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Dennis COUNTERMAN

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

   
 
 
Classification: Murderer?
Characteristics: Parricide - Arson
Number of victims: 3 ?
Date of murder: July 25, 1988
Date of arrest: August 23, 1988
Date of birth: 1960
Victims profile: His three sons, Christopher, 6, James, 4, and Scott, 10 weeks
Method of murder: Fire
Location: Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA
Status: Sentenced to death in 1990. Reversed. On April 12, 2007, Dennis Counterman entered Alford pleas to three counts of third degree murder, was sentenced to time served (18 years, 5 of them on death row), and was released
 
 
 
 
 
 

Dennis Counterman received 3 death sentences for burning his Allentown house down and killing his 3 sons (6 years old, 4 years old and 2 months old) who were trapped inside. 

Counterman's 3 sons -- Christopher, 6, James, 4, and Scott, 10 weeks -- died in the July 25, 1988, fire in their Chestnut Street row house.  His wife, Janet, suffered burns over half of her body.  5 firefighters were injured. 

Minutes before the fire swept through their home, 2 of the boys entered Janet Counterman's bedroom and told her, "Daddy is downstairs starting a fire," according to court testimony. 

Janet Counterman and the boys went downstairs and saw Dennis Counterman in the dining room with a bucket and a lighter. They went back upstairs after he told them he would set them on fire if they didn't. 

Counterman started the fire with a flammable liquid that was first poured onto the dining room floor, then up the stairs to the second floor.  Flames on the stairway prevented the boys from escaping. Their mother was unable to rescue them. 

Janet Counterman escaped onto the roof through a second-story window and was helped into a neighbor's home. 

Dennis Counterman was convicted in 1990, and the state Supreme Court upheld his conviction in October 1998. 

Stephens credited arson experts with convincing the jury of Counterman's guilt.  He recalled Wednesday that Counterman, who has denied setting the fire, told him he went outside and saw a fire after smelling smoke, then jumped onto the roof with a hose when he couldn't get back in the house. 

Stephens believed that story until forensic evidence indicated that injuries Counterman sustained more likely came from starting a fire than trying to reenter his burning home through the second floor.  "I don't think we ever got to" his motivation for starting the fire, Stephens added. "I think that there was anger there, and I think that anger turned on his wife and his family. And I think he was a very selfish person. He didn't like not having his way with things." 

The day before the fire, Counterman had smoked marijuana and played video games, according to trial testimony. Early the next day, he tried to have sex with his wife, but she rebuffed him because of his marijuana use.  He slapped her and went downstairs. 

Stephens said the case was a tough one for him.  "I have 3 children and they were the same age as those children at that time, so it was tough for me -- having to go to the autopsy of those three children who were burned beyond recognition," he said. 

Asked if he thought Counterman's sentence was just, he said: "It's not our job to say this guy deserves to die, this guy deserves to live. My job is to prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law. After that, it's up to the jury."  There are still appeals pending and this execution is not likely to take place on this date.

 
 

New Trial for Alleged Arsonist Dennis Counterman

Truthinjustice.org

August 27, 2001

The Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas has granted Dennis Counterman a new trial.  This is the 1st time in the history of the Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Relief Act that the Court of Common Pleas has granted a capital defendant a new trial. 

Jim Moreno and Vic Abreu unravelled a web of prosecutorial misconduct that so far has subjected this man, whom Dunham believes is innocent, to 13 years on death row. The PCRA court granted relief on Brady v. Maryland (withholding exculpatory evidence), ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to investigate exculpatory evidence; ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to present character evidence; and then granted a new sentencing hearing (just in case) on the grounds that counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence. 

Dennis Counterman was convicted of arson and murder for a house fire in which 3 of his children died.  It now turns out, Dunham says, that not only is Dennis innocent of murder, but that no crime even occurred. Dennis' 3 kids died in a Saturday morning house fire in 1988. 

