Devin Yalkin for Rolling Stone
In 1992, R&B singer Jimmy Dennis was wrongfully convicted of murder. He spent 25 years in prison, but he never gave up on music — or justice
November 20, 2019
On the morning of October 22nd, 1991, James Dennis awoke at his father’s house in Northwest Philadelphia. He mostly lived with his girlfriend, Helen, but every so often he stayed with his dad, and the two spent that morning discussing their shared passion: music. At barely five feet five and 130 pounds, Dennis, 21, was a small man compared with his father — the elder was Big Jim, the younger Lil Jimmy — but they both had large personalities. James Murray was a school-bus driver and gregarious session musician who also sang and played piano in churches across the city, while Jimmy fronted a five-person R&B group called Sensation that mostly performed in local talent shows. They were also both sharp dressers, with Murray usually in a suit, sunglasses, and fedora, and Jimmy — when he wasn’t dressed up like his dad — in more age-appropriate denim or a tracksuit, though always clean and crisp.
It was set to be an ordinary day for Jimmy, and if things had gone differently, it would have been forgettable. He had band practice that evening, and when he and his father left the house around 1:45 p.m., Jimmy put on blue jeans and a matching denim jacket and threw some extra clothes in a bag for rehearsal. Big Jim watched him board the bus for the Abbotsford projects, where Jimmy had lived as a kid and where his bandmate James Smith would be hosting the practice that night. He decided to head over early to talk to one of the other members of Sensation. “I had to meet with Willis Meredith that day, go over some music material,” Jimmy would later testify. A half hour later, Latanya Cason, a former neighbor, spotted him on the bus as he got off at the corner of Henry and Midvale avenues, not far from the Abbotsford Homes. He waved hello to Latanya and headed on his way.
Jimmy walked up Henry Avenue to see Meredith, who he met by his back door. Things had been going well for Sensation. The group was in the vein of the Temptations or the Four Tops, but instead of classic Motown they performed covers of more current artists like Keith Sweat and New Edition. Jimmy had been writing songs since he was 10 — he always carried around a little notebook, jotting down ideas — but the group usually stuck to covers. “That’s what would win talent shows, so that’s what I focused on,” he says.
A few months earlier, Sensation had performed at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, a legendary local venue where some of Jimmy’s idols, like Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, had played. Around the same time, local promoter George Pratt took an interest in helping get Jimmy signed, and a local record label had asked Sensation for an audition. Jimmy was expanding his solo work, too, occasionally recording with Philly rapper Jewel-T. “You know that song by Frank Sinatra, ‘I’ve Got the World on a String?’” he says. “That’s how I felt.”
Things were falling into place in his home life, too. For one, Helen was pregnant. Jimmy had been raising her three-year-old — “She’s my oldest daughter,” he says, “I don’t like that ‘step’ thing” — and he was excited about their baby girl due in November.
Jimmy stood outside and talked with Meredith for about 20 minutes, then headed a few blocks over the hill to Berkley Street, to the home of his old friend Lawrence Merriweather. It was coming up on 3 p.m. As he walked, he passed a line of buses from the nearby elementary school. He’d done community shows for little kids, so some of the students knew him and waved. He waved back.
A little later, Jimmy met up with some friends to get food at Popeyes, then went over to the local grocery store. Eventually he changed into the sweatpants and hoodie from his bag and made his way to Smith’s house for practice. Band member Charles Thompson, who they all called Pop, was late, and he and Jimmy got into it. Their fights had become frequent, over anything from Pop’s tardiness to his putting down others bandmates to his attitude in general. “I mean, it really didn’t matter,” Jimmy testified. “He’d have an argument just about over anything.” Or, as Willis described it on the stand, “We had difficulties of Pop wanting his way or nobody way, and Jimmy disagreed with that.”
Pop left first that night, and the rest of the band sat around for a bit before they walked over to the mini market down the street. It was after 11 p.m., and the TV in the store was tuned to the local news. As Jimmy later told detectives, he and his friends hung out for a minute. He remembered seeing a segment about a teenage girl who had been senselessly murdered that afternoon over a pair of earrings.
The day 17-year-old Chedell Ray Williams was killed, she wore her favorite earrings, figure-eight hoops made of real gold. Her mother always worried when she wore them; Chedell had already been robbed at gunpoint for them once. (Her boyfriend paid more than $100 for their return.) They were still dangling from her earlobes as she and her best friend, Zahra Howard, both students at Olney High School, took the bus after school to Fern Rock Station in North Philadelphia, about a mile from Jimmy’s dad’s house.
