After sitting on death row for a quarter of a century for a murder he didn’t commit, R&B singer Jimmy Dennis was released from a penitentiary in Western Pennsylvania in 2017 – thanks to persistent letter-writing, people who believed in him and the cyberspace inmates website.
As Jimmy recently shared in an interview with JustSociale CEO and founder, Sarah Liberty, every day on death row was like living a nightmare; every day was like an “assault on the human soul” and a fight for survival – but a fight he refused to give up on.
Jimmy spent 25 years facing execution after being convicted for the murder of a 17-year-old, who had been brutally killed for a pair of gold hooped earrings. After a group of boys wrongfully tried to pin the crime on him, Jimmy quickly presented himself to the local police station, waiting for several hours before he was sent home, saying the police didn’t want to talk with him. A few days later, the then 21-year-old he was dragged back to the station, but never requested a lawyer believing he had airtight alibis and nothing to hide. Jimmy didn’t match the description of the perpetrator either.
Convicted for capital murder primarily on the testimony of three eyewitnesses, the aspiring singer and front of a R&B band called Sensations never imagined he would spend 25.5 years on death row – right at the time his music was coming together, his daughter had been born and in his own words, he was “living a natural high”.
“It feels like a gun is literally being held to your head when you’re held on death row; you cannot be in prison for a crime committed against a child or woman without being a pariah,” says Jimmy, who says survival, his family and proving his innocence was what kept him going. Jimmy, who was confined to his cell up to 23 hours a day, had two execution dates set – even being asked what he wanted for his last meal and where he wanted his body to be shipped; to this day he still suffers from PTSD from the experience.
From the moment he stepped foot in prison, Jimmy wrote up to 50 letters a day to organisations and activists who could help him or who would listen to him. He believes he wrote up to 50 000 letters or more whilst incarcerated. That’s when he stumbled upon a prison penpal website, Cyberspace Inmates based out of Kansas City, but Jimmy wasn’t interested in having a penpal, he wanted help getting justice.
The first two people who wrote back to him were Tracy Lamourie and Dave Parkinson from Canada, who started the “Justice for Jimmy Campaign”. As documented in Rolling Stone magazine: “Without even asking Jimmy’s permission, Dave fired up Netscape and built a webpage. ‘It was pretty basic,’ he says, ‘but we pieced it all together, scanned some of the documents, and then typed in the stuff that didn’t scan right. Then, when we messaged Jimmy back, we printed out copies and said, ‘Look, here’s your webpage. Don’t worry about this pen-pal site, send this out to people you know.’ And from there, within a year or two, it grew.’”
People from as far afield as Albania, Turkey, the Netherlands and even a chef from Australia rallied around Jimmy’s cause, speaking out on his behalf.
Thanks to the team Jimmy built around him, non-stop letter-writing, and documenting everything that happened to him – both by Jimmy and his legal team were able to secure justice, albeit painstakingly slowly. In 2013, Judge Anita Brody threw out his conviction and death sentence. In her history-making decision, Judge Brody said the prosecution of Jimmy was based “on scant evidence at best,” and “it ignored Dennis’ own explanation for where he was at the time of the murder.” But it took three more years before a panel of 13 judges threw out an appeal by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. On May 13, 2017, Jimmy finally stepped out of prison.
Today Jimmy is making music again, most recently releasing “Hate the Skin I’m In” as his contribution to the Black Lives Matter Movement. He is also an advocate and campaigner for other innocent people who have been wrongly convicted and are also on death row. So what’s his advice to people facing uncertain times? Hold onto hope and never lose faith: “The sun always shines tomorrow – so every day the sun shines is a brand new day is for us to be better people, to be kind to someone, to spread positivity and make a dfference in the world.
To listen to Sarah Liberty’s full interview with Jimmy Dennis, click here.