Sep 10, 2001
After 11 years sitting on death row, Dennis Counterman has been granted a new trial. In 1980, Counterman had been convicted of setting his own house on fair – a fire that killed his three sons.
The prosecutor – obviously in a hurry for a conviction, no matter what he had to do to get it – withheld statements and police reports that indicated Mr. Counterman had not set the fire.
Even a statement given by Dennis’s wife, Jane Counterman, was doctored: Parts of her statement were whited out in the police report that prosecutors turned over to Mr. Counterman’s lawyers before the trial. Another statement made by Mrs. Counterman and two statements by neighbors were never turned over to the man’s lawyers. These statements were critical, showing that Mr. Counterman could not have set the fire, and indicating that it was probably one of his young sons who did.
Ordinarily in a case like this, Counterman would have gone to his death without further notice from the legal system. Both he and his wife suffer from mental retardation. They do not have money for high-priced lawyers. He was fortunate to end up with appeals lawyers connected to the Defender Association of Philadelphia. They noticed that prosecutors were cross-examining witnesses about statements that had not been turned over to defense lawyers before the trial, as is required by law. That unraveled the whole skein of lies and evasions which the prosecutor had used to get a quick and easy conviction.
Without the intervention of the Defenders Association, Counterman would have gone to his death – one more notch in the gun of a conviction-happy prosecutor.