As Williams and Howard ascended the station stairs a few minutes before 2 p.m., two men approached them. One man — described by witnesses as five feet nine or 10, broad, with a dark complexion, wearing a red sweatsuit, black jacket, and white high-tops — was holding a silver .32-caliber gun. “Gimme your fucking earrings,” he said. For a second, the girls froze — then they looked at each other and ran. Out on the street, Howard stood screaming near a fruit stand, but one of the men caught up with Williams. He grabbed her, ripping the earrings from her lobe. As she struggled to escape, the man held the gun inches from her neck. “Then I heard a gunshot,” Howard recalled. Williams fell to the ground, and the men sprinted to a waiting car. More than a dozen people witnessed the crime. Neither the gun nor the earrings were ever recovered.
It’s unclear exactly how or when Jimmy found himself in the crosshairs of the homicide bureau, but in a city plagued with violence, citizens found this act to be particularly grisly. There had already been more than 350 murders in the city that year, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, but a teenage girl shot point-blank in broad daylight was too much, and Philadelphia clamored for justice. Just days after the murder, a photo of Jimmy, who had a previous conviction for misdemeanor drug possession, appeared in an array that was shown to witnesses. Then, a few weeks later, he heard there was a rumor he was the one behind the shooting. He told his father, and they had a lawyer call the station to find out if he was a suspect. The cops said there wasn’t a warrant out for his arrest. When the rumor persisted, Jimmy and his father decided to go straight to the police themselves, to clear it up.
Jimmy (second from left) at a New Music Seminar in New York City in 1989 with his friend Dave, Paul Antony of R&B group Full Force, and rapper Jewel-T. Photograph courtesy of Jimmy Dennis
Remembering it now, Jimmy becomes frustrated. “I went down to the homicide unit with my father and my brother,” he says. “I waited for several hours, and they didn’t want to talk to me.” Eventually he was told there was no one by the name James Dennis wanted for questioning, so they headed home.
But on the morning of November 23rd, 1991, around 8:30 a.m., Detective Manuel Santiago and several other officers arrived at Jimmy’s door and asked him to come to the station. When they got downtown, Santiago and Frank Jastrzembski, the lead detective on the case, took him into interrogation room D. He waived his right to a lawyer. “Why would I need a lawyer if I didn’t do anything wrong?” he says. He gave his statement and maintained his innocence throughout the interview — he told them how he stayed at his dad’s, took the bus, hung out with his friends, went to practice. He didn’t own a red sweatsuit; he hadn’t owned a pair of white sneakers in ages. Santiago and Jastrzembski booked him for murder that day.
The case, as laid out during the trial by Roger King, a top homicide prosecutor at the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, was simple: Jimmy was motivated by greed, and he killed the girl because he had no respect for life. “This was a willful, deliberate, and premeditated act of murder,” King told the jury. Jimmy watched as three eyewitnesses went up on the stand and claimed they saw him kill Chedell Williams. It was something out of a movie, a book, a case of mistaken identity gone absolutely wrong.
Though the physical evidence never appeared in court, Jastrzembski testified that he had collected, from Jimmy’s father’s house, a pair of red pants, two black waist-length jackets, and a pair of low-top white sneakers — items similar to what witnesses said the killer was wearing. Latanya Cason, the girl Jimmy waved hello to as he got off the bus, remembered seeing Jimmy that day, but in her recounting — based on when she ran her afternoon errands — it placed them on the bus between 4:00 and 4:30. She had no idea where he’d been at 2:00, when Williams had been shot. The only person who could vouch for him at that time was his father — and wouldn’t he have reason to lie, to protect his son?
And then there was the testimony of Jimmy’s bandmate Pop. On the stand, he told the jury that, though he couldn’t remember what Jimmy had worn to practice on October 22nd, he did remember that the singer had shown him a .32 chrome revolver that night.
King was an intimidating, six-foot-two law-and-order powerhouse, but Jimmy deftly withstood his questioning on the stand. When King asked Jimmy about the bag of clothing — which had disappeared before he or his legal team was able to see it — he said they didn’t belong to him. “Do you know who they did belong to?” his lawyer asked. “Maybe he put them there. I don’t know,” Jimmy said, implicating the detectives on the case. When the prosecutor tried to trip him up — hadn’t he said he’d left the house at 1:30, why was his father saying 1:53? — Jimmy was able to talk through the seeming discrepancies. And he forcefully denied that Cason possibly could have seen him at 4 p.m. “She is mistaken about that,” he said. “Because I know where I was at that time.”
