When you on death row it feels like a gun is literally being held to your head every day. It is a day to day assault on a human soul. I had my life stolen away 25.5 years for a crime I didn’t commit. There are countless people doing hard time in American prisons for crimes they didn’t commit. I’ve interviewed dozens of them on my podcast and now we’re bringing these powerful human stories to your screens. Together we can help shed light on some of the current problems plaguing our criminal injustice system. I’m Jason Flom and this is Jimmy Dennis spent over twenty five long years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. This is his story. Welcome to Wrongful Conviction. Thank you for having me, my friend. Like I always say I’m sorry you’re here but I’m happy you’re here. I grew up in North Philadelphia, Abbotsford Projects. I played football a little bit, basketball, wasn’t really good at either. But I loved music. My dad was a gospel musician. He played the piano. He played organ. I was in the church choir. I started my on singing group, Sensation, and then we started going across Philadelphia entering into the talent shows. We had interest from music executives in the business. The world was here and I was running towards it in a beautiful way. Everything was coming together — the music, having a daughter being born, I just felt like I was on a natural high. And then life just took this dramatic shift. A young lady by the name of Chedell Ray Williams was brutally murdered for a pair of gold earrings. The day that the crime took place, I was on the complete opposite side of town. I was on the bus. I’d seen an acquaintance and I went to Abbotsford Projects. My group and I practiced, rehearsed, and so on and so forth. And that was my day. When the crime takes place, the city is in uproar. The community is crying out in pain. So the city went to each individual neighborhood looking for stickup boys who did robberies. A group of individuals lied on me and said my name because they were jealous of me. The very moment that I heard my name even mentioned in any type kind of rumor I did what everyone says an innocent person is supposed to do. I went down to the police station. I stayed down here for several hours signed in and they said they didn’t want to talk to me. There’s been a lot of reporting, a lot of documentation of the Rizzo era and of course he went on to become the mayor. He was actively promoting police violence. Yes. These police officers are from that era that Frank Rizzo era which there were a lot of abuses back in there, in that era in terms of no holds barred just by any means just do whatever you have to do and lock people up, you know, unjustly. They did a remarkable story about the Tony Wright case. It ran in Rolling Stone six or seven years ago. Yeah and they mentioned me in that article too. There was a pull quote where they said that in the early ’90s a Black man had a better chance of getting justice in Philadelphia, Mississippi than they did in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That’s true. True. Absolutely true. I was hoping and praying that the truth was going to come out, that somebody was gonna come forward with some information or the police was gonna do the right thing at that time. But thinking they were going to do the right thing? That’s a fairy tale. Nobody should believe that foolishness. Not dealing with the people that I was dealing with. You go back and you study the case that they’ve done been involved in, you’ll see that they did this the same pattern to me they did to many other men and women the exact same way. It’s funny, my last night on the street I was in church. We were talking with a music producer and a label and we had to meet there in church later on. That morning, I was arrested. I guess would be like four o’clock in the morning. I was at my dad’s apartment and I heard the slam of the door. Next thing you know you hear a bang boom boom boom boom boom. I jump up. I’m barely dressed. They just barreled their way through the door, “Shut the f up,” pushing me around, threw me against the wall. Guns drawn on you. Then they handcuffed me. They manhandled me into the paddy wagon and it’s dark back there you ridin’ back there and you hittin’ every bump. You get to the police station. Everybody is looking at you like you some kind of monster and they put you in a room. Multiple cops coming in saying different things: “You’re gonna die by lethal injection.” I just told the truth because I had nothing to hide, I didn’t have a lawyer because I didn’t need a lawyer. From the moment that I gave the statement they actually went out started hiding the truth about my innocence. From there I was charged with capital murder. First degree murder, capital murder. I just turned 21 years old. I never been locked up before ever in my life. At some point in time you know you’re not going home. Right. It sinks in. I started praying. It’s a mistake. They’re gonna get this right. That didn’t