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Musician Wrongly Convicted Of Murder Spent 25 Years On Death Row Before Being Freed

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Musician Wrongly Convicted Of Murder Spent 25 Years On Death Row Before Being Freed

A wrongfully convicted man who spent 25 years of his life on death row and stared down two execution dates has explained how he coped with decades on the inside, the traumas that keep him awake at night to this day, and the musical dream that kept him going through his years of incarceration.

In 1991, Jimmy Dennis - a 22-year-old R&B musician just starting to make waves on the Philadelphia scene - was arrested and charged with the murder of 17-year-old Chedell Williams.

Despite the fact that there was no physical evidence or DNA linking him to the crime, no gun suggested to have been involved in the shooting, and no car associated in the perpetrator's getaway, Dennis was sentenced to death and began the prison sentence that would consume the prime of his life.

Jimmy faced execution down on two occasions. Credit: Justice For Jimmy
Jimmy faced execution down on two occasions. Credit: Justice For Jimmy
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Despite maintaining his innocence for the entirety of his prison term, and receiving legal counsel and support from around the world, he stared death in the face on two occasions, having two execution warrants taken out against him.

On both those occasions, he came within days of death.

He was even asked to select what he would like to eat for his last meal, but always steadfastly refused to choose.

Jimmy has now returned to his music career. Credit: Corby Johnson
Jimmy has now returned to his music career. Credit: Corby Johnson
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Jimmy explained: "It is an horrific ordeal. You feel like your world is coming to an end.

"For somebody to give you an actual date saying on that day you're going to die [is horrific].

"I literally came within a couple of weeks, one time it was a week, within the timeframe upon which they were going to kill me.

"They asked me what your last meal is going to be - I would never answer these questions. I always refused to answer these questions."

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"I would never give in to the thought that I was going to die. I always believed in the power of positive reinforcement, that something positive was going to happen.

"I believed and had faith that somehow the right thing would be done by me, and that my lawyers and I were working hard to stop it.

"We were lucky enough for that to be the case in those two situations, but you never get over that, and to this very day I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, panic and anxiety attacks."

Throughout his incarceration, Jimmy relied on a dedicated support team on the outside. Credit: Justice For Jimmy
Throughout his incarceration, Jimmy relied on a dedicated support team on the outside. Credit: Justice For Jimmy
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He continued: "Even though my suffering was immense, I still know that there are worse things, and I had the ability to fight back.

"That's just how I'm built. No matter what I'm faced with in life, I believe I can climb that mountain and get over the hump.

"I held onto my dream. No matter who you are.

"Whatever it is, I believe you can do that, and I never believed that I was going to die in prison. Never.

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"I never believed that my day of truth wasn't going to come."

For Jimmy, that power of positive thought paid off.

Eventually after years of struggle from within the prison system and from those who supported his innocence on the outside, a team of judges at the US Federal Appeals Court ruled that the State of Pennsylvania had to either release Jimmy or start a new trial.

Instead of that, the prosecutors offered him a heart-wrenching choice. Plead no contest to a third-degree murder charge and leave the jail immediately, or spend further years inside to contest the trial and receive his absolution.

He chose freedom.

However, the information that led to that appeal decision was telling enough.

A panel of judges scrutinised every detail of Jimmy's case, and Judge Anita Brody, sitting for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, eventually wrote that Jimmy 'was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit.'

The lawyers advocating for Jimmy also discovered that three vital pieces of evidence were withheld from the original trial by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Firstly, a witness statement implicating two high school boys, another statement from a prisoner who described in detail a phone conversation he had with someone who admitted the crime, and a receipt from a witness to corroborate Jimmy's presence on a bus, which would have aided his alibi timeline.

Coupled with the fact that many witnesses described the shooter as significantly taller than Jimmy - he's around five foot five - and the lack of physical evidence, the judge called upon the prosecutors to bring a retrial within 180 days or release Jimmy.

After a back and forth of appeal, a deal was reached and Jimmy walked free.

It has later been suggested that the prosecutors have reached deals like this in several cases simply to negate any later chances of compensation payments.

He continued: "It's the first federal legal opinion in this country in a non-DNA case that exonerates a person.

"The very first line she wrote, which I waited for so many years was 'James A. Dennis was wrongfully convicted of a crime which in all probability he did not commit'."

Credit: Justice For Jimmy/Facebook
Credit: Justice For Jimmy/Facebook

Eventually, in 2017, Jimmy managed - admittedly, through means that weren't ideal - to get out, and return to his family and his first love, making music.

After that long inside though, the world was a strange place to him.

He explained: "When I walked out and I saw my fiancé and my lawyers and the film crews there, I just wanted to hug them all immediately.

"As we got into the van they gave me a phone. It was literally my first time holding a cellphone - things change, you know? - and I called my mother and my daughters to let them know I was on my way.

"Then, when I get to the hotel, and my mother and daughters were there, there was this moment between us that I'd waited for and they'd waited for all these years, which still feels like an out of body experience.

"It still feels like I'm watching myself outside of myself, looking at what is going on.

"It really felt that way for quite a long time.

"I still wake up and I don't believe that I'm here, because of everything that I went through.

"When I have nightmares about the things I went through in prison, and what the corrupt police officers did to me, I wake up in cold sweats and it's hard to process.

"But, I have faith that I can get through these challenging times, try to go about my day and put it all into my music."

Jimmy performing with his group 'Sensation' before his incarceration. Credit: Jimmy Dennis
Jimmy performing with his group 'Sensation' before his incarceration. Credit: Jimmy Dennis

Music has been Jimmy's big saviour, both inside prison and since his release.

Upon leaving prison, he's restarted the music career that he had beforehand and hopes to now bring in some of his horrendous experiences and use them as a force for good in his life, as well as trying to reach others with his songs.

Jimmy said: "Immediately I got in the studio and got around incredible musicians and producers.

"I started working. I took all the songs I wrote in prison - I wrote over 1,000 songs in prison - I just write all the time."

"Hopefully, it'll catch on with people even more. I'm enjoying the feedback from the latest single [Tears This Year] and enjoying the feedback from people.

"So far - knock on wood - everybody is liking the music, so I'm grateful."

He's also been using his platform to help others in the same predicament since release. Credit: Justice For Jimmy
He's also been using his platform to help others in the same predicament since release. Credit: Justice For Jimmy

Still though, the world he re-entered upon release is a different one to the world he left behind in 1991.

From the phone handed to him in the van immediately after he got out, to learning to use the internet and keeping up with music, it's been a struggle to adapt.

"Prison is it's own world. It used to call it the city within the city.

"Technology is off the charts, the internet is the main thing [that I had to learn]/

"This is literally some James Bond type of stuff - futuristic.

"The biggest thing is the technology, and seeing that everyone has a voice, but also responsibility should come with that.

"The technology is very interesting to me, and how fast music has changed too. I can record with somebody in another country via email, or without having to go to the studio, and then put it out there.

"Everything has changed in that sense, and that's a good thing, you know? I'm trying to be positive.

"On the internet, I try to be positive, because we have enough negativity in the world, right?

"All the challenges that I've talked about, I welcome them, and I embrace them. It's just another mountain I need to climb, and I'm up for the challenge to climb it, no matter what I'm dealing with."

Jimmy's music is available on Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, and Amazon Music.

Featured Image Credit: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections/Neal Santos

Topics: Music, Interesting, US News, crime, Prison

Tom Wood
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