In his corner, Jimmy had Lee Mandell, a defense attorney who, according to a subsequent court filing, had 46 court-appointed cases that year, as well as his private caseload. “He wasn’t answering the phone. I’d write him letters,” says Jimmy, who was one of the attorney’s paying clients. Mandell never followed up about the missing bag of clothes, and during the trial he didn’t point out that the victim was a full six inches taller than the defendant — making the bullet trajectory nearly impossible. When Pop accused Jimmy of having a gun, Mandell played up the rift between the bandmates, instead of finding evidence that could have impeached Pop as a witness. When the DA’s office offered up Anthony Overstreet, an eyewitness who had initially identified someone else for the crime, Mandell declined to put him on the stand. “Nicest thing I can say about him was he was inept,” says Jimmy. (Mandell, who still practices law, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Jimmy got through the trial holding onto scraps of optimism — the jury, the judge, someone would realize they had the wrong man. But on October 16th, 1992, he was found guilty of robbery, unlawfully carrying a firearm, criminal conspiracy, and first-degree murder. On October 19th, he was sentenced to death. He broke down in tears and turned to his brother. “I said, ‘I told you we couldn’t get a fair trial because they were gonna do me dirty,’” he remembers. “And that was it.”
From the moment he entered prison, Jimmy lost the desire to sing. “There was no emotional connection to it,” he says. “You can’t sing in a place where death is literally hanging over your head every day.” He read a book about Billie Holiday and found out that when she was in jail, she had the same problem. “When [you’re] an emotional singer, you know how it is,” he says. “If I can’t feel it, then the person I’m trying to give it to won’t be able to feel it, either.”
But every morning he would sing through a playlist of songs in his head. When sung internally, in the proper order, it gave him a way to survive another day. First was the Winans’ “Trust in God,” then John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord.” Then it would take a turn: Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” straight into Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic,” a Whitney Houston song — it didn’t really matter which one — then Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.”
Jimmy in a Drexel University recording studio in May 2018. Photograph by Devin Yalkin for Rolling Stone
It wasn’t just his father’s influence — Jimmy grew up surrounded by music. At the Christian Tabernacle Church, where his family went every Sunday, he sang gospel in the children’s choir. At home, there would always be music going, an eclectic mix that ranged from soul to country to pop. “You could wake up one morning and be listening to Gladys Knight,” Jimmy says. “And then in the next breath, my brother has on a Kenny Rogers record. It was a beautiful gumbo.”
When he was little he had a toy radio he would carry with him everywhere, dancing as he went. In elementary school, a friend signed him up for the school talent show, without letting him know. Jimmy went along with it, singing “I Like It,” a 1982 R&B hit by the Detroit group DeBarge. It was the moment he realized how much he truly loved performing. “Once I opened my mouth and heard the crowd’s response, it felt like, ‘I like this a lot, even more than I thought I would,’” says Jimmy. “I like making people smile.”
He never learned to read music, but he had a good ear. “I could play a lot back,” he remembers. He’d perform for himself in the mirror, using a comb as a microphone. His father would coach him as he practiced. “If I was singing out of my nose, he’d say ‘James Jr.,’ and I’d come in the kitchen,” he remembers. “He’d say, ‘Diaphragm, not the nose.’”
In prison, Jimmy still tried to listen as much as he could — staying up late to hear jazz shows on the radio, and, in the rare case he was given access to cable, watching just about any movie he could to hear the score. But mostly he took the drive that he’d used to begin a career in music and refocused it on proving his innocence.
“From the moment I stepped into prison, it was living hell for me,” Jimmy says. Because he had been convicted for the callous murder of a young, innocent woman, he was targeted by the other inmates and jumped on a regular basis. “I got every single person trying to kill me,” he says. “The guards, the prisoners.”
One guard, though, took positive notice of him. She’d been watching him, she said, and saw that he was different from the other inmates on the block. She said that her husband had been wrongfully imprisoned and received help from an organization called Centurion Ministries, led by Jim McCloskey, a Princeton seminary graduate. Jimmy wrote him a letter describing his situation, but McCloskey was a little overbooked. “Everybody in the country at that time was writing [him], because they’re basically the only innocence people around,” Jimmy says.
McCloskey wrote him back — even got in touch with his mother, Juanita, in Philadelphia — but admitted there was a lengthy waiting list. “So I knew that wasn’t really a viable option for me,” Jimmy says. In 1992, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld established the Innocence Project, an organization that worked with new DNA testing technology to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. But the case against Jimmy had been based mostly on eyewitness accounts — there was no DNA for them to retest. He would have to figure this out on his own.
A few years into his sentence, he was moved to SCI Huntingdon, an aging prison facility in central Pennsylvania. Now more than three and a half hours from his family, his outlook became even more bleak. “Trying to be a father from prison is the most difficult thing in the world, but I did the best I could to be a part of my daughters’ [lives],” he says. He and Helen had split not long after his arrest, and though he heard from his family regularly, his loneliness was debilitating. “The closest you could get to understanding what I went through in prison as an innocent man is to watch Tom Hanks in Cast Away,” he tells me, more than once.
