Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Death Row Inmate Wins Habeas Relief in Federal Court

After two decades on death row and several fruitless appearances before Pennsylvania state court judges, James Dennis has won habeas relief in federal court, reported The Legal Intelligencer.

Detailing three examples of exculpatory evidence that were withheld by prosecutors in the case that led to Dennis' conviction for killing a teenage girl during the theft of her earrings in 1991, U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that each instance qualified as a Brady violation and, because the state appeals courts didn't consider the cumulative effect of those violations, she wouldn't be constrained by AEDPA.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, called AEDPA, requires federal courts considering habeas claims from state prisoners to afford significant deference to the findings of the state courts that have considered the merits of claims brought to federal court. But, if the claims weren't decided on the merits in state court, then the federal court can conduct de novo review, according to the opinion.

"I need not defer to the Pennsylvania state court decisions here," Brody said, since neither of the state appeals proceedings weighed the combined impact of the three Brady violations. "As a result, AEDPA deference does not apply and I review this claim de novo."

In order to make a successful Brady claim, so named for the landmark U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Brady v. Maryland in 1963, the petitioner has to prove three things: that the evidence that had been withheld was favorable to his case; that it was suppressed, on purpose or by mistake, by the state; and that the case was prejudiced as a result, according to the opinion.

Brody found that the three claims made by Dennis — that prosecutors withheld statements made by a man named William Frazier that three other people had committed the crime; that the state didn't turn over a receipt that would have corroborated Dennis' primary alibi; and that it didn't disclose a police activity sheet with evidence that a key eyewitness, the friend of the deceased, had recognized the shooter from her high school — qualified as Brady violations.

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