Judges Gavel

A three-judge panel of the Virginia Court of Appeals on Tuesday turned down an innocence claim in a vicious 1997 assault in Newport News.

Nathaniel Dennis, convicted of beating and shooting a co-worker at the Daily Press newspaper, petitioned the court for a writ of actual innocence, contending the crime was committed by another newspaper employee now serving life in prison for another crime.

Dennis cited statements from current or former inmates who said the other suspect implicated himself in the 1997 attack in statements to them as well as from a woman the other suspect shot in the head in an unrelated assault.

However, in a ruling Tuesday, Chief Judge Marla Decker concluded that Dennis failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence that a reasonable jury would not find Dennis guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as required in order to win a writ of actual innocence.

It was the second time the appeals court considered Dennis’ writ petition.

In 2018, the appeals court ruled against Dennis for the same reason. However, Dennis appealed that ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the court of appeals so that the Newport News Circuit Court could conduct a hearing and elicit testimony from the new witnesses.

Last year, a circuit judge found that three out of the four witnesses purporting to support Dennis’ innocence claim were credible. A fifth witness has since died.

It was not enough, however, to win a writ of actual innocence, wrote Decker on Tuesday. Referring to the testimony of some of the witnesses, she wrote, “at best, their testimony establishes no more than ‘the possibility of reasonable doubt,’ which is insufficient as a matter of law.”

Dennis’ lawyers with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the Washington law firm Baker Botts LLP did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling Tuesday.

Even if the conviction were overturned, it wouldn’t win Dennis his freedom. Last August, Dennis was sentenced to life in prison for the unrelated 1981 murder of a service station attendant in Dothan, Ala., that stemmed from a 2010 cold-case DNA hit that linked him to hair found at the murder scene.

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