Two Philadelphia Detectives, Three Wrongful Capital Prosecutions

On May 13, 2017, James "Jimmy" Dennis (pictured, center, with some of his defense team) was released from prison after more than 25 years on Pennsylvania's death row. His release marked the culmination of three unrelated wrongful capital prosecutions in Philadelphia in the early-1990s, with the common thread a pattern of misconduct by the same two Philadelphia homicide detectives. Dennis, Anthony Wright, and Percy St. George were all capitally charged for murder in cases investigated by Detectives Manuel Santiago and Frank Jastrzembski. Dennis was convicted and sentenced to death, Wright was convicted and sentenced to life without parole when his death penalty jury could not agree on a sentence, and capital charges against St. George were dismissed before he went to trial. Misconduct in Wright and Dennis' trials led courts to overturn their convictions decades later. The detectives' misconduct came to light in the St. George case when one supposed eyewitness told St. George's attorneys that he had identified St. George only because "[Santiago] told me that I could get locked up, so I was scared, because I had never been locked up before." As other questionable conduct was discovered, Detectives Santiago and Jastrzembski invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and the charges against St. George were dropped. Wright was initially convicted of rape and murder based upon an unrecorded fabricated confession that Santiago purported to have taken and clothing matching those Wright supposedly had admitted to have worn during the crime. Jastrembski claimed to have found those clothes hidden under Wright’s bed. DNA testing later established that the clothes had actually been worn by the victim, not Wright, suggesting that police had fabricated the confession and planted the clothing to incriminate Wright. Jastrembski and Santiago were also implicated in misconduct in Dennis' case, suppressing evidence that Dennis was not the killer. The two detectives had been asked to follow up on a statement a county prisoner named William Frazier had given to police saying that a friend of his had confessed to committing the murder with two other men. The detectives spoke to one of the three potential suspects, who fit the description offered by another eyewitness, but contradicted the prosecution's case against Dennis. That information was withheld from Dennis' defense. Jastrembski also claimed to have seized clothes from Dennis' house that fit the description of the clothes eyewitnesses said the killer had worn, but told the state post-conviction court that the clothes had since been thrown in the trash by cleaners. Even after courts overturned Wright's and Dennis' convictions, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office continued to pursue charges against them. Even after Wright was acquitted in August 2016, a prosecution spokesperson continued to assert that "the evidence was sufficient to prove Anthony Wright participated in the murder of Louise Talley." In December 2016, facing a capital retrial, Dennis made the difficult decision to plead no contest to lesser charges. He was resentenced to time served, but his release was delayed as he awaited parole on unrelated charges. The Innocence Project and a Philadelphia civil rights law firm have filed a lawsuit against the city and 11 police officers, including Detectives Santiago and Jastrzembski, alleging a pervasive pattern of unconstitutional misconduct, including in the cases of Wright, Dennis, and St. George.

(M. Bookman, "Three Murders in Philadelphia," Slate, May 12, 2017; J. Schuppe, "From Death Row to Freedom: The Long Journey of James Dennis," NBC News, May 16, 2017. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gordon.) See Innocence and Prosecutorial Misconduct.