What was the evidence against Jimmy Dennis?
- Three eyewitnesses of the crime (Zahra Howard, James Camaron, and Thomas Bertha), all strangers to Jimmy, identified Jimmy as the shooter,
- Charles Thompson, a member in Jimmy's singing group, testified that he saw Jimmy with a .32 revolver in his possession several hours later on the day of the murder (the same type of gun used in the murder, although the exact gun has never been found), and
- Latanya Cason, an acquantaince of Jimmy, testified she saw Jimmy sometime between 4:00 pm and 4:30 pm getting off of a bus about 4 miles from the crime scene (more than two hours after the 1:50 pm shooting). This conflicted with Jimmy's testimony that he saw Latanya around 2:30 pm and raised strong doubts about his alibi.
How can the eyewitness evidence against Jimmy be wrong?
Although three people, all strangers to Jimmy, identified him as the perpetrator, their descriptions didn't match him. For instance, Zahra Howard said the perpetrator was 5'9”-5'10” or taller and Thomas Bertha said 5'9”, but Jimmy is only 5'4”. Jimmy is actually nicknamed “Shorty”. Thomas Bertha described the perpetrator as 180 lbs, but Jimmy weighed only 125-130 lbs at the time of the murder. And regarding skin color, Thomas Bertha said the perpetrator was dark skinned while James Camaron said the perpetrator was darker than himself, but Jimmy is light to medium brown skinned.
So the jururs had to decide if the eyewitnesses were right about their identification but made mistaken physical descriptions, or if the witnesses made wrong identifications but correct descriptions of the perpetrator. Having no real knowledge of the reliability of stranger identification, they had to use their intuition, and ultimately they believed the identification more than the physical descriptions.
But it turns out that witnesses are much more likely to honestly mistake an identity than they are to mistake height/weight/skin color in the amount that they did. We can conclude this by reading studies based on research done in experimental psychology, in which fake crimes are enacted and stranger eyewitness identification is studied. In a crime that took such a short amount of time such as this – mere seconds, stranger identification is notoriously unreliable. In these studies it is common for false identifications to be made 35% of the time.
For instance, NBC once aired a documentary in which they showed a purse snatching and the perpetrator run towards the camera. The incident lasted 12 seconds. After the show, the viewers were presented a lineup and were asked to call to identify the perpetrator. Only 14% of the viewers chose the perpetrator, the same amount that would have chose him if they were guessing randomly. In the psychology experiments, the actual accuracy rates vary greatly, but are typically very bad for crimes of this duration.
Some experiments measure how well bystanders can estimate height and weight. Strangers overestimating height by 4”-5”+ and weight by 60 lbs+ is relatively rare when compared to the frequency of misidentifications.
Of course besides experiments in psychology, mistaken identification is well known to be the leading cause of wrongful convictions in cases overturned by DNA evidence. There have been several real life examples in which a man has been identified by 3 or more people as the perpetrator, but later found to be innocent. In some cases, five eyewitnesses identified the wrong man.
The three eyewitnesses during Jimmy's trial, occuring a full year after the crime, expressed certainty and confidence in their identification of Jimmy as the perpetrator. But they weren't nearly as sure when they first identified him in photo spreads three days following the crime.
When Zahra Howard looked at the photo spread, she pointed to Jimmy's picture and said “This one looks like the guy, but I can't be sure.” And when asked directly if she could “be sure if that is, in fact, the guy that shot Chedell”, Zahra said “No”. When Zahra Howard later returned to school she also told a classmate that she was not sure if the person she identified (Jimmy) was the killer because she did not get a good look at the killer.
When James Camaron was asked if anyone in the photospread looked familiar, he said “Number one looks familiar, but I can't be sure.” Research shows that identification accuracy does not improve with time. So whatever a confidence an eyewitness has at the time of the selection is the amount of confidence they should have in the selection. A person can't be more sure of an identification at some point later in time.
Of the three eyewitnesses who identified Jimmy, two of them were not sure Jimmy was the perpetrator, and the third witness, Thomas Bertha, only saw the perpetrator for “a second”, in which case the reliability for an accurate identification is extraordinary low.
If we look further at the details of their testimony, more doubts are raised. We get a hint of how difficult it is to identify the exact features of someone's face when we examine how eyewitnesses can be unsure of major details or contradict each other about key descriptions. For instance, Zahra Howard in an interview just after the murder said she didn't think that the perpetrator had facial hair, but at the trial a year later when asked she responded “I don't remember”. (This also implies that she was not comparing the perpetrator from her memory to Jimmy in the courtroom since she admits she doesn't remember a major detail of what the perpetrator's face looked like.)
There are also contradictions on how the perpetrator was dressed. Zahra says he was wearing a red sweat suit, with big white stripes running down the sleeves, and a black hood possibly from a sweatshirt underneath. Thomas Bertha and James Camaron, however, said the perpetrator had a red sweatshirt (Thomas Bertha says with a red hood) with a black jacket over the sweatshirt. If there is doubt and contradictions as to the color of the sweatshirt and it's hood and whether or not the perpetrator was wearing a jacket, that should imply some doubt as to the much more difficult task of identifying someone's face.
