For Black History Month, we are highlighting stories and statistics that aim to demonstrate the experience of being Black and wrongfully convicted. Today, we are discussing how innocent Black people spend more time wrongfully convicted—especially on death row.
Innocent Black people spend an average of 13.8 years wrongly incarcerated before being freed, which is about 45% longer than innocent White people; this racial disparity persists across different types of convictions. Black people spend, on average, three more years imprisoned for murder and four if they are on death row.
Jimmy Dennis spent 25 years on death row for the 1991 murder of 17-year-old Chedell Williams. Williams was wearing her favorite pair of gold, figure-eight shaped earrings. Her mom worried about her wearing them because she had already been robbed at gunpoint for them; her boyfriend paid the robbers $100 to give them back. On an October day after school, Williams and her friend, Zahra Howard, were approached by two men as they ascended the stairs at the Fern Rock Bus Station in Philadelphia. The men demanded Williams’ earrings. The girls ran out of the bus station. Howard heard a gunshot and saw Williams fall to the ground. Neither the gun nor the earrings were ever recovered.
Dennis became a suspect because someone told police that it was “Jimmy from the Abbotsford projects” who killed Williams. As police followed the lead, they learned that the tipster heard the information from someone who heard it from someone else. It was a rumor on top of a rumor, but police pursued the lead. Dennis was confident he would not be wrongfully convicted because he had a solid alibi. He was on a bus across town during the murder, and he had waved the one of his neighbors from the bus. Dennis was ultimately charged with Williams’ first-degree murder, convicted, and sentenced to death.
Dennis was freed in May 2017. His conviction was overturned based on three Brady violations: (1) Howards implicated two of her fellow classmates in the murder, specifically indicating that she recognized them, but the prosecution failed to investigate them or tell the defense about them; (2) a convicted person in the Montgomery County Correctional Facility reached out to police because one of the perpetrators called him and bragged about committing the murder with two other people; he gave police the names and addresses of the perpetrators and the description of the getaway car, but they never followed up or told the defense; and (3) the state had a receipt that helped establish Dennis’s alibi that they never turned over.
Dennis told Philadelphia Magazine that his worst day on death row was when a guard abruptly opened his cell door and yelled, ‘Your dad died,’ and then walked away. Dennis’s dad, James Murray, died from Alzheimer’s disease. Before his diagnosis, Murray would drive Dennis’s mom and two daughters on a 10 hours round trip to visit Dennis once a month. Throughout Murray’s illness, Dennis was essentially cut off from his family and unable to help because of his wrongful incarceration on death row.
Also while facing death for a crime he did not commit, he missed his daughters growing up. They were just one and four-years old when he was wrongfully convicted. While too young to fully comprehend what was happening, Dennis told Philadelphia Magazine that they both cried when the guilty verdict was read. They are now grown, and one has a child. He calls to check in on them everyday and visits them when he can. He told Philadelphia Magazine that he is careful to drive below the speed limit and that he avoids staying out too late because he is terrified of anything that might result in a police encounter.
By the time Dennis was freed, he had spent a quarter of a century wrongfully imprisoned for a capital murder he did not commit—13 years longer than the average innocent White person on death row.
Dennis was in a band before he was wrongfully convicted. Watch him perform his original song, “U Said,” below:
Click here to learn more about people who are freed from death row.