Around 1993 or 1994, Jimmy met several people who began explaining the law to him, teaching him how to “Shepardize,” or use the standard legal database, to find cases to cite as precedent in his own appeals. “Some people think you only need to read the law that wins — you need to read the law that loses, so you can know how to argue a case the right way,” he says. “I immersed myself in the law of mistaken identity, of after-discovery evidence, ineffectiveness of counsel, prosecutor misconduct, things like that.” By 1996, he was writing his own legal motions. “They were not very good,” he laughs, “but I wrote them nonetheless.”
Jimmy’s family had hired a local appeals lawyer, and with the help of that team, he began to find flaws in King’s case. First, there was the matter of the descriptions — in initial statements, witnesses described the killer as a larger man, nearly six feet tall, broad, and dark-skinned. Jimmy might have put on a few pounds since his arrest, but there was still no way to square that with the frame of a man who would come to be called “Shorty Doo-Wop” in prison.
Then there was Latanya Cason, who remembered seeing Jimmy on the bus that day but disputed the time. When Detectives Santiago and Jastrzembski came to take her statement, she pieced together her day based on the errands she’d run, which included picking up her public assistance check — something that came with a time-stamped receipt. She showed them the receipt, which she said read 3:03 in the afternoon, which would mean she crossed paths with Jimmy a little after 4:00. Jastrzembski pocketed the receipt. When the appeals attorneys finally received a copy, several years after the trial, they were given a huge break in the case. The receipt said 13:03 — it was written in military time. Jimmy and Cason’s stories now lined up.
But the legal team’s biggest discovery was about Pop, Jimmy’s old bandmate. According to a statement he gave to Jimmy’s lawyers on January 24th, 1996, he had been coerced by the detectives to lie during the initial interview, then was forced by the prosecution to repeat the lie on the stand.
The police had arrested Pop on November 8th, 1991, and charged him with assaulting his girlfriend. According to his statement, they handcuffed him to an interrogation chair and wouldn’t let him go until he implicated his friend in the murder. From what he understood, if he gave them what they wanted, he could get out of the assault rap — if he didn’t, they might arrest him for the murder. “Five cops were around me, and I was afraid they would beat the hell out of me while I was handcuffed,” he said. So he did what he thought would get him the best deal, and said he’d seen Jimmy with a gun that night — it had already been alleged anyway, the cops told him; he just needed to confirm it. On the eve of the trial, Pop tried to do right by his former friend and asked if he could recant the testimony. He claimed King, the prosecutor, told him it was too late. “I don’t even know what a .38 revolver looks like,” Pop said.
At the time of his retirement in 2008, Assistant District Attorney Roger King held the record for the most death-row convictions in Pennsylvania, with 16. It was a fact he was morbidly proud of; when he won a capital conviction, he posted the prisoner’s face on his office wall, with the word “death” scrawled on it. “Roger is probably the most notorious of the Philadelphia homicide prosecutors,” says former Pennsylvania appeals lawyer Robert Dunham, who is now executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “He bent the rules at every opportunity.” King died in 2016, but over the past two decades, at least four people he sent to death row have had their verdicts overturned, including Jimmy. Just last February, a man named Orlando Maisonet had his murder conviction vacated after almost 30 years on death row. In his decision, the judge cited prosecutorial misconduct. “In the Eighties and Nineties, prosecutors [across the country] were falling all over each other to prove who was the toughest and hardest on crime,” says Dunham. “The problem was, those who were toughest and hardest on crime were actually toughest and hardest on the Constitution.”
And in Philadelphia, some in the police department were also tough on civil rights. Between 1977 and 1981, six police officers went to federal prison for trying to get a man convicted of murder based on one false witness statement. Then, in the mid-1980s, a handful of narcotics officers were convicted of essentially acting like an organized crime syndicate, shaking down local brothels and illegal gambling houses for cash. In 1995, five officers from the 39th District — a swath of northern Philly that covered the Abbotsford Homes — pleaded guilty to criminal acts like false arrests, planting drugs, writing fake reports, and even robbery. A subsequent federal investigation into the department’s practices resulted in hundreds of cases being overturned. Mostly, those cases had to do with narcotics busts, but it shone a light on a department where some felt empowered to plant evidence and coerce confessions.
Detectives Jastrzembski and Santiago were members of the citywide homicide bureau, not the 39th District, but their records have come under scrutiny for similar practices. Some of that came to light when they arrested Percy St. George for murder in 1993; the charges were dropped when the officers chose to plead the Fifth Amendment instead of testify about their actions in the case. Anthony Wright, as Rolling Stone reported four years ago, would allege that he sat in prison for a quarter century because Jastrzembski had falsified clothing evidence to frame him for murder while Santiago had falsified his confession. After Wright’s conviction was overturned, he filed a civil suit against the city and several officers, alleging that Santiago, Jastrzembski, and other homicide detectives engaged in a “pattern and practice” of coercing confessions, hiding exculpatory evidence, and planting evidence. Wright was awarded nearly $10 million — the largest wrongful conviction settlement in Philadelphia’s history — but the detectives didn’t have to admit wrongdoing.
