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How the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office handles death penalty cases and falls short of ethical and effective standards

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By Aja Beech June 4th, 2019

How the District Philadelphia Attorney’s Office handles death penalty cases is a subject I have written about and worked on for about a decade. I have followed cases from around the world and was in the courtroom for cases in Philadelphia and at the Supreme Court in Harrisburg. Over these years I followed the Terrance Williams trial when he narrowly escaped Pennsylvania’s death chamber. The Jimmy Dennis trial, a man put on death row as a teenager and freed in 2017, and collected hundreds of thousands of signatures for the death penalty study in the Pennsylvania legislature that concluded last year.

The way in which the current district attorney, Larry Krasner, is handling death penalty cases has made news in the past few weeks. Here are a few pieces I have put together, to contribute some clarity and context to this recent news.

To start, here is 2012, a recap of the journey of Terrence William, one of over 200 people on Pennsylvania’s death row. Almost half of those on death row in Pennsylvania have come from Philadelphia. Of the 95 people on death row that have come from Philadelphia courts, approximately 18 of those cases were tried and sentenced to death in a period from 1983 until 1987, according to an execution list maintained by the state. This four-year period has come under great scrutiny because of issues such as the McMahon tapes, an instructional video made in 1986 by senior prosecutor at the time in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office Jack McMahon on excluding “young blacks” from juries. McMahon has also worked with Krasner over the years and helped Krasner in his bid for DA.

In his November 2013, piece on Jimmy Dennis I address why Dennis, who was ordered to be set free or have a new trial in August of that same year, still sat on death row. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, six people had been exonerated from death row in Pennsylvania by 2013. The sixth man was Harold Wilson, sentenced to death for the brutal murder of three people in 1989. It was not until 10 years later when it was confirmed that the district attorney who prosecuted the case used racially discriminatory tactics when Wilson won the chance to have the case heard again. After a full 16 years on Pennsylvania’s death row, Wilson was finally released in 2005 when DNA evidence proved not only that he was not at the scene of the crime, but that another person — who remains unidentified — was

While on death row, Wilson was two cells down from Dennis, whose nickname Wilson tells me is Shorty. They were and still are very close, and Wilson has been following the recent developments in Dennis’ case. The time Judge Brody gave to either file to retry the Dennis case or release him — 180 days — seems like a lifetime to me. Six months knowing that the justice system sees the errors of your prosecution but will still keep you sitting in solitary confinement.