In addition, many other witnesses to the crime were not called to testify in court. Some of these witnesses went to the police station to attempt to identify the perpetrator, but chose no one or actually picked someone other than Jimmy. But most importantly, interviews done at the police station reveal that they also generally describe the perpetrator as 5'9”-5'10” (or taller) and in one case weighing 190 pounds. (Recall Jimmy is 5'4” and weighed 125-130 pounds at the time.)
In conclusion, with a better knowledge of eyewitness testimony, the testimony of the three eyewitnesses at the trial actually support Jimmy's innocence - not his guilt - since their physical descriptions are more likely to be correct than their stranger identification.
What about Charles Thompson's testimony that he saw Jimmy with a gun on the night of the murder?
Charles Thompson made a statement to police a couple of weeks following the murder that he saw Jimmy with a gun on the night of the murder – in fact that he saw Jimmy with the same caliber handgun that was used in the murder. The three other members of their band Sensation who were also there that night said that Charles Thompson was lying and Jimmy did not have a gun. Five years later, in 1996, Charles Thompson recanted his original statement that he saw Jimmy with a gun on the night of the murder.
Charles described how on the night that he gave the statement he was arrested for an unrelated crime. He says the police took him to another room because they wanted to question him about his “involvement in the Chedell Williams’ case.” When Charles responded “I didn’t kill anybody”, the Police said that they didn’t know that. They let Charles wait in the room 3 hours prior to questioning him, when Charles explains: “They asked me was I there, was I there at the scene of the crime, where was I that night, was I harboring a gun for Mr. Dennis, holding a gun for Mr. Dennis, they just asked me if I knew Jimmy Dennis.”
Charles explained how he was scared and intimidated and believed the police were implicating him in the murder. He was handcuffed to a chair which was bolted to the floor. The police told him that if he did not cooperate with them that they would attempt to arrest him for being involved in Chedell Williams’ murder. Charles said he knew nothing of the shooting and that Jimmy Dennis never gave him the impression that he had done the shooting. But the Police gave the impression to Charles that Jimmy had in fact committed the crime. Charles was afraid “they may lock [him] up and was about to go away for a long time.” He says at this point he was willing to tell them what they wanted to hear in order to get out of there. Charles described the interrogation: “They said Mother F***** answer the question, you are never getting out of here. You are going to be here as long as we have you here for a couple of days. I was slouching, I was bumped several times told to sit up, lifted by the shirt, handcuffed to the chair and five cops were around me and I was afraid they would beat the hell out of me while I was handcuffed.” Charles said “they wanted me to say that he told me that he killed her—that he actually committed the crime.” They said “didn’t he tell you that he killed her, that’s your boy we know he told you.”
After hours of being badgered, an interrogator went out and came back with paper and said answer these questions. Charles said “I just wanted to get out of there because they said I was a suspect and I figured I would take it back once I got out of there. I figured I would take it back once I got out of there.”
“They were telling me before the statement that "other people" had seen him with the guns, with two guns, a revolver and a shotgun. They told me to come on you saw him with them. We have five statements that he has this type of gun and this type of gun and you saw him with this type of gun. Didn't you? You saw him with those guns didn't you?” They had a stack of papers in there and they were acting like the papers were the five different statements. That these people in the statements saw him with those guns, now they were saying to me, come on now you saw him with those guns. At that point I was willing to agree with those "other people" (who never existed but I didn't know that yet) I just wanted to get the hell out of there and not be locked up.”
Charles said he was expecting help for testifying and that “Roger King said it would look good for [him].”
Charles also said that prior to the trial, he attempted to recant his statement because “it was in my conscious, I couldn’t sleep and get it out of my mind, it was like a monkey on my back. I was thinking I can’t do this I have to straighten this out when I go see Roger King.” But “Roger King said to [Charles] specifically that day that at this point in time nothing can be changed with what the statement said and he repeated it twice. So then I really felt that I couldn’t say anything.” “Right away [Roger King] started to say I know you young boys and you all hang out with criminals.”
Interrogations and intimidation are a useful part of the justice system, but sometimes people are intimidated into saying something untrue.
Also, Charles Thompson did not voluntarily go to the station to provide information against Jimmy. Instead, he had been taken in on assault charges - charges that were later dropped after he gave his statement.
Does Latanya Cason's testimony show that Jimmy was lying about his alibi?
Latanya Cason testified at the original trial that she saw Jimmy when they both exited a bus in the Abbortsfords projects at around 4:00-4:30 pm. This was in contradiction to when Jimmy said he exited the bus and when many other people testified as to where he was that afternoon. At trial, prosecutor Roger King made the point that this testimony shows that Jimmy wasn't where he says he was and that he was lying about his whereabouts.
Latanya Cason later said she was wrong about the time that she saw Jimmy and it was actually around 2:30 pm. She had based her trial testimony upon knowing that she saw Jimmy approximately 1 - 1.5 half hours after she cashed her check. The time stamped on the check was 13:03 which she incorrectly understood as 3:03 pm and hence thought she saw Jimmy at 4:00 or 4:30. In reality, the time was military time and should have been read as 1:03 pm, in which case she would have seen Jimmy between 2:00 and 2:30, which completely cooberates with Jimmy's other alibi witnesses.
The welfare receipt had actually been in the State's possession, but was ultimately discovered by a defense lawyers during an appeal. This change in testimony removes the single piece of evidence that impeached Jimmy's alibi - that he was traveling from his Dad's house on a bus at the time of the murder.