Jim Figorski is a 25-year veteran of the Philadelphia police force who now does pro bono work as a lawyer to help people who have been wrongfully convicted. He says that in the homicide bureau, there were only a few offending officers. “But the same names keep coming up again and again,” in regard to misconduct lawsuits, he says. “The stories we’ve uncovered in our cases were people being either threatened, verbally or physically abused, or [promised deals] to confess to crimes they didn’t commit or to sign confessions that they did not make,” he says. “Others were being coerced to change their witness statements to make them witnesses to murders that they actually did not see.”
Jimmy in his family living room in May 1983. Photograph courtesy of Jimmy Dennis
“Our job is not to be concerned with liability, but instead it is to be concerned with justice,” says Patricia Cummings, director of the Philadelphia DA’s Conviction Integrity and Special Investigations Unit, a new division tasked with investigating potential wrongful conviction and police misconduct cases. “There are more than a handful of cases [from the late 1980s and early 1990s] where people have claimed that the police engaged in coercive tactics,” she says. “And Roger King is interesting in the sense that most people will tell you that he was a heck of a trial lawyer. Others will say that he often walked the line and, indeed, sometimes crossed the line, in terms of what was legally and ethically allowable.” Cummings was appointed by Larry Krasner, a political outsider and former public defender elected DA in 2017, who is seeking to clean up the department’s reputation. But when Jimmy was facing the cops, and throughout his entire battle for freedom, the environment was different. As Cummings puts it, “It sure seems like an injustice took place in regard to Jimmy Dennis’ case.”
In 1998, when Tracy Lamourie and Dave Parkinson first stumbled across Cyberspace Inmates, a prison pen-pal website, they were well aware of the issue of police abuse. The couple, then both 28 — the same age as Jimmy — had gotten together as young activists in Toronto, then hosted a college-radio show for several years about social justice. By the time Parkinson found the pen-pal site — “just by fluke,” he says — they had been off the air for a few years, just a young couple working odd jobs, but still eager to be involved.
Jimmy had spent the previous six years sending letters to anyone who might listen, and figured he’d give the pen-pal website a shot. He made it clear he wasn’t looking for just a friend, though. He needed allies. “I said I was wrongfully convicted, and these are the facts,” he says.
When Lamourie and Parkinson reached out to him, Jimmy sent back an 18-page letter, along with documents, detailing the proof he had of his innocence. The two were immediately convinced.
Without even asking Jimmy’s permission, Dave fired up Netscape and built a webpage. “It was pretty basic,” he says, “but we pieced it all together, scanned some of the documents, and then typed in the stuff that didn’t scan right. Then, when we messaged Jimmy back, we printed out copies and said, ‘Look, here’s your webpage. Don’t worry about this pen-pal site, send this out to people you know.’ And from there, within a year or two, it grew.”
For Jimmy, it turned into a personal movement. Working with his team in Canada, Jimmy was able to make his case in the legally coherent manner he’d learned on the inside — using his own Type A tendencies to expedite the process. “He would actually give us our assignments,” Lamourie says. “He’d call and be like, ‘I need you to do this, and this, and this.’ So we’d call whoever needed to be called, we’d try to track them down — [it was] the only way. Otherwise there’s no hope at all.”
Jimmy began to attract supporters across the country and around the world, with Justice for Jimmy chapters cropping up in the Netherlands, Germany, and Scotland, among other places. “Within the U.S., the death penalty is a political issue,” says Parkinson. “Whereas outside the U.S., where capital punishment has been abolished, we see this [as] systemic injustice and racism [in the U.S.] It just resonates a lot more.”
Two years after Jimmy connected with his Canadian advocates, he got even better news. Kathleen Behan, a partner at Arnold and Porter, a Washington, D.C., white-shoe firm, had a reputation for doing pro bono work on death-penalty cases. She was referred to Jimmy by a colleague, met with him, and believed in his case. “It’s the closest thing that I’ll ever know to hitting the lottery,” Jimmy says.
Behan gave the reins of the case to Amy Rohe and Ryan Guilds, two junior associates just a few years out of law school. The team was inexperienced, and Jimmy quickly proved himself an invaluable member. “Jimmy probably started off as a better lawyer than most of us,” says Rebecca Gordon, who was brought on to the case in late 2000. “From the beginning, he had sent us case after case after case.”
