Federal Court Allows James Dennis’s Wrongful Conviction Claim to Proceed

A federal court in Philadelphia issued an important decision on May 15, 2019, allowing civil rights claims on behalf of KRMFL client James Dennis to go forward.

Dennis’s case is an extraordinary one. In 1992, he was convicted and sentenced to death for a murder that he did not commit. For years, Dennis challenged his conviction, arguing that Philadelphia police had engaged in misconduct throughout the investigation of the murder. As he was fighting his conviction, he and his lawyers discovered multiple pieces of evidence pointing to other suspects. Police were aware of that evidence at the time of Dennis’s trial, but they never disclosed it to him–a blatant violation of the Constitution’s protections for the criminally accused.

Finally, after extensive litigation in the federal courts, the conviction was vacated in 2016. Prosecutors were ordered to retry him or release him. The prosecution then offered Dennis a no-contest plea–that is, a plea in which Dennis did not admit guilt–to reduced charges. Facing additional months, or even years, in prison while awaiting trial, Dennis accepted the plea and, on December 22, 2016, he walked out of prison a free man.

After Dennis filed his civil rights complaint against the City of Philadelphia and the detectives who led the investigation resulting in his prosecution, the City’s lawyers argued that he had no valid legal claims. They argued that because Dennis had accepted a plea and was convicted of the charges in 2016, he could not complain about his conviction in 1992.

Yesterday’s opinion, authored by U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno, followed clearly established law and rejected the City’s position. Dennis’s no-contest plea allowing his release from prison in 2016 could not, Judge Robreno ruled, prevent him from holding police accountable for their misconduct which led to him spending years on death row

As a result of the opinion, Dennis’s case will move forward to discovery.

Dennis is represented by KRMFL partner Paul Messing.

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