell Williams's aunt, Diane Pugh. Pugh told them that Howard recognized the suspects from the high school she and Williams attended. Dennis did not attend the same school as Howard and Williams, and the report indicates that the officers intended to follow up with Howard about this comment, but they never did.

Finally, an inmate at Montgomery County, William Frazier, provided a tip about Williams's murder, saying that his friend Tony Brown, who had a history of armed robbery, admitted to him to killing Williams, and had implicated two other men, Ricky Walker and Skeet. Frazier then went on a ride-along with the officers and identified a pawn shop where he believed Brown, Walker, and Skeet would have sold the earrings stolen from Williams; Brown's home; Brown's girlfriend's home; Walker's home; and Skeet's home. Upon interview, Walker admitted that he knew Williams from high school, but denied having anything to do with her murder, denied knowing Brown or Skeet, and said that his mother could confirm that he was sleeping at the time of William's murder. The police went to what they thought was the address Frazier gave them for Skeet and found no one who knew of him; however, they went to the wrong address. They never confirmed Walker's alibi, investigated the pawn shop Frazier identified, located Tony Brown, or contacted Frazier's aunt, who had set up Frazier's call with Brown.

Over the course of his appeals and Post-Conviction Relief Act claims, Dennis argued that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel, and that the prosecution had violated Brady by not turning over the public-assistance receipt, the police report of Diane Pugh's interview, or any of the reports and other documents relating to Frazier's tip at trial.

The PA Supreme Court first concluded that Dennis could not succeed on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim because "[Cason's] testimony would not support [Dennis's] alibi, because the murder occurred . . . forty minutes earlier than Cason's earliest estimate" and because her testimony "would have been cumulative" of other testimony that Dennis arrived at Abbottsford Homes between 2:15 and 2:30 p.m. The court also rejected the Brady claim, holding that the receipt was not exculpatory and there was no evidence that the Commonwealth withheld the receipt from the defense.

The PA Supreme Court found no Brady violation with respect to the Frazier lead documents, because they were inadmissible and not material because "Howard was extensively cross-examined . . . includ[ing] Howard's identification of the shooter" and because "there were two eyewitnesses other than Howard who observed the shooting at close range . . . [and who] positively identified [Dennis] as the shooter in a photo array, in a line up, and at trial." Therefore, the court found that a different result was not reasonably probable.

Dennis then filed an application under 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania that raised approximately twenty claims. The District Court held that the PA Supreme Court unreasonably applied Brady v. Maryland and its progeny in rejecting Dennis's claims that the prosecution had withheld the three pieces of exculpatory and material information. The District Court granted a conditional writ of habeas corpus and directed the Commonwealth to retry Dennis or release him. The Commonwealth filed a timely notice of appeal.
The Third Circuit first noted that under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, federal courts reviewing a state prisoner's application for a writ of habeas corpus may not grant relief "with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings" unless the claim 1) "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" or 2) "resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.
A decision is "contrary to" federal law if "the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [Supreme Court] cases" or "if the state court confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme] Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [Supreme Court] precedent." A decision is an "unreasonable application" of federal law if the state court identified the correct governing legal rule but applied the rule to the facts of the case in an objectively unreasonable manner. A decision is based on an "unreasonable determination of the facts" if the state court's factual findings are objectively unreasonable in light of the evidence presented to the state court.
The Third Circuit then noted that it would follow the same course for reviewing each of Dennis's claims: ) determine what arguments or theories supported or could have supported the state court's decision; 2) ask "whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of the Supreme Court"; and 3) ask whether the state court's decision "was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement."

With regard to the Frazier lead documents, the Third Circuit agreed with the PA Supreme Court that the admissibility requirement is not an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent because in Wood v. Bartholomew, the US Supreme Court noted that Brady governs the disclosure of "evidence." Thus, the PA Supreme Court could reasonably read that precedent as holding that because the withheld document was not admissible under state law, it was not "evidence" that triggered Brady, and "a state court's interpretation of state law [on admissibility] ...binds a federal court sitting in habeas corpus."

The Third Circuit agreed with the PA Supreme Court that the prosecution did not "withhold" Cason's welfare funds receipt, and thus did not violate Brady. The Court deemed that it had to give the state court decision about whether the police had the receipt the "benefit of the doubt." Further, because Brady prohibits the "suppression" of exculpatory evidence, it does not require the prosecution to turn over evidence that is also available to the defense with reasonable diligence. As to Dennis's ineffective assistance of counsel claim on this matter, the Third Circuit declined to address it at this time as that was one of the claims on which the District Court reserved judgment.

Finally, the Third Circuit agreed with the PA Supreme Court that, though the Pugh interview could have been used to impeach Zahra Howard's identification of Dennis, no reasonable probability of a different result existed because Dennis cross-examined Howard about her identification of the shooter and two other eyewitnesses identified Dennis as the shooter. While it is true that state courts act unreasonably when holding that merely because a witness "is impeached in one manner, any other impeachment becomes immaterial," the US Supreme Court has also recognized that "impeachment evidence, if cumulative of similar impeachment evidence used at trial . . . is superfluous and therefore has little, if any, probative value." Further, the PA Supreme Court acted reasonably when it relied on US Supreme Court precedent which "observed that evidence impeaching an eyewitness may not be material if the State's other evidence is strong enough to sustain confidence in the verdict."

Finally, the Third Circuit denied the Commonwealth's request to remand the case to a different District Court judge, stating that Judge Anita B. Brody is "an experienced, learned, and fair jurist [who] will be able to apply the proper legal standards to the remaining claims."

Accordingly, the Third Circuit vacated the District Court's order granting Dennis a conditional writ of habeas corpus and remanded the case for consideration of Dennis's remaining claims in a manner consistent with this opinion.
To read the full opinion, please visit: http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/139003p.pdf

Panel (if known): Smith, Fisher, and Chagares

Argument Date: November 5, 2014

Date of Issued Opinion: February 9, 2015

Docket Number: 13-9003

Decided: The District Court's order granting Dennis a conditional writ of habeas corpus was vacated and the case remanded for consideration of Dennis's remaining claims in a manner consistent with this opinion.

Case Alert Author: Aaron Spencer

Counsel: Counsel for the Appellant: Thomas W. Dolgenos (Argued) and Ryan Dunlavey; Counsel for the Appellee: Stuart B. Lev (Argued), James W. Cooper, Rebecca L.D. Gordon, Ryan D. Guilds, Meghan Martin, Amy L. Rohe, and Melanie Gavisk.

Author of Opinion: Judge Fisher

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Supervisor: Prof. Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 02/17/2015 10:59 AM     3rd Circuit  

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