Neighbors reported seeing Dennis in his back yard in his underwear screaming for help because his kids were inside.  The fire was actually accidentally started, most likely by Dennis' son Christopher, one of the children who died in the fire. 

So, Dunham says, Dennis Counterman not only lost his 3 kids in the fire, but he suffered the additional nightmare of being wrongly sent to death row as a result.  This gross miscarriage of justice stole Dennis' life away from him and caged him in 23-hour/day confinement for something he didn't do, even after the fire had already taken his children. 

The fire department believed that the fire was set and accelerants must have been used because of the speed with which the fire spread through the house.  Jim and Victor presented highly reliable expert testimony (including a stunning fire safety videotape) that demonstrated that the type of sofa that was in the Counterman's house acts as its own accelerant, and proved that the fire theories relied upon by the local fire department to declare the fire an arson were outdated and have long since been repudiated.  There was no arson; the fire was an accident. They also showed that once the police and prosecution determined that an arson had occurred, they focused their attention on the most likely suspect and went about framing him by suppressing all sorts of exculpatory evidence.  This included everything from withholding evidence documenting that one of the kids had a history of firestartin and in fact had burn scars from a prior accidental fire that he had started to evidence that that their lead witness -- Counterman's mentally retarded wife told investigators at the time of the fire that Dennis was asleep when the fire started (he had worked the night shift the evening before) and that she had awakened him to alert him that the house was on fire. 

Under the joint influence of police interrogation and heavy medication for severe burns, she subsequently gave a statement that Dennis had set the fire.  But a neuropharmacologist recently established that the drugs used to treat her burns left her particularly susceptible to implanted memories and that her mental retardation substantially compounded the risk that she would have a confabulated memory based upon leading questions and intimidation by the police. 

When the prosecution eventually provided the defense  with the statement  "given" by Counterman's wife, it whited out the portion of the statement that said she had woken up Dennis to tell him the house was on fire. 

The 1st set of PCRA hearings was in January.  After those proceedings, Jim and Victor obtained from the police files a statement from Children & Youth Services concerning Christopher's history of starting fires -- something the police & prosecution denied as recently as January 2001 that they had ever received. The defense at trial was that the fire was an accident, and this exculpatory evidence from a neutral source obviously would have been tremendously valuable. 

The Court wrote:  "This Court notes that the District Attorney is a constitutional officer and is charged to act under the highest ethical  duty.  He acts not just as an advocate for one side.  His is the responsibility to disclose freely and willingly any evidence favorable to the Defendant and to prosecute vigorously to a fair and just disposition."  It then held that the prosecution has an ethical, not just constitutional duty, to avoid trial by ambush." 

Dunham says that this case -- like that of William Nieves -- highlights the grave dangers of the death penalty, and our incomplete responses to those dangers.  Dennis' case is significant not just because he is innocent, but because the public still holds to the misperception that the question of executing the innocent can be solved by making DNA testing available.  Dennis Counterman is innocent but DNA would not have proven it. William Nieves is innocent but DNA would not have proven it either. The other 2 men released from Pennsylvania's death row -- Neil Ferber and Jay Smith -- also won their freedom only because of the discovery (well after the fact) of police and prosecutorial misconduct -- not DNA testing. 

This is the Pennsylvania Capital Representation Project's 30th win. 

(source:  Defender's Association of Phil., Fed. Habeas Unit) 

UPDATE: 

Counterman's retrial was finally scheduled to begin December 11, 2006.  He spent over 5 years in the local jail after his conviction was reversed, waiting for retrial, while the local prosecutor mounted appeal after appeal, trying to get bogus evidence into the record.  Exhausted and unwilling to risk another trip to death row. Dennis Counterman entered Alford pleas to three counts of third degree murder, was sentenced to time served (18 years, 5 of them on death row), and was released.  The state got a technical finding of guilt and immunized itself against a lawsuit.

