777 F.3d 642 (3rd Cir. 2015), 13-9003, Dennis v. Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

Docket Nº:13-9003
Citation:777 F.3d 642
Opinion Judge:FISHER, Circuit Judge.
Attorney:Thomas W. Dolgenos, Esq. (ARGUED), Ryan Dunlavey, Esq., Philadelphia County Office of District Attorney, Philadelphia, PA, Counsel for Appellant. James W. Cooper, Esq., Rebecca L.D. Gordon, Esq., Ryan D. Guilds, Esq., Meghan Martin, Esq., Amy L. Rohe, Esq., Arnold & Porter, Washington, DC, Counse...
Judge Panel:Before: SMITH, FISHER and CHAGARES, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:February 09, 2015
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

After a jury trial, Defendant was found guilty of first-degree murder. The jury sentenced Defendant to death. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the convictions on appeal, thus rejecting Defendant’s claims that the prosecution violated Brady v. Maryland. The Supreme Court subsequently denied Defendant’s application for postconviction relief. Thereafter, Defendant filed an application under... (see full summary)


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777 F.3d 642 (3rd Cir. 2015)




No. 13-9003

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

February 9, 2015

Argued November 5, 2014

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On Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (E.D. Pa. No. 2-11-cv-01660). District Judge: Honorable Anita B. Brody.

Thomas W. Dolgenos, Esq. (ARGUED), Ryan Dunlavey, Esq., Philadelphia County Office of District Attorney, Philadelphia, PA, Counsel for Appellant.

James W. Cooper, Esq., Rebecca L.D. Gordon, Esq., Ryan D. Guilds, Esq., Meghan Martin, Esq., Amy L. Rohe, Esq., Arnold & Porter, Washington, DC, Counsel for Appellee.

Melanie Gavisk, Esq., Office of the Federal Public Defender, Las Vegas, NV, Counsel for Appellee.

Stuart B. Lev, Esq. (ARGUED), Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, Counsel for Appellee.

Before: SMITH, FISHER and CHAGARES, Circuit Judges.

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FISHER, Circuit Judge.

In 1991, Chedell Williams was shot and killed in Philadelphia. James Dennis was convicted of her murder and was sentenced to death. In a series of decisions over thirteen years, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed Dennis's conviction and sentence and denied his application for post-conviction relief. Dennis filed an application under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in which he claimed that a variety of federal constitutional violations justified a writ of habeas corpus. The District Court held that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unreasonably applied Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963), and its progeny in rejecting Dennis's claims that the prosecution had withheld three pieces of exculpatory and material information. Concluding that the prosecution had in fact breached its obligations under Brady, the District Court granted a conditional writ of habeas corpus and directed the Commonwealth to retry Dennis or release him. For the reasons that follow, we will vacate the District Court's order and remand the case for consideration of Dennis's remaining claims.



On October 22, 1991, at around 1:50 p.m., Chedell Williams and her friend, Zahra Howard, began to climb the stairs to the Fern Rock SEPTA Station in Philadelphia. Two men approached them and demanded their earrings. Both girls fled, but one of the men caught Williams. He pulled her earrings off and shot her in the neck with a silver handgun. The shooter then ran by a construction worker, Thomas Bertha, who stepped towards the shooter. When the shooter raised his gun in Bertha's direction, Bertha briefly stopped but followed the shooter after he ran past Bertha. Bertha was three or four feet from the shooter when the shooter passed him. The two assailants entered a waiting car and drove off. Williams died of her injuries.

Howard and other bystanders described the shooter as an African-American male; between 5'7" and 5'10" ; between 130 and 160 pounds; between 15 and 20 years old;

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and wearing a red sweat suit, a black jacket, a baseball cap, and white sneakers. After the police heard rumors that James Dennis had committed the murder, officers showed Howard and other bystanders a photo line-up including Dennis's picture. Howard identified Dennis, saying, " This one looks like the guy, but I can't be sure." (J.A. 1509.) A SEPTA employee, James Cameron, also identified Dennis and said that he looked similar to the shooter, especially from the side, but that he could not be sure. Two construction workers, Bertha and Anthony Overstreet, also agreed that Dennis looked like the shooter. But four witnesses did not identify Dennis from the array. Dennis was 21 years old, African-American, 5'5", and between 125 and 132 pounds.

