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Media Alerts - James A. Dennis v. Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections - Third Circuit En Banc
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September 12, 2016
  James A. Dennis v. Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections - Third Circuit En Banc
Headline: Third Circuit Affirms District Court's Grant of Habeas Corpus to James Dennis

Area of Law: Habeas Corpus

Issue(s) Presented: Did the prosecutor's failure to disclose evidence that corroborated the defendant's alibi and undercut the eyewitness identification deprive defendant of a fair trial?

Brief Summary:

James Dennis was convicted for the murder of Chedell Williams. He spent almost twenty-four years unsuccessfully challenging his conviction. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court repeatedly affirmed Dennis's first-degree murder conviction and sentence and denied his applications for post-conviction relief. Thereafter, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted Dennis habeas corpus relief. The District Court concluded that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had unreasonably applied Brady v. Maryland to three material pieces of evidence. The evidence suppressed by the Commonwealth included a receipt corroborating Dennis's alibi, an inconsistent statement by the Commonwealth's key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder. The Third Circuit concluded that the withholding of this evidence denied Dennis a fair trial in state court and affirmed the District Court's grant of habeas relief.

Extended Summary:

On October 22, 1991, Chedell Williams and Zahra Howard were climbing the steps of the Fern Rock SEPTA Station in North Philadelphia. Two men approached the girls and demanded their earrings. The girls fled down the steps with Williams then running into an intersection. The men followed Williams; they tore her gold earrings from her earlobes and one then shot her in the neck. After shooting the victim, the men ran up the street to a waiting car and fled the scene. The investigation into Williams' murder focused on determining the identity of the shooter. The police pursued rumors that "Jimmy" Dennis had committed the crime, though they were unable to identify the source of the rumors. Resting on tips by Dennis' neighbors, the police proceeded with Dennis as the primary suspect.

Dennis was arrested on November 22, 1991. His signed statement indicated that he stayed at his father's house until about 1:30 p.m. on the day of the murder. His father then drove him to the bus stop and watched him get on the "K" bus toward Abbottsford Homes to attend singing practice that evening. Dennis rode the "K" bus for approximately thirty minutes and during the trip Dennis saw Latanya Cason, a woman he knew from Abbottsford Homes. Dennis asserted that when he and Cason disembarked the bus, he waved to her. After getting off the bus, Dennis walked to Abbotsford Homes, where he spent the rest of the day with his friends. Dennis' father, James Murray, corroborated Dennis's story. He stated that they spent the morning together, and that he drove Dennis to the bus stop shortly before 2:00 p.m. to catch the K bus to Abbottsford Homes. Murray testified that he knew for a fact that Dennis was on the K bus at the time of William's murder because he drove Dennis to the stop and watched from his car as Dennis boarded the bus.

The Commonwealth obtained eyewitness reports and identifications, few of which aligned with Dennis's appearance. The witnesses, including Howard, described the shooter at tall and stocky. Dennis, on the other hand, is 5'5" tall and weighed between 125 and 132 pounds at the time of trial. Before trial, three eyewitnesses identified Dennis in a photo array, at an in-person lineup, and at a preliminary hearing. However, during the pre-trial stage two of the witnesses were not absolutely sure that Dennis was the shooter. The Commonwealth's case rested primarily on the eyewitness testimony. It had no physical evidence, as the handgun and the earrings were never recovered. All three testified that the shooter was wearing red and black clothing.

Latanya Cason, testified she saw Dennis between 4:00 and 4:30 p.m. Her estimate that she saw him in that time period was strictly a guess, but there was no question that she saw him that day. Before seeing Dennis, Cason had picked up her public assistance check, signing a document to confirm pick up. She then filled her daughter's prescription, got some fish, and went home via the K bus. Nothing was introduced at trial to show the precise time of day she retrieved her check.

Three members of Dennis's singing group, who had known him for ten years or more, testified on Dennis's behalf about rehearsal on the day of the murder. Their testimony aligned with Dennis's account. One testified that Dennis was dressed in dark sweats and a dark hooded shirt at rehearsal that night - he was not wearing any red. Each testified that they had not seen a handgun in Dennis's possession. Dennis himself testified that when he left his father's house, he was wearing a dark blue jeans set; he changed into black sweats before rehearsal.