 
 

The Prosecution of Dennis Counterman

A Case of Injustice in Pennsylvania

By Joey DeRaymond

February 18, 2006

In 1972, the United States Supreme Court invalidated all existing death sentences in its decision Furman v Georgia. Since then, 38 States have reinstituted death penalties that conform to the constitutional standards set forth in Furman. 1011 people have been executed in the United States between 1977, when Gary Gilmore was shot before a Utah firing sqad, and February 8, 2005, when Robert Neville, a native american from Texas, was given a lethal injection.

Since Furman, 122 people convicted of murder have been released from death row through evidence of innocence, exonerated. Six if those have been from Pennsylvania, which has executed three in these post-Furman years, from a death row that now numbers 231. Here is the story of Dennis Counterman, a Pennsylvanian who was sentenced to die, who is proven innocent, yet remains imprisoned.

On July 25, 1988, a fire consumed 436 Chestnut Street, Allentown, Pennsylvania. Chestnut Street is a narrow, sunless alley just a couple of blocks from the Lehigh County Courthouse and prison, located between Penn Street and 4th Street. 436 is part of a row of two story houses sharing common side walls, each home 9 wide feet by 50 feet long, with a narrow, steep set of steps leading up to a front porch.

The tenants who squeezed into 436 were the Counterman family; Dennis, 28 and Janet, 26, husband and wife, children Christopher, 6, James, 4, and Scott, ten weeks. Dennis worked at HAB Industries, a local textile plant, with a salary that allowed him to take home about $160 a week. Dennis had a 9th grade education, with learning disabilities that were either caused or exacerbated by beatings in his early years, before his father left his family when he was 9. He was unable to obtain a driver's license because he could not pass the written portion of the test. Janet has an IQ under 70. The house had a history of fires, one several years earlier, and another just weeks earlier, when Christopher set fire to curtains with a lighter. In that case, Dennis had managed to put out the fire.

The fire of July 25, 1988, started on the first floor. Dennis, again, tried to put out the fire. He was driven out of the living room by smoke, climbed on the back roof and tried to enter to save his family. He was not able to get back in the house, and broke his heel jumping off the roof. He was screaming and crying, and had to be restrained from entering the house.

The children died in the smoke and heat of the fire. Janet escaped off the front roof. The initial account given by Janet Counterman on July 25 to Sergeant Kochan of the Allentown Police Department is as follows: "I also interviewed the wife, Janet Counterman. She stated the oldest son, Christopher, woke her up and told her there was a fire downstairs. She woke her husband up. That was all she remembered." Janet was severely burned, with 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 50% of her body, and was placed in a burn unit, in critical condition.

Dennis was also taken to the hospital, treated for smoke inhalation and his broken heel. Here is his statement of the events of that night, as related to Sergeant Kochan on the day of the fire: "En route to Lehigh Valley Hospital, I got the husband's name, Dennis Counterman. I spoke to him briefly in the car, but I interviewed him at the hospital. Dennis stated he was sleeping in the front bedroom, second floor, with his wife and baby Scott. He said his son Christopher woke him up and told him there was a fire downstairs. His other son James was with Christopher. He went down to try to put the fire out. The fire was in the sofa in the living room. He was trying to put it out with water from the kitchen sink with a bucket. The smoke pushed him out the door. He climbed on the roof to try to get the children out but couldn't. He jumped off the roof. He also stated the when he was trying to put the fire out he was calling to his wife but she did't answer. I asked him if he knew how the fire started. He said the children must have had matches or a lighter. They did that before. I also interviewed the wife Janet Counterman. She stated the oldest son, Christopher, woke her up and told her there was a fire downstairs. She woke her husband up. That was all she remembered."

Janet Counterman was sedated with morphine and anti-anxiety medications due to the extreme pain caused by her injuries. She was intubated. Detective James Stephens visited her during the period of her stay in the hospital, and conducted various interviews. The first, on July 31, was a series of questions that could only be answered with nods, or written "yes" or "no", as Janet was still on a a breathing tube. He elicited statements that she feared Dennis, that Dennis was physically violent and that Dennis started the fire. Stephens followed with other interviews in August. On August 8, 1988, Janet gave this statement to Stephens: "Now wait a minute, there was one more, ah, his oldest boy Christopher had, was, I don't know, he either got hold of a lighter or matches or, and caught the curtains on fire, but Dennis put that one out."