The legal team: Meghan Martin, Amy Rohe, Ryan Guilds, and Rebecca Gordon with Jimmy (far right). Photograph courtesy of Amy Rohe
The lawyers and Jimmy became close. He called them on birthdays; he followed up about their children. He became their most important client, and in return, they became his closest confidants. When he sent them letters — which he did regularly — he’d often include a suggestion for a song he thought they should listen to. And he always signed off with a little musical note; the team decided that if he were ever released, they would get that as a matching tattoo. “They weren’t my lawyers,” he says. “They’re my family.”
Since it was a capital case, after Jimmy’s conviction, the state automatically appealed the verdict, but he lost. Then, his appeals counsel filed a petition for post-conviction relief, which lets someone who’s already been convicted of a crime argue that their conviction was unconstitutional or unlawful.
After his new team joined as co-counsel, they filed a motion for discovery and received a packet of materials from the prosecution. “There were a bunch of witnesses that had never been identified before, police statements that we had never seen before, things like that,” says Gordon. “In terms of the legal issues, it really evolved,” says Rohe, who left the firm in 2015 (though she stayed on Jimmy’s case). “Not until we got to discovery did we really [realize] how much evidence had been hidden and how little investigation had been done on the crime itself.” From there they hit the streets of Philadelphia to reinterview everyone and track down witnesses and persons of interest whom the cops hadn’t bothered to contact.
They began to see a pattern of faulty police work, and discovered two additional key facts: First, Zahra Howard had made inconsistent statements about the man she saw kill her friend. Second, detectives had ignored a major lead that could have led to the capture of Chedell Williams’ real killer — or at least cast sufficient doubt on Jimmy.
During the course of the initial murder investigation, nine eyewitnesses had given descriptions and looked at photo arrays; in each one, officers placed Jimmy in the first position, a “highly suggestive” practice, as lawyers for Jimmy would later allege. (While not against policy at the time, the guidelines now, according to the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, are that “the suspect photo should be placed in a different order in the grouping for each witness.”) Additionally, most of the witnesses couldn’t pick his picture with any kind of certainty.
Jimmy performing in 1989. Photograph courtesy of Jimmy Dennis
“[T]his one looks like the guy but I can’t be sure,” Howard told detectives during the photo array. “He looks a little like the guy that shot Chedell.” According to police documents obtained by the defense, when Howard was first questioned, just hours after the murder, she told detectives she’d never seen the assailants in her life. Then, a couple of days later, Howard told Chedell’s aunt and uncle that she recognized the killer from her high school. She told another of Williams’ aunts the same thing, and added that the getaway car had been following them around for a week before the murder. Detectives recorded the inconsistencies but didn’t follow up with her. Two months later, when Jimmy came in for a lineup, Howard said she “thought” it was number three: Jimmy. By the time she next saw him — two days later, when he was brought in for a preliminary hearing — she’d become convinced it was him. Instead of questioning how she developed a clearer memory as the months went on, the prosecution made her a star witness against Jimmy.
Secondly, the team found that the Philadelphia Police Department had actually withheld documents that pointed to viable suspects. Though the leads had gone cold far too long ago to offer hope of tracking them down, the fact that detectives hadn’t turned them over in the first place showed there could have been serious malfeasance.
On Halloween 1991, just over a week after the murder, William Frazier, an inmate at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, told detectives at the facility about a three-way phone call he had with his aunt and a friend. According to Frazier, the friend told the two he “fucked up” and accidentally murdered a girl when he reached for her earrings and the gun went off. The friend also told Frazier that two other men had aided him in the crime, and that for two days after the murder, all three hid in Frazier’s apartment. Frazier gave the police all the relevant addresses, even the name of the pawnshop where they would have likely tried to fence the earrings.
The cops did a little legwork — Jastrzembski and Santiago tracked down one of the men accused by Frazier; he claimed he had nothing to do with it and that his mom could vouch for his whereabouts that day. They talked to Frazier’s landlord, who didn’t recall seeing anything unusual. But that’s where their investigation ended. They didn’t show any new photos to Howard; they didn’t follow up with the guy’s mom. And they kept all of it from the defense until 2001, when Arnold and Porter were granted their motion for discovery. As Jimmy puts it, “They hid the evidence proving my innocence for a decade.”
Jimmy’s case was falling into place, but the justice system moves slowly. For every motion that Jimmy and his team would meticulously assemble, the prosecutors’ office would request — and the court would approve — endless delays. He saw life move on without him outside. His girls were growing up. In 2009, at the age of 80, his father died from Alzheimer’s. Jimmy was already suffering from anxiety attacks, but now they got worse; at one point after his dad died, he collapsed in the shower.
To keep his spirits up, he lived vicariously through friends and family on the outside. To hear music, he would call friends to have them play him a particular song. Sometimes, if they were heading out for an hour or two, he would ask them to put on whole albums.