In early November 1991, the police interviewed a member of Dennis's singing group, Charles Thompson, who said that he saw Dennis with a silver handgun at their practice the night of Williams's murder.

On November 22, 1991, the police arrested Dennis. He signed a statement in which he said that on the day of the murder, he had stayed at his father's house until about 1:30 p.m., when his father drove him to the bus stop. He said that he then rode the bus for 30 minutes to the intersection of Henry and Midvale Avenues, that he saw a woman he knew named Latanya Cason, and that " [w]hen we got off the bus I waved to her." (J.A. 1676.) He said 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. Dennis's father also said that Dennis had spent the morning at his father's house and that his father had driven Dennis to the bus stop at 1:53 p.m. The police searched Dennis's father's house; the lead detective signed a report stating that officers discovered two black jackets, a pair of red pants, and a pair of white sneakers. However, the police lost these items before trial.

On December 19, 1991, the police conducted an in-person line-up involving Dennis and five other individuals Dennis selected. Howard, Cameron, Bertha, and Overstreet participated. Howard identified Dennis, saying, " I think it was [him]." (J.A. 229.) Cameron and Bertha identified Dennis without reservation. But Overstreet identified a different member of the line-up.

In January 1992, officers interviewed Latanya Cason, the woman Dennis said he saw the day of the murder when getting off the bus between 2:00 and 2:30 p.m. Cason 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.

Not all of the information the police received indicated that Dennis was the perpetrator. On October 24, 2011, officers interviewed Chedell Williams's aunt, Diane Pugh. The officers' report states that Pugh told them that Zahra Howard--Williams's friend and an eyewitness--recognized the suspects from the high school she and Williams attended. Dennis did not attend the same school as Howard and Williams. The report indicates that the officers intended to follow up with Howard about this comment, but they never did.

Additionally, on October 31, 1991, an inmate at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, William Frazier, called the Montgomery County Detective Bureau and told them he had information about Williams's murder. The Montgomery County Detective Bureau passed the tip on to the Philadelphia police, who then inter

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viewed Frazier. Frazier told them that his aunt had initiated a three-way call with his friend, Tony Brown. Frazier said that Brown admitted to killing Williams and that the gun went off accidentally. Frazier also said that Brown implicated two men--Ricky Walker, Frazier's cousin, and Skeet--and that they were hiding out in Frazier's previous apartment. Frazier told the officers that Brown had a history of committing armed robberies. 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; Brown's home; Brown's girlfriend's home; Walker's home; and Skeet's home.

The police then interviewed Walker. Walker said he knew Williams from high school, but he denied having anything to do with Williams's murder and denied knowing Brown or Skeet. He said that his mother could verify that he was sleeping when Williams was murdered and that Frazier had previously burglarized Walker's home and charged $1,000 in calls to Walker's family. The officers also interviewed the owner of Frazier's previous apartment, who said that no one had entered the apartment to his knowledge. Finally, the police went to an address 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 did not confirm Walker's alibi, investigate the pawn shop Frazier identified, locate Tony Brown, or contact Frazier's aunt.

The prosecution did not give Dennis the police report of Diane Pugh's interview or any of the reports and other documents relating to Frazier's tip.

Dennis's trial began on October 2, 1992. The prosecution called three eyewitnesses who identified Dennis as the shooter: Howard, Cameron, and Bertha. The prosecution also called Charles Thompson, from Dennis's singing group, who testified that he saw Dennis with a gun the night of the murder. A police detective testified that officers recovered clothing from Dennis's father's house that was similar to what eyewitnesses described the shooter wore. And the prosecution called Latanya Cason, who testified that she saw Dennis at the Henry and Midvale Avenues intersection between 4:00 and 4:30 p.m. on the day of the shooting. The gun and Williams's earrings were never found and so were not presented at trial.

Dennis presented witnesses who corroborated his alibi that he had been with his father before the shooting and took the bus to Abbottsford in the afternoon. Three members of his singing group testified that Charles Thompson was jealous of Dennis. Other witnesses testified to Dennis's good character. Dennis also testified.

A jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy, carrying a weapon without a license, and possessing the instruments of a crime. During the penalty phase...

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