Dennis became aware that he was a suspect. He went to the hospital on August 22 and 23, and had angry words with his wife. On August 23, he was arrested for three counts of murder by arson for the deaths of his sons, 1 count of attempted murder by arson for the injuries to his wife, 2 counts of arson, and 2 counts of intimidating a witness, for his encounters with his wife on the 22nd and 23rd. The District Attorney, William Platt, sought the death penalty.

At his trial from January 22 to February 9, 1990, Dennis was represented by public defenders Robert Long, who had tried one murder case, and Karen Schular, who had passed the bar examination in 1989. The prosecution case was brought by Assistant District Attorney Richard Tomsho. The prosecution theory was that Dennis had set the fire to get rid of his family, because he no longer wanted a family life. There was evidence presented that he had made remarks to the effect that he was "sick" of his children. There was testimony about his pot smoking. There was supposition that he stood to gain from the rental insurance. Here is a description of Tomsho's final summation before the jury;

"Counterman may have decided he no longer wanted to be a husband and father, Tomsho said, and gotten to the point where he said, 'I can't take it anymore, I don't want it anymore.'

For the average person, those may not be reasons enough to kill, the prosector said. "But doesn't the evidence suggest they may be reason enough for the defendant?" Tomsho asked the jury. "Preposterous as it may seem, and maybe, for the reason I suggested, strange. But they are valid reasons, and they are the reasons in this case." Tomsho told the jury. (Allentown Morning Call, 2/9/90, Debbie Garlicki)

Dennis has always denied that he set the fire that killed his children, burned his wife and destroyed his life. His defense team tried to rebut the prosecution's case with the theory that Christopher started the fire, as was stated by both Janet and Dennis on the night of the fire. Their statements were further buttressed by statements of Madeline Rothermel to the police, on July 25, 1988, in a statement to Officer John Kerrigan: "She knows the mother of the children 436Chestnut Street. States the mother told her the older boy, "Chris" had lit the curtains in the children bedroom with a cigaretter lighter approximately one month ago. The family had been able to put it out. Rothermel states that she saw the boys fingers and they appeared to have minor burns. She knows not if this was due to the fire or possible punishment. She felt this should be reported to the Children's Bureau. For all the good this will do now."

There were numerous other similar statements given to the police and authorities during the investigation in the days after the fire, to the police and the County Children and Youth Services. The reason that Dennis was unable to establish to the jury that Christopher in all probability started the fire was that Richard Tomsho, the police and trial Judge Mellenberg did not allow these documents into the hands of the defense. The initial statement by Janet was whited out by Richard Tomsho before the rest of the statement was given to the defense. The statement above by Madeline Rothermel was not discovered until February 16, 2001. All exculpatory statements were released either in the middle of the trial, which did not allow a clearly overwhelmed defense team to properly present the testimony, or never revealed.

Officer James Stephens testified at trial that Janet Counterman never made statements about prior fire starting behaviour of Christopher. He read into the record, to the jury, a denial by Janet from the hospital interviews that Christopher had ever set a fire or played with matches. Janet testified at trial that her children did not have a history of fire starting behaviour. She was an "eyewitness" to Dennis' guilt at trial, and the prosecution based their case on the testimony developed in the hospital interviews, while Janet was drugged and intubated.

The defense never brought out her lack of capacity while in the hospital. The defense never told the jury that Dennis had never had one conviction, even for a parking fine. The Judge did not allow a psychiatric examination of Janet for the record. The police never came forward with the evidence they had collected that could have backed the idea that Christopher started the fire. The Chief of the Allentown Fire Department, Joseph D'Annibale, testified that the fire was set with an accelerant, although no evidence of an accelerant was discovered.

