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Jury awards $16 million to a Philly man whose death-row murder conviction was overturned

Jimmy Dennis spent 25 years on death row and in solitary confinement for a murder conviction a judge later called a "grave miscarriage of justice."

Jimmy Dennis, right, hugs the sister of a man whose murder conviction was also overturned, outside the Criminal Justice Center on October 1, 2019.
Jimmy Dennis, right, hugs the sister of a man whose murder conviction was also overturned, outside the Criminal Justice Center on October 1, 2019.Read moreDavid Maialetti / Staff Photographer

A jury has awarded $16 million to a Philadelphia man whose murder conviction was overturned after he spent 25 years on death row — the largest wrongful conviction payout in city history.

James Dennis, 53, always insisted he was innocent and had been sentenced to death for a 1991 murder he did not commit.

A federal judge overturned his conviction in 2013, calling it a “grave miscarriage of justice.” She said homicide detectives ignored or “covered up” evidence that proved Dennis did not shoot a high school girl to death for her gold earrings. And she ordered prosecutors to hold a new trial for Dennis or set him free.

Three years later, while Dennis was waiting for that trial to begin, prosecutors offered him a deal. If he pleaded no contest to third-degree murder, they would agree to his immediate release from prison.

Lawyers for the city later argued that because Dennis had not been acquitted, he should not be able to sue for damages over what he described as the willful misconduct of police and prosecutors who built the case that wrongfully put him behind bars.

A jury on Thursday said that wasn’t the case.

After a nine-day trial, jurors said Dennis was owed $16 million — $10 million in compensatory damages from the city, and $3 million from each of the two detectives who the jury determined “engaged in malicious or wanton misconduct,” said Dennis’ attorney, Paul Messing, of the Center City-based firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin.

As the jury read the verdict, Dennis broke down. Through the night and into Friday afternoon, he said, he cried tears of relief that a jury of his peers saw his innocence — but also tears of sorrow for all that he had lost.

“I haven’t stopped crying,” Dennis said Friday afternoon. “I’m crying for my dad, who never got to see me come home.”

Dennis’ lawyer, Messing, added: “Jimmy Dennis had his life taken away from him, and nothing is going to bring that back. But I can tell you that this jury verdict has brought him an important sense of vindication.”

A spokesperson for the city Law Department said officials were “exploring legal avenues to challenge” the $16 million jury verdict.

The District Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

The verdict was the latest chapter in a case that, for years, gripped the city and nation — both in the cruel nature of the 17-year-old girl’s slaying, and the pleas of innocence from a rising young musician charged with her death.

Dennis, a 21-year-old R&B singer from West Oak Lane, was convicted in 1992 in the shooting death of Chedell Ray Williams, an Olney High School student. Police said Williams was fatally shot after she was accosted over a $450 pair of gold earrings — a crime that enraged city residents and officials.

Dennis maintained his innocence from the beginning, insisting that he had been riding a SEPTA bus from his father’s home at the time of the murder, a detail that another bus rider later corroborated.

Still, a jury convicted Dennis of first-degree murder — largely on the testimony of three eyewitnesses — and sentenced him to death.

It was later determined that detectives and prosecutors involved with the case had buried key evidence that, if presented to a jury, might have persuaded the panel to find Dennis not guilty, said Messing.

There was evidence that a critical eyewitness — the only person who said he was sure that he could identify the killer if he saw him again — told police after being shown Dennis’ photo that he was “definitely not the killer,” Messing said. But that was not turned over to Dennis and his lawyers.

Among the other evidence withheld was a document that corroborated Dennis’ alibi that he was on a bus around the time of the murder, police reports that impeached the credibility of an eyewitness, and additional relevant documents, Messing said.

Detectives Manuel Santiago and Frank Jastrzembski investigated the case. Both are awaiting trial on perjury charges in a separate case after prosecutors said they lied on the witness stand in the retrial of a man whose murder conviction had been overturned.

» READ MORE: The Homicide Files database: Review murder cases involving these three detectives and others accused of misconduct

A defendant who pleads no contest does not accept or deny responsibility for the charges, but waives the right to a trial and agrees to accept the penalty. That, Messing said, means that in Dennis’ case, there was no admission of guilt, which allowed his lawyers to file a lawsuit over the misconduct.

Lawyers for the city countered that Dennis had foreclosed that opportunity by choosing not to go to trial and thus, not securing a verdict affirming his innocence. Dennis, city lawyers wrote in a 2018 court filing, “now seeks to profit from the murder he committed by bringing this lawsuit.”

Messing said Dennis’ decision to plead was an impossible choice after years of torture.

Dennis was desperate to get out of jail — his father died while he was incarcerated, his mother was ill, and his children were grown, Messing said. He had spent 25 years of his life in solitary confinement, trapped alone inside a windowless cell for up to 24 hours a day. His meals were slid under the door. Visitors were few and far between, and he was given only a few hours of fresh air each week.

“It is an unspeakably horrible existence,” Messing said. “Frankly, I don’t know how he and others have survived it.”

The lingering effect of that emotional harm has left Dennis unable to work, Messing said. He still lives in Philadelphia, but rarely leaves home, struggles with depression, and has been surviving on the few resources he has.

“This vindication, even more than the money, is something that will help him better reintegrate into society,” Messing said. “The future is now open to him in a way that it wasn’t before yesterday.”