The prosecution failed to disclose to Dennis's counsel three pieces of exculpatory and impeachment evidence: (1) a receipt revealing the time that Cason had picked up her welfare benefits, several hours before the time she had testified to at trial, thus corroborating Dennis's alibi (the "Cason receipt"); (2) a police activity sheet memorializing that Howard had given a previous statement inconsistent with her testimony at trial, which provided both invaluable material to discredit the Commonwealth's key eyewitness and evidence that someone else committed the murder (the "Howard police activity sheet"); and (3) documents regarding a tip from an inmate detailing his conversation with a man other than Dennis who identified himself as the victim's killer (the "Frazier documents").

The jury found Dennis guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. In 1998, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed Dennis's conviction and death sentence on direct appeal by a vote of four to three. Dennis then filed a timely pro se petition pursuant to the PCRA. The Howard police activity sheet and the Frazier documents were disclosed during the PCRA discovery. The PCRA court denied Dennis's claims that the prosecution violated Brady by failing to disclose the Howard statement and the Frazier documents. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the PCRA court, finding that the Commonwealth's failure to disclose the Frazier documents did not violate Brady because the prosecution was not required to disclose "every fruitless lead" and that "inadmissible evidence cannot be the basis for a Brady violation."

Dennis then filed a habeas corpus petition in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for review of his conviction and death sentence. The District Court granted Dennis habeas relief based on Dennis's Brady claims as to the Commonwealth's failure to disclose the Cason receipt, the Frazier documents, and the police activity sheet containing Howard's inconsistent statement. The Third Circuit concluded that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decisions regarding Dennis's Brady claims rested on unreasonable conclusions of fact and unreasonable applications of clearly established law, or were contrary to United States Supreme Court precedent. The Court affirmed the District Court and granted habeas relief on Dennis's Brady claims based on the Cason receipt, the Howard police activity sheet, the Frazier documents, and their cumulative prejudice.

The Court determined that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court erred by failing to recognize the impeachment value of the Cason receipt, which would have provided documentary evidence that Cason testified falsely at trial. The United States Supreme Court has made plain that impeachment evidence may be considered favorable under Brady even if the jury might not afford it significant weight. The Third Circuit also stated that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court erroneously concluded that the receipt was not exculpatory because it did not affect Dennis's alibi. The conclusion failed to recognize how Cason's corrected testimony corroborated testimony provided by Dennis and other witnesses, namely, his father.

Regarding the Howard Police Activity Sheet, the Court stated that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Dennis's Brady claim regarding the Howard statement on materiality grounds. The Third Circuit concluded that although the court articulated the proper standard for materiality, whether a "reasonable probability" of a different outcome has been established, it applied it in a manner inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent. Defense counsel could have used Howard's inconsistent statement as an effective means of impeachment during trial. Impeachment evidence unquestionably falls under Brady's purview and cannot be suppressed by the prosecution. The Third Circuit rejected the Commonwealth's argument that evidence is not necessarily material under Brady simply because it may open up avenues for impeachment - the focus of the inquiry is on the "reasonable probability of a different result." Such a probability existed as the type of impeachment evidence provided by the activity sheet would have undercut the credibility of a key prosecution witness in a manner not duplicated by other challenges the defense was able to level at trial. Consequently, the impeachment material provided by the suppressed activity sheet is material under Brady, and it was unreasonable for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to hold otherwise.

Finally, the Third Circuit held that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's justification that the Frazier documents were a "fruitless lead" was unreasonable. There is no requirement that leads be fruitful to trigger disclosure under Brady, and it cannot be that if the Commonwealth fails to pursue a lead, or deems it fruitless, that it is absolved of its responsibility to turn over to defense counsel Brady material. The Third Circuit also held that the lead was not fruitless; it was simply not rigorously pursued.

Judge Jordan concurred as to the Cason receipt. Judges Fisher, Smith, Chagares, and Hardiman dissented.

The full opinion can be found at

Panel: McKee, Chief Judge; Ambro, Fuentes, Smith, Fisher, Chagares, Jordan, Hardiman, Greenaway, Jr., Vanaskie, Shwartz, Krause and Rendell, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: October 14, 2015

Date of Issued Opinion: August 23, 2016

Docket Number: No. 13-9003

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Cynthia C. Pereira

Counsel: Ronald Eisenberg, Susan E. Affronti, Ryan Dunlavey, Counsel for Appellants; Amy L. Rohe, Stuart B. Lev, Counsel for Appellee; Catherine M.A. Carroll, Counsel for Amicus Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Rendell

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Prof. Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 09/12/2016 09:17 AM     3rd Circuit  

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