The jury, in six hours, found Dennis guilty on all counts, of three first degree murders, attempted murder, arson and intimidating a witness. The next day, August 9, they returned a death penalty, after a four hour deliberation. Detective James Stephens was quoted, "I feel justice has been served."

On November 22, 1996, post-trial motions were denied by the Lehigh County Court, sitting en banc. Dennis' death sentence was finalized by Lehigh County Judge Lawrence Brenner on December 6, 1996. Collateral relief counsel was provided by Allentown Attorney Wallace Worth, who provided no relief for Dennis.

Governor Tom Ridge signed a death warrant on October 13, 1999, for a December 9, 1999 execution, which was stayed by a writ filed in November. In 2000, Dennis' case was accepted by Attorneys James Moreno and Victor J. Abreu, of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. They hired a fire investigator, Richard L. P. Custer, who found that the fire is "unlikely to have started with ignitable liquid spread on the stairs, dining room carpet, out to the kitchen", and "the scenario of a fire starting on the sofa and extending to the rest of the structure is consistent with the damage seen", and further, "there is no fire scene evidence to support the use of an ignitable liquid in this fire."

Moreno and Abreu looked at the prosecution files of the case, and found extensive prosecutorial misconduct. They state in a Court Petition, "In this case, the Commonwealth's behavior was nothing short of unethical, unconstitutional and clearly intended to deprive Petitioner of a fair trial.

The Commonwealth also presented evidence it knew to be false and misleading, such as the testimony of Detective Stephens and Mrs. Counterman that there was no evidence of prior fire setting behavior on the part of Christopher testimony directly contradicted by evidence sitting in the prosecutor's file at the time of trial and by Detective Stephen's investigation, including his contact with the Lehigh County Office of Children and Youth Services concerning this case. In short, every piece of evidence that fell into their hands indicating Petitioner was innocent was suppressed. A more deliberate denial of a capital defendant's right to a fair trial has never been presented to the courts of this Commonwealth."

Moreno and Abreu brought a Petition for Post Trial Relief to the Lehigh County Court. It was heard by Judge Brenner, and on August 27, 2001, this same Judge who signed the death sentences of Dennis Counterman granted him a new trial. His convictions were vacated, he was once again innocent until proven guilty. Judge Brenner stated, "Finally, it is beyond reproach that the Assistant District Attorney responsible for the numerous Brady violations detailed above engaged in a pattern of conduct that at best, was misguided, and at worst, deceitful."

The current Lehigh County District Attorney, James Martin, immediately decided to retry Dennis for capital murder. However, he is pursuing a case without basis. The witness key to the prosecution, Janet Counterman, made this statement in 2003: "My name is Janet Counterman. This statement is being handwritten by Attorney James Moreno, one of Dennis' lawyers who along with Victor Abreu interviewed me at my home. They asked me what I remember about the fire and my stay in the hospital. I told them it has been so long that I do not remember what happened. Last year I told Detective Stephens the same thing when he talked to me at my home. It has been so long I don't know how the fire started."

Here is a report about the testimony of the prosecution's new fire expert, George Umberger: "Umberger said that some of D'Annibale's and Wenzler's opinions and those of a defense expert were speculation. Indications of other fires at the house and reports that the children played with matches 'certainly has to add some credence to the possibility that this fire may have been a juvenile act'By today's fire investigation standards, he said, the prosecution's experts do not have 'truly provable' theories of how and where the fire started." (Allentown Morning Call, 10/2/2004, Debbie Garlicki)

Since his key witness can no longer testify, District Attorney Martin tried to get Judge Brenner to allow transcript testimony of Janet Counterman before a new jury, testimony that was not able to be fully cross- examined at the 1990 trial due to prosecutorial misconduct. When Brenner said no, Martin appealed to the Superior Court. In August of 2004, the Superior Court agreed with Judge Brenner. Lehigh County District Attorney Martin is now before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, asking for the right to use the discredited 1990 transcript testimony of Janet Counterman to convict Dennis Counterman of capital murder for the deaths of his children.