happen. Just keep going from there. There’s always hope, you know, a flicker of hope that the jury is going to see the truth that they’re going to be able to ascertain that what they’re saying doesn’t add up. But it didn’t work out like that. You had not only alibi witnesses who were either silenced or threatened, or, you know, various different tactics were employed to make sure that you know the alibis that you had that were basically airtight never made it in front of a jury. Jury, right. But also the fact that the description didn’t match at all. I mean, they described a guy who was 5’10” and if you’re 5’10” then I might as well play center for the Knicks. You’re 5’4″, right? I’m 5’4″. So the physical description was that the perpetrator was 5’10” to 6 foot tall, 180 to 200 pounds. And I weighed 125 pounds. I was 5’4″. There were nine witnesses but only three testified at trial and reason why the other six didn’t testify is because they clearly said that I wasn’t the perpetrator and that they wasn’t going to lie for the police. These police officers made witnesses lie and they turned me into this monster where they had to get me out of society so that people could ride the bus without fear or wear jewelry without fear. It was horrifying for me. There was a moment where the jury foreman and another jury member was going to sleep. You can’t be focused on a trial if you’re going to sleep. The judge gets the verdict from the foreman. And you hear, you know, guilty. My mother started crying. My sister is shaking back and forth. And they gave me the death penalty. The judge stands you up and tells you you’re gonna die by lethal injection. And next thing you know you’re being shipped out of the county prison and you’re going upstate to be on death row. It feels like a gun is literally being held to your head every day when you are on death row and it is a day to day assault on a human soul. That’s what death row is. The light in the cell stays on 24 hours a day. So you lived for 25 years and… never having darkness.
Right. From the moment I stepped foot in prison I had guards trying to kill me and set me up, and the prisoners trying to kill me. They tried to light the cell on fire with me in there. It’s a jungle. You know, and um, survival and proving my innocence was all I had on my mind. When I initially meet my youngest daughter, I meet her in prison. I just brought this incredible little being into the world, right, that I want to protect. And I can’t. I can’t protect my oldest daughter. I was a wreck. You had two execution dates set. What exactly is an execution order? It’s a piece of paper and they give you a copy of it saying that you’re going to die on this day and unless you get a stay of execution from a judge, you’re dead. They’re gonna take you, strap you down to a gurney and pump sodium thiopental into your veins. And in your case they went so far as to ask you the questions — what do you want your last meal to be? What I wanted my last meal to be, where I wanted my body shipped. And who were the two people that I wanted them to call once they killed me. So imagine you actually knowing when you’re going to die. It’s very horrifying. From the moment I stepped foot in prison, I started writin’ organizations, activists all over the country trying to get help. I will put 50 letters within a 24 hour period in the door. There was a little crest in the door or the guard would have to open up the slot door where they put the food trays in to get the mail because I would be writin’ so many letters to anybody that would listen and it would be a sheet and it would break down of all the facts of the case, who to contact to get involved and help free me. That’s what I did for 25.5 years up until my release. I must have wrote over fifty thousand or more letters. Easy. I went on a website. I don’t even think it exists no more called Cyberspace Inmates. And, you know, other prisoners was up there for penpals. I didn’t do none of that. I went up there and said, “I’m innocent. I need help.” And the first two people to write me was Tracy and Dave Lamourie from Canada. They started the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty because of me. If I knew anybody who I thought anybody was true to their convictions, I would write them a letter if I got a legitimate address on them. That’s how I was able to get some of my supporters that are notable like Susan Sarandon. They came by way of me writin’ my supporters, you know, and them getting the address. I literally turned the cell I was in to a library. And lawyers sent me books, legal books. I started studying the law. I had to. That’s the only reason I’m sitting here right now talking to you. A friend sent me a book. A Man’s Search for Meaning by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl. And Dr. Viktor E. Frankl was fond to quote Nietzsche. And there was this quote in that book that I took and I applied to myself and the quote was he who has a why can bear with almost any how. My