Federal appeals court orders a new trial in 1991 murder of 17-year-old girl killed for her earrings

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James Dennis was sentenced to die in the 1991 homicide.

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that a Philadelphia man sentenced to die for the 1991 murder of a teenage girl who was killed for her earrings should be freed or granted a new trial because evidence suggesting his innocence was withheld by police and prosecutors.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit - with four of 13 judges dissenting - upheld a 2013 lower-court order that James A. Dennis, 45, be released or retried in the killing of 17-year-old Chedell Ray Williams by a robber who tore off her earrings and then shot her in the neck.

"Today, another court has reaffirmed that his trial was fundamentally unfair," said lawyer Ryan D. Guilds of the Washington firm of Arnold & Porter.

"We hope the commonwealth will take swift action to end this case" and release Dennis, Guilds said.

District Attorney Seth Williams, who appealed U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody's 2013 ruling ordering a new trial, gave no indication that he would stop arguing Dennis's guilt.

Williams' office "is reviewing the Third Circuit's ruling and will determine whether to seek further review on the basis of the compelling dissent by four federal judges, who concluded that the evidence against Dennis remains 'strong,' " said Cameron Kline, Williams' spokesman.

Efforts to reach the victim's family Tuesday night were unsuccessful.

In her 2013 ruling, Brody wrote that police and prosecutors ignored, lost, or "covered up" evidence favorable to Dennis.

Judge Marjorie O. Rendell, who wrote the 102-page majority opinion, came to a similar conclusion: "Evidence suppressed by the prosecution - a receipt corroborating Dennis' alibi, an inconsistent statement by the commonwealth's key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder - effectively gutted the commonwealth's case against Dennis.

"The withholding of these pieces of evidence denied Dennis a fair trial in state court," she added.

In a 28-page dissenting opinion, Judge D. Michael Fisher argued that the majority was wrong because "the evidence against Dennis was strong."

Fisher also wrote that the majority exceeded its authority in overturning the judgment of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which in 2011 denied granting Dennis a new trial.

Early last year, a three-judge panel from the Third Circuit ruled against Dennis, but the full Third Circuit decided to rehear the case. Three of the four dissenting judges from Tuesday's decision were from the panel that ruled against him.

Guilds said he telephoned Dennis early Tuesday afternoon with news of the ruling and also informed his family.

"He was overcome with emotion," said fellow attorney Amy L. Rohe, who argued Dennis' case before the Third Circuit last October. Guilds and Rohe have been working on the case since 2000.

Rohe, of the Washington firm Reisman Karron Greene L.L.P., and Guilds were driving Tuesday night to visit with Dennis Wednesday morning at State Correctional Institution at Greene in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

On Oct. 22, 1991, Williams, an Olney High School student, was with another girl at SEPTA's Fern Rock station when two men approached them and demanded her gold earrings.

The girls ran and the men followed Williams to nearby 10th Street and Nedro Avenue, where one of the men took the earrings and shot her. She died at a hospital less than an hour later.

The men fled in a waiting car.

Dennis, then 21, was the only suspect arrested and charged. Police never recovered the earrings or gun, and developed no forensic evidence tying Dennis to the crime. He was convicted in 1992 mainly on the testimony of three eyewitnesses.

bmoran@phillynews.com

215-854-5983 @RobertMoran215