Dennis Counterman remains in Lehigh County prison, about two blocks from 436 Chestnut Street, Allentown, a city that calls itself "Pennsylvania's Park Place". He has refused a deal from the Lehigh County District Attorney, and will accept nothing less than his freedom. Attorney Richard Tomsho is a member of the staff of the Pennsylvania Attorney General, Environmental Crimes Division.

Joe DeRaymond, of Freemansburg, Pennsylvania, member of Lehigh Valley Citizens Against State Killing, (LV CASK), and Pennsylvania Abolitionists Against the Death Penalty.

 
 

The Release of Dennis Counterman

By Joe DeRaymond - Counterpunch.org

April 12, 2007

On October 18, 2006, Dennis Counterman walked away from the Lehigh County Courthouse in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He had served 18 years in prison, five of them on death row, and had endured a death warrant, signed by then-Governor Tom Ridge. Since 2001, he had been sitting in Lehigh County Prison, waiting for a new trial as James Martin, the Lehigh County District Attorney, thrashed through the Pennsylvania Appeals Courts with hopeless attempts to introduce tainted evidence at trial.

He did not leave prison a free man. In return for his release from prison, the Lehigh County justice system demanded that he plead guilty to three counts of third degree murder. He was sentenced by Judge Lawrence Brenner to 18 years in prison and five years probation. Since he had already served his 18 years, he was released to probation.

Dennis was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three children and severely injured his wife, in a trial that was voided in 2001 due to prosecutorial misconduct. He has always maintained his innocence, and refused to admit guilt on the day of his sentencing. He was allowed by the Court to take an "Alford Plea", by which he is allowed to profess his innocence, while the Court is allowed to treat him as guilty of the offense. His statement to the press on the day of his sentencing was: "I'm more frustrated than angry. I spent all this time for something I didn't even do."

The Alford plea originated from a 1963 North Carolina prosecution of Henry Alford, for the murder of Nathaniel Young in a dispute at a "drink house" (so described by the Winston-Salem Journal), where Henry, a black man, was visiting a white prostitute. Henry was facing the death penalty, and his attorney, Fred Crumpler, advised him to plead guilty to avoid death. Henry maintained his innocence before Judge Walter Johnston, stating, in court, to his lawyer, "You told me to plead guilty, right? I'm not guilty, but I plead guilty." The Judge allowed Henry to plead guilty to second-degree murder and sentenced him to 30 years in prison.

Henry appealed the case on the basis that his plea was coerced by the threat of the death penalty. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and overturned the verdict. The Supreme Court in 1970 overruled the 4th Circuit. Judge Byron White wrote for the majority in the 5-3 decision. He stated that a defendant could plead guilty while professing innocence. Here is some language from the decision, North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970); "the Constitution does not bar imposition of a prison sentence upon an accused who is unwilling expressly to admit his guilt but who, faced with grim alternatives, is willing to waive his trial and accept the sentence" and "Confronted with the choice between a trial for first-degree murder, on the one hand, and a plea of guilty to second-degree murder, on the other, Alford quite reasonably chose the latter and thereby limited the maximum penalty to a 30-year term."

The Supreme Court based much of their decision on the facts of the case, which the trial court investigated. Hence, the validity of Mr. Alford's plea was based on a non-jury determination of his guilt, despite his protestations of innocence and his statements to the court that he was accepting the sentence only to avoid the death penalty. As Justice White wrote, "In view of the strong factual basis for the plea demonstrated by the State and Alford's clearly expressed desire to enter it despite his professed belief in his innocence, we hold that the trial judge did not commit constitutional error in accepting it."

Since this determination, the Alford plea has become common at all levels of the criminal justice system. It has become a tool for prosecutors to avoid a trial with defendants who believe themselves innocent, and can be offered immediate freedom in exchange for this contradictory plea. The Death Penalty Information Center lists numerous death row inmates who have agreed to such terms, including one, Kerry Max Cook, who subsequently was found innocent through DNA evidence.

