Dennis v. Sec'y, Pa. Dep't of Corr.

Decision Date23 August 2016
Docket NumberNo. 13-9003,13-9003
Citation834 F.3d 263
Parties James A. Dennis v. Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ; Superintendent, State Correctional Institution at Greene ; Superintendent, State Correctional Institution at Rockview; District Attorney of Philadelphia County, Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Ronald Eisenberg, Esquire (Argued), Susan E. Affronti, Esquire, Ryan Dunlavey, Esquire, Philadelphia County Office of District Attorney, 3 South Penn Square, Philadelphia, PA 19107, Counsel for Appellants.

Amy L. Rohe, Esquire (Argued), Reisman Karron Greene, 1700 K. Street, N.W., Suite 200, Washington, DC 20006, Stuart B. Lev, Esquire, Federal Community Defender Office for the District of Pennsylvania, Trial Unit, 601 Walnut Street, The Curtis Center, Suite 540 West, Philadelphia, PA 19106, Melanie Gavisk, Federal Public Defender, 411 E Bonneville Ave Suite 250, Las Vegas, NV, 89101, Counsel for Appellee.

Catherine M. A. Carroll, Esquire, WilmerHale, 1875 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20006, Counsel for Amicus Appellees.



RENDELL, Circuit Judge.

James Dennis has spent almost twenty-four years unsuccessfully challenging his conviction for the murder of Chedell Williams. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court repeatedly affirmed Dennis's first-degree murder conviction and sentence and denied his applications for post-conviction relief. Thereafter, Dennis filed an application under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, and the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted Dennis habeas corpus relief, concluding that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had unreasonably applied Brady v. Maryland , 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963), with respect to three pieces of evidence suppressed by the Commonwealth. The suppressed Brady material—a receipt corroborating Dennis's 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. We will therefore affirm the District Court's grant of habeas relief based on his Brady claims.

I. Background
A. Factual Background

On October 22, 1991, Chedell Williams and Zahra Howard, students at Olney High School, climbed the steps of the Fern Rock SEPTA station, located in North Philadelphia. Two men approached the girls and demanded “give me your fucking earrings.” App. 465. The girls fled down the steps; Howard ran to a nearby fruit vendor's stand and Williams ran into the intersection at Tenth and Nedro Streets. The men followed Williams. The perpetrators tore Williams's gold earrings from her earlobes. One of the men grabbed her, held a silver handgun to her neck, and shot her. The men then ran up the street to a waiting getaway car and fled the scene. The precise time of injury was 1:54 p.m. Emergency personnel responded within minutes, but Williams was pronounced dead at the hospital less than an hour later.

B. Police Investigation and the Trial

The police undertook an investigation into the Williams murder, primarily aimed at determining the identity of the shooter. Frank Jastrzembski led a team of detectives who pursued the investigation based on rumors that “Jimmy” Dennis from the Abbottsford Homes projects in East Falls1 committed the crime, despite being unable to identify the source of the rumors. Resting on tips by neighbors from the projects, police proceeded with Dennis as the primary, if not the sole, suspect.2

Detectives obtained eyewitness reports and identifications, very few of which aligned with Dennis's appearance. Nearly all of the eyewitnesses who gave height estimates of the shooter described him as between 5'9? and 5'10?. He was described as having a dark complexion and weighing about 170 to 180 pounds. The victim, Williams, had a similar build as the shooter; she was 5'10? and weighed 150 pounds. Dennis, on the other hand, is 5'5? tall and weighed between 125 and 132 pounds at the time of trial.

Prior to trial, three eyewitnesses identified Dennis in a photo array, at an in-person lineup, and at a preliminary hearing: Williams's friend, Zahra Howard; a man working on a garage near the intersection, Thomas Bertha; and a SEPTA employee who was standing in front of the station at the time of the murder, James Cameron.3

Zahra Howard
Photo Array : Howard identified Dennis, saying “this one looks like the guy, but I can't be sure ... He looks a little like the guy that shot Chedell.” App. 1537. When asked if she could be sure, she replied “No.” Id.
Lineup : Howard indicated that she “thought” Dennis was the shooter. App. 586.4
Preliminary Hearing and Trial : Howard testified at trial that she had identified Dennis as the shooter at a preliminary hearing. App. 474-75. She also made an in-court identification during trial. Id.

