A Musician’s Life on Death Row

October 16, 2019 Updated: October 18, 2019

Capital punishment continues to be a controversial topic in the United States. The ultimate fear is that the state could potentially execute an innocent man or woman. One young musician was arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, and spent 25 years on death row.

Jimmy Dennis was living in Philadelphia in 1991, and was on the brink of making his R&B music career take off. The 21-year-old was gaining interest from different record labels who were trying to sign him.

Dennis and his group Sensation’s influences included artists such as New Edition, The Temptations, and Four Tops. The group took these influences and developed their own style and sound. However, Dennis’s musical career would be interrupted by something he couldn’t have seen coming.

The Wrong Man

On Nov. 22, 1991 Dennis had a meeting with a record label, producer, and promoter at his church. Afterward he had dinner to celebrate, and then went to his dad’s apartment. Before Dennis was aware of what was happening, the police had burst into the apartment with their guns drawn.

The detectives informed Dennis that he was being charged with murder. Dennis began shaking, and broke down in tears. He had a baby on the way, and was terrified at the prospect of potentially being executed.

“To me it was shocking. It was the worst feeling that you can imagine in the world. Your heart is beating outside of your chest,” Dennis told The Epoch Times.

Dennis photo
Jimmy Dennis was about to launch a professional music career prior to his arrest. (Courtesy of Marc Allen)

Dennis vehemently denied the accusation, and told the detectives that he couldn’t have possibly done something like murder someone else. He just wanted to clear his name. Nevertheless, the police harassed him and tried everything they could to get him to crack.

“You’re not a human being to them at all. You’re less than an animal, and that’s how I was treated,” Dennis recalled.

Dennis gave a statement to the detectives proclaiming his innocence, but they ultimately withheld it so it wouldn’t be available at trial.

Dennis had to survive attempts on his life from other of prisoners and abuse from guards to even make it to trial. Once he made it to trial, Dennis never stood a chance.

Kangaroo Court

The prosecutor and detectives who testified against him were corrupt, and the jury members would fall asleep during the trial.

Furthermore, Dennis didn’t even match the description of the perpetrator. The suspect was described as 5′ 10″ to 6′ tall, 180 to 200 pounds, and of dark skin complexion.

At the time Dennis was 5′ 4” and was only 125 pounds. Moreover, he was of lighter complexion than the description.

Dennis in the studio
Jimmy Dennis working in the recording studio. (Courtesy of Marc Allen)

The prosecution also lied to the jury about Dennis’s alibi and other witness statements. Furthermore, the prosecution and policed coerced witnesses to lie and testify against him. Moreover, the prosecution and police lied about clothing that they had found that had allegedly linked Dennis to the murder, but they said it had been cleaned out of the evidence room.

“Complete and utter corruption at every single turn,” Dennis said.

On Oct. 16, 1992 Dennis was convicted of first degree murder. When the jury read the verdict, his entire family broke down in tears. On Oct. 19, 1992 he was sentenced to death.

“It was just a heartbreaking moment for me and for them,” Dennis said.

Death Row

Dennis was on death row, and spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement with a light that was always on. The food trays were dirty and people would write racist slurs on them. Everywhere he went, including the bathroom, was covered by cameras. Whenever he was moved, he was placed in shackles with at least three guards escorting him.

Some of the prisoners on death row were mentally ill, and some of the condemned men committed suicide while Dennis awaited his execution.

“Being on death row is like having a gun to your head every single day, like somebody playing Russian roulette with you,” Dennis explained.

Dennis would also suffer from blackouts and panic attacks as a result of living on death row.

The cell Dennis was in had air vents which created a large amount of dust, which exacerbated his asthma. He ultimately developed a nasal drip medical condition as well. He now speaks with a somewhat raspy voice.

Dennis could only speak with family over the phone for a maximum of 15 minutes three days a week.

When guards escorted Dennis to the library or the yard, he was still placed in a cage. Ultimately, Dennis turned the cell into a library, and began working on his case. He wrote letters to his large group of supporters who were working on a campaign for his freedom, and studied the law.

“That’s how I fought to come back home. I never lost hope,” Dennis said.

Exoneration

After Dennis had exhausted all of his state appeals, he and his legal team appealed to the federal district court. The judge ultimately ruled that Dennis was “in all probability innocent,” and that the case had been a “grave miscarriage of justice.”

On May 13, 2017, Dennis was released from prison.

Having been falsely convicted and facing a potential execution, Dennis now suffers from PTSD. He finds himself isolated, wary of crowds, fears he will be set up again, suffers from nightmares, and relives the experience.

“I’m a semblance of what I used to be,” Dennis said.

Dennis at the conference
Jimmy Dennis (C) at Innocence Network Conference in April 2019. (Courtesy of Marc Allen)

Despite 25 years of almost complete isolation, Dennis is trying his best to reconnect with family and friends.

Anthony Wright, another victim of the detectives who had testified against Dennis, was also exonerated for a murder he didn’t commit. Dennis has also advocated for those who have been wrongfully convicted, including Willy Veasey who was released Oct. 9, 2019 for a murder he didn’t commit.

Despite his struggles, Dennis is trying to reignite his career and remains passionate about music.

“I love creating music. I love being in the studio, and when I’m in the studio, when I’m creating and I’m singing, there’s a peace in that. There’s a comfort in that for me,” Dennis said.

Listen to Jimmy Dennis’s new singles “U Said” and “Awe You Went and Did It.”

Readers can also donate to the James Dennis Freedom Fund.

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