I met with Dennis Counterman recently in his Allentown home. He is living with his niece Melissa Borrero, and her family, which includes her three children, Andrew, 15 months, Cesario, 6 years, and Aixa, 10 years. Melissa is a stauch supporter of Dennis, has known him all her life, and testified during his 1988 trial when she was 12 years old. Their friendship and connection were evident as we sat in the living room and talked about his prison time, trial and life after release. Andrew watched and listened calmly from his crib.

I asked about his Alford plea. He said, "I am not guilty, but I could not take a chance, I don't know how long I have left. It took 18 years to get this far, and who knows what could happen in a new trial. I have nieces and nephews I want to see. When I heard the guilty verdict (in 1988), I was just shocked, I couldn't take a chance again."

Melissa talked about the closeness of the family before the fire that took Dennis' three children and 18 years of Dennis' life. "Dennis' house was like a refuge. I was always over there, looking after his kids. We were a close family, we would have problems like any other family, but on Sundays, we would all get together and play baseball, even my grandmother (Dennis' mother). We could fight with each other, but don't let anyone get between us. Dennis' conviction really tore us up."

Dennis said, "I just wish my mother could have seen this, seen me get out. It really took a lot out of my mother. It seemed like it drained her soul. How's a mother supposed to feel with a son on death row for something he didn't do? She lost weight, got skinny, had health problems." His mother died in 2006, before his release. He could not bear to attend her funeral, "It would have broke me up too much, I really broke up at my sister's (funeral), and I just couldn't stand my mother's"

Life after release has been good for Dennis, living in a house with family, but it has not been easy. Since Dennis is on probation, he was required as a matter of routine to pay for weekly drug testing. A letter from the local Amnesty International chapter to the presiding Judge, Lawrence Brenner, brought relief from the drug tests. However, the Judge said Dennis is still required to pay court costs of $1900. He has been unable to get his identification papers from the authorities. As he stated, "I can't get my ID's, my social security card, or anything. I have my birth certificate, but no ID. It's like I have to prove I'm alive, you know."

Melissa interjected, "It's like that old joke about the man who was reported to be dead, and he showed up at a government office, told them he was alive, and they demanded ID to prove it."

Dennis said, "That's been the toughest thing, to get my ID."

The payment of the fine has been put on a $45 a month schedule, not a small expense for this family of working people. Dennis said the Lehigh County collections official told him, "'If you miss a payment, we'll bring you to Court'", then he went on, "I even tried to get it less, you know what I mean, but they set a certain price, and that was it."

Key prosecution players in the first trial were richly rewarded. The First Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted Dennis in 1988, Richard Tomsho, who whited out evidence and committed serious misconduct, is today a staff attorney in the Pennsylvania State Attorney General's office. The District Attorney in 1988, William Platt, became the President Judge of Lehigh County.

Dennis came within weeks of a lethal injection.

This system is described by Mumia Abu Jamal (who sits today in a death row cell near the cell that once housed Dennis) as follows, "Once upon a time, a politician promised jobs and benefits, like a chicken in every pot, to get elected. It was a sure-fire vote getter. No longer. Today, the lowest level politico up to the President uses another sure-fire gimmick to guarantee victory. Death. Promise death, and the election is yours. Guaranteed, frame on! A vote for hell in the land of liberty with its over one million prisoners is the ticket to victory." (From "A Bright, Shining Hell", on "Banned - Radio Commentaries by Mumia Abu Jamal")

Dennis has been released from prison, but he is not free. He has been forced to make choices while "faced with grim alternatives". For Henry Alford, it was looking at a North Carolina trial in 1963 in which a guilty verdict meant death. For Dennis Counterman, it was a Lehigh County, Pennsylvania trial in which he would face another prosecution that would demonize him. Witnesses would be coached. The current Lehigh County Prosecutor, James Martin, and First Assistant Maria Dantos would have used all the power of the State to keep him in prison till they could put him to death.

Dennis is out of prison, which is a relief for him, for his family and supporters. We are all a long way from justice.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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