why was my dad, my mom, and my daughters. One of the worst experiences I ever had in prison is when my dad died. I was sitting in this cell. I was working on the Justice for Jimmy campaign. A guard came up to the cell door. He said your dad died. And just walked away. How do you process something like that? Anybody that know me know that me and my dad was tight. So I missed 25.5 years with my dad. And then he died. I missed my youngest daughter being born. I missed the first time my oldest daughter went to kindergarten. I missed taking them to amusement park or, you know, taking them shopping. Things like that. It’s unfair that I missed all of that. It’s unfair. It’s wrong. In every sense of the word. I got a phone call from the lawyers the counselor and a unit manager came to the door and said you gotta call your lawyers. Amy Rohe is like a sister to me, she’s my lawyer. She — I call her sister. And Ryan Guilds is like a brother to me, I call him brother. And I get them on the phone they pronounce my entire name. James A. Dennis, they never do that. They say James A. Dennis, the truth has come out. The truth has come out and they just kept saying over and over, she believes in you, she knows the truth. She believes in you. You still don’t get the magnitude of it, right. I didn’t. When they did come up to the prison and I read the legal opinion. They put it up against the glass right away so I could see it. And the first sentence said James A. Dennis was wrongly convicted for a crime in all probability he did not commit. That meant more to me than anything in the world. That started the ball rollin’ of me getting out. Where it gets really weird, and this is not, unfortunately, not unique to your case,
Right, no. No. but is that after your conviction was overturned by Judge Brody, right?
but is that after your conviction was overturned by Judge Brody, right? Right.
You remained in prison for several years. Yes. So I remained in jail for over three, three and a half years. Any words you wanna say before we leave? [laughter] That is fantastic. Get in the car, let’s go. Today is a ok day. And we had this moment. You know what I mean? That we have been talking about having for 17 years. Then you get in the van, they started playing Philadelphia Freedom by Elton John which was kind of cool. And then it — Patti LaBelle, Boyz II Men, Meek Mill. You know what I mean, you gotta have the sound of Philadelphia, you know what I mean. So I could feel like I’m home. First thing I ate was some french fries with some onions in ketchup on it and a vanilla milkshake. I had some David sunflower seeds. Don’t ask me why. ‘Cause I can’t tell you, right. It’s just what I had. You could see that there’s this moment with me and my mom where we just sittin’ there and we just holdin’ hands and it’s surreal like but it’s still like out of body experience. When I hug my daughters it was still like out of body experience like this is something that you dreamed about and you waited for 25.5 years to happen. And now that it’s happening it doesn’t feel real and you’re still waiting for somebody to pinch you and wake you up. And then you’ll be back in prison. I went through that for a long time after I got home like am I gonna wake up and this is gonna be a dream. You hear cases every month of innocent people coming home. Why is that? That’s corruption. That’s not a mistake. The only way that corruption is ever going to stop is if we hold the prosecutor and police officers accountable and they go to prison for when they violate and they send innocent people to jail and when they violate people constitutional rights. Am I worried about them coming to steal my life away again? Yes. Am I worried about them at any given time being able to set me up or kill me in the streets of Philadelphia? Yes. And it’s the same thing That Black and Latino people and poor white people think about every day of their life. We live in fear. I use my bitterness to fuel me to advocate for other innocent people. There are innocent women and men all over this country who each individual in their everyday walk of life can help. I had a group of everyday individuals that were my supporters all over the world that champion my cause day in and day out. They became my voice when I had no voice. So don’t say in your everyday life that you can’t make a difference because you actually can. Never ever give up. No matter what you do, no matter what your dream is, chase at it with reckless abandon. Go for it. Peace. Thank you for taking the time to learn this important story. But please remember it’s not an isolated incident. Best estimates are that ten thousand people are wrongfully convicted in the US each and every year for crimes they didn’t commit. And these wrongful convictions mean that the real perpetrator may still be out there, there’s no justice for the victims; families, and that we all lose when the criminal justice system or injustice system we rely on in a fair and just society becomes corrupted.