Thomas Bertha

Photo Array : Bertha initially said that the first photo, which was a photo of Dennis, looked like the man running with the gun and later confirmed his identification.
Lineup : When asked to identify the shooter, Bertha simply stated “three,” which was Dennis. App. 586.
Trial: Bertha identified Dennis as the shooter at trial.

James Cameron

Photo Array : Cameron said that Dennis looked like the shooter, but wavered “I can't be sure.” App. 1548.
Lineup : Cameron identified Dennis, who was in the third position in the lineup, by simply stating “number three” without reservation. App. 689.
Preliminary Hearing and Trial : At trial, Cameron identified Dennis as the shooter and confirmed that he had identified Dennis at the preliminary hearing.

At trial, the prosecutor introduced testimony from detectives who verified that Howard, Bertha, and Cameron each identified Dennis in the photo array and lineup. No other eyewitness identifications were referenced.

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 in question, when his father 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 to the intersection of Henry and Midvale Avenues. During the trip, Dennis saw Latanya Cason, a woman he knew from Abbottsford Homes. In his statement to police, which was read into the record at trial, Dennis asserted that when he and Cason disembarked the bus [he] waved to her.” App. 710. After getting off the bus, Dennis walked to Abbottsford Homes, where he spent the rest of the day with his friends. Dennis's 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.

The Commonwealth's case rested primarily on eyewitness testimony, which Assistant District Attorney Roger King emphasized in his opening statement to the jury. Though ADA King acknowledged that the Commonwealth had no physical evidence—the silver handgun and the earrings were never recovered—he contended that the eyewitness identifications were sufficient for a conviction. Three eyewitnesses were called to testify at trial: Zahra Howard, Thomas Bertha, and James Cameron.

Zahra Howard, who was present with the victim at the time of the murder, led the Commonwealth's case. She recounted what had occurred, noting that the shooter was “right in front of” her and Williams, about one or two feet away, and that she looked the shooter in the face. App. 467–68. About ten seconds passed between the first time she saw the men until she turned around and ran away from the scene; she also saw the shooter for about five to ten seconds while he was grabbing Williams in the street. Howard identified Dennis in a photo array, at an in-person lineup, and at a preliminary hearing. Defense counsel focused his cross-examination on her hesitation in prior identifications. Howard described the shooter as wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and a red sweat suit. In her statement, Howard said that the shooter was about same height as Detective Danks, who was 5'9? or 5'10?, or taller. Howard testified at trial that she had never seen the shooter or his accomplice before in her life.

Thomas Bertha and his partner, Anthony Overstreet, were installing stones on a garage near Tenth and Nedro Streets on the day in question. After hearing the gunshot, they came down from their ladders and looked down the street from the sidewalk. The two perpetrators ran past them. The shooter passed between three to eight feet in front of Bertha, and Bertha ran after him. Bertha made visual contact with the shooter, who was running toward him, for about three to four seconds. Defense counsel impeached Bertha by recalling that, at the preliminary hearing, Bertha testified that he could not have seen the shooter for longer than about a second. Bertha viewed the photo array and attended the lineup, identifying Dennis at both. He described the shooter as wearing red sweat pants, a red hooded sweatshirt, a black cap, and a leather jacket. Bertha testified at trial that he remembered telling the police that the shooter was 5'9? and 180 pounds.

James Cameron was working as a SEPTA cashier on the day of the murder. He was about eight to ten feet from Williams when she was shot and saw the shooter for a few seconds. Cameron saw the shooter's face several times but acknowledged that he “didn't really pay attention.” App. 664. He testified at trial that he saw the shooter for about thirty to forty seconds collectively. This estimate contradicted Cameron's prior testimony at the...

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