Gwen Jackson, a professional singer Jimmy knew from his childhood at church, backed artists like Sheryl Crow, Harry Belafonte, and Toots and the Maytals. Out on the road, she’d send him backstage passes from wherever she went. “He calls it ‘taking him on tour with me,’” Jackson says. When members of his legal team went to concerts — Madonna, Adele — they’d buy him T-shirts and save him the ticket stubs. On his birthday, his legal team would throw him a party over the phone. “Everyone would be there, and they would play my favorite songs,” he says. “Always something by Stevie, always something by Bruce and the E Street Band. We listened to my girl Whitney.”
Jimmy kept writing, too, pulling together scraps of paper and jotting down lyrics. Sometimes he’d send them to Jackson. The ones she thought were promising, she’d send along to the copyright office in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t know whether he was gonna be able to record or not, but just in case he could,” she says.
And there was another positive development. In late 2012, Corby Johnson, a childhood friend of Jimmy’s, had seen a post on Facebook calling for people to sign a petition to free a man named James Dennis. Corby and Jimmy had met as kids in the advanced regional choir; she was an alto and he a soprano. They’d dated for a time in high school, spending hours on the phone, singing to each other, or just falling asleep, content to hear the other person breathing. They’d drifted apart — gone on to start relationships and families with other people — but she still thought fondly of him, and believed in his innocence, so she signed the petition.
A short time later, she got a note from Jimmy’s sister. He’d seen her name on the petition and wanted to know if it was OK if he got in touch. He did, and their letters soon turned into phone calls, but since Johnson’s number wasn’t on the approved list, she had to go to Jimmy’s mother’s house and talk to him from her line. “I just took over her conversation for weeks,” says Johnson. Eventually, Jimmy’s mom saw that they might need some privacy. “She was like, ‘You can go in my room and talk if you want to!’” Johnson remembers. “And I was like, ‘Thank you!’”
Jimmy-inspired tattoos on Amy Rohe (left) and Rebecca Gordon. Photographs courtesy of Amy Rohe
Finally, in 2013, a federal judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania agreed that Jimmy hadn’t been given a fair trial. Evidence that had been kept from the defense could have been used to convince a jury of Jimmy’s innocence, the judge determined, calling it “a grave miscarriage of justice.” The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appealed, but in 2016, a panel of 13 judges determined that the suppressed material “effectively gutted the case” against Jimmy. “The withholding of these pieces of evidence denied Dennis a fair trial,” wrote Third Circuit Judge Marjorie O. Rendell. To expedite his release, Jimmy was going to have to plead no contest to some lesser charges — third-degree murder, robbery, possessing an instrument of a crime — but after 25 years on death row, he was going to be set free.
On the morning of May 13th, 2017, Johnson and the legal team gathered at SCI Greene, a supermax prison near Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. When Jimmy walked out, they had two playlists prepared for the ride home — one that was the dozen songs he sang for himself every morning, in order, the other a much wider selection, for which he’d had many specific requests. “He would call me and be like, ‘I want the version of the Whitney song from the performance she gave in 1993,’” remembers his lawyer Meghan Martin. “‘She’s wearing a white dress.’” They drove six hours to Philadelphia, and as the skyline rose in the distance, they switched over to Meek Mill, Patti Labelle, and Boyz II Men. “[We put on] everybody that’s great in Philly, to make me feel like I was home again,” he says.
The legal team had made the pact years ago to get tattoos if Jimmy were ever released, and as the day approached, they began to get a little nervous. “I think one of our first emails, we’re like, ‘Yay, we won!’” recalls Gordon. “Then one of us was like, ‘Oh, my God, are we gonna have to get the tattoos?’” The night of his release, they decided to follow through. Though they weren’t matching, they were all inspired by Jimmy’s signature music note.
About a year after his release, Jimmy takes me on a tour of his old neighborhood, only the second time he’s been back since he got out. Johnson is driving — Jimmy hasn’t yet learned how — and he points out landmarks as we go, noting where things have changed. Jimmy seems a bit nervous, but as Johnson pulls into the Abbotsford Homes, he spots a small group of men gathered and recognizes them as some high school pals who used to help him set up for shows. Johnson stops, and Jimmy jumps out of the car. He leaves the door open and walks over to say hello. “He doesn’t know how to shut doors,” Johnson says. “I guess he never had to shut a door for 25 years,” Gordon responds. There are other prison habits Jimmy still has, they say, like squirreling toilet paper away in bed, a vestige of when he needed extra to clean the dusty vents in his small cell.
