Pennsylvania Death Row Inmate Granted New Trial on Innocence-Related Claims; Capitally-Charged Inmate Exonerated

Two Philadelphia, Pennsylvania capital cases involving men who have long asserted their innocence reached major milestones on August 23, with one winning an appeal granting him a new trial and a jury acquitting a second in his retrial. Both cases involved allegations of serious police and prosecutorial misconduct. James Dennis (pictured), who has been on the Commonwealth’s death row for nearly 25 years, was granted a new trial by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit after prosecutors withheld evidence that supported his claims of innocence. Anthony Wright, who was capitally tried but received a sentence of life without parole when the jury split 7 for death, 5 for life on the penalty verdict, was exonerated after 25 years.

Dennis was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of a 17-year-old in Philadelphia. The full federal appeals court voted 9-4 on Tuesday to uphold a district court ruling granting Dennis a new trial, reversing an earlier decision by a three-judge appellate panel. Writing for the majority, Judge Marjorie O. Rendell said, “Evidence suppressed by the prosecution—a receipt corroborating Dennis’ alibi, an inconsistent statement by the Commonwealth’s key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder—effectively gutted the Commonwealth’s case against Dennis. The withholding of these pieces of evidence denied Dennis a fair trial in state court.”

On the same day, a jury acquitted Anthony Wright in a retrial for another 1991 Philadelphia murder. Prosecutors had initially sought the death penalty when Wright was convicted in1993, but did not pursue the death penalty after agreeing that DNA evidence entitled Wright to a new trial. DNA testing of semen found at the crime scene excluded Wright and identified another perpetrator who recently died in prison in South Carolina. Wright’s attorneys say police pressured him into signing a confession and falsely claimed that a set of bloody clothes they reportedly “found” in Wright’s bedroom in his mother’s house belonged to Wright, when in fact they belonged to the victim and contained DNA from the actual killer. Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, said “DNA testing proved not only that Mr. Wright is absolutely innocent but also that law enforcement fabricated evidence against him.” Grace Greco, the jury forewoman for Wright’s retrial, said, “I’m angry. The evidence was there that he did not commit this crime. The city should never have brought this case. I’m just happy that today’s verdict will let Tony move on with the rest of his life.”

Sources

Robert Moran, Federal appeals court orders a new tri­al in 1991 mur­der of 17-year-old girl killed for her ear­rings, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 24, 2016; Joseph A. Slobodzian and Tommy Rowan, 25 years lat­er, freed by DNA evi­dence: It’s the great­est day of my life’, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 24, 2016; Pete Williams, Wrongly-Convicted Philadelphia Man Freed After Second Murder Trial, NBC News, August 232016.

See Innocence and Prosecutorial Misconduct.