Jimmy visiting the Abbotsford Homes in Philadelphia where he grew up. Photograph by Devin Yalkin for Rolling Stone
In general, life after release has been limited to small groups — Johnson, Jimmy’s daughters, his granddaughters, his siblings, his mother, a few close friends from childhood. He still treats his legal team like family, calling their kids his nieces and nephews, and he still talks to Lamourie and Parkinson nearly every day. The couple’s work with Jimmy blossomed into the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty, an organization they still run, which has advocated for more than 1,000 people on death row. Jimmy still has nightmares, though, and still has the wincing thought that this is all a dream, that he’s going to wake up and be back in his cell, humming songs in his head, cut off from his life. For a while, he was working with Johnson at her dog-grooming business, but being in a place where people unexpectedly came and went all day put him way too much on edge, so he had to stop. “With the PTSD I couldn’t,” he says. “I don’t want to put my issues on nobody else, you know what I mean?”
He tries to stay positive, but after almost three decades of waiting, patience is difficult. “You know, a lot of things aren’t working out the way they were supposed to be working out,” he says. The night terrors and insomnia that plagued him after release are waning, but still there. And one time, when he was on the phone with Gordon and a police car pulled up in front of his house — it had nothing to do with him— he practically had a meltdown. “Rebecca basically stayed on the phone and coached me through it,” he says.
He has made the dive back into music, though, singing for the first time after his release at a small party thrown for him by his lawyers in D.C. (“I felt like I was in elementary school again. The sweating through the three shirts, that was very real.”) He keeps writing, too, but he’s swapped out his old pocket notebooks for a smartphone, typing down lyrics or using the voice memo function to hum tunes that come to him on his daily walks.
Gwen Jackson, in particular, has been invaluable to him. “She’s my sister,” he says, and his executive producer. “Every, every single song has her stamp of approval on it.” Since his release, she’s put him in touch with everyone from a music production professor at Drexel University to engineers, producers, and musicians who have collaborated with the likes of Alicia Keys, Marcus Miller, and Blackstreet. He’s finished two songs — “U Said” and “Awe U Done Went & Did It” — that he plans to include on Love Songs 25.5, an EP documenting his years behind bars and how he never gave up on happiness.
Jimmy with his mother, Juanita, at her home in May 2018. Photograph by Devin Yalkin for Rolling Stone
“A lot of people, they come home from prison, they write about prison,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that.” But his experience on death row is an undercurrent through all his work. “When you hear these records, you would see that the project tells a story about when I was sitting in a jail cell, how I didn’t go numb to the ability of being a human being.” He’s also working on a full-length album he wants to call Stolen Time.
And Jimmy hasn’t given up on seeking justice through the legal system. He’s pursuing a lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia and Detectives Jastrzembski and Santiago, alleging that they framed him by coercing witnesses, planting fake evidence, hiding exculpatory evidence, even lying at trial. The lawsuit is currently working its way through the courts. The City of Philadelphia denies legal liability in the case, according to a spokesperson for the city who declined to comment further on the “pending litigation.” Joe Santarone, the attorney representing Jastrzembski and Santiago in the case, says his clients maintain that “there was probable cause to arrest Mr. Dennis at the time.” He says that one of the eyewitnesses, a man now in his sixties, was recently deposed and stood by his testimony. “The witness was adamant the police detectives in no way influenced his identification,” Santarone tells Rolling Stone.
This time, as Jimmy waits for the molasses-slow wheels of justice to turn, he at least is on the outside. He can spend time with his family and Corby, the woman he sometimes calls his wife, but usually just calls “Queen.” He can record music when he wants, raising money through the internet to help fund those sessions. He can travel with new friends like Jason Flom, an Innocence Project co-founder, to connect with other people who have faced his situation and to speak with those who work tirelessly to get them out. One of the first cases Jimmy took on was Willie Veasy, an innocent man who served 27 years behind bars for murder. On October 9th, 2019, Vaesy was released. “You look up every now and again and you see, ‘Here comes another innocent person coming home,’” he says. “Like it’s common — but it shouldn’t be that common. And it should show everybody that something’s wrong with the judicial system.”
How this all could have happened is still something he grapples with. “There’s always a question, how did your life get stolen away?” he says. “There’s a lot of different factors. It goes back to people not doing their jobs properly. It comes down to people not caring enough. It comes down to lies and rumors, jealousy and things like that. People making a mistake and not willing to say they made a mistake.”
Then there’s Pop, whose false testimony helped send Jimmy to prison. “It’s not that I’m not angry and upset, but you have to look at things and put everything into its proper context. He was a kid,” he says. “All I can really say is he was put under pressure, and he chose himself. Was it wrong? Yes.” But the people Jimmy still has venom for are the prosecutors and detectives sworn to protect the city, who instead put him on death row for a murder he didn’t commit.
He directs me to several other lawsuits brought by men in Philadelphia who had been wrongfully convicted by the same team that convicted him. “You can see what Roger King, what Santiago, what Jastrzembski did,” he says. “They are not good men. They took a young kid that was 21 years old and they destroyed my life. And I’m never going to be the same again.”
Listen to Jimmy Dennis’ single “Awe U Done Went & Did It”