Justice for Illinois Wrongfully Convicted has announced the sad news that Denny Petitt passed away yesterday in Menard Correctional Center. Denny was wrongfully convicted in 2010 of the murder of his brother. Denny’s ex-wife Donna, and daughter, Kelly, have fought tirelessly over the past six years to get his case overturned. When Kelly recently learned about her father’s illness, she immediately petitioned the Bureau of Prisons to allow him to come home for his final days. Sadly, that hearing was set to be heard yesterday, on the day of his passing.
On March 30, 2009, Denny spent the day drinking with his brother Tony, in a trailer owned by another man. As the day drew to a close, for no known reason, Tony violently attacked Denny. The attack was not a typical fight one might expect to see between two siblings. Denny’s brother attacked him unprovoked, punching him repeatedly in the face, cutting his forehead, nose, and lip, and breaking his jaw.
When Tony got tired of pummeling his brother’s face, he went and sat on the couch, leaving his brother bloodied on the floor. Denny picked himself up off the floor only to see his extremely intoxicated brother coming at him again. Denny had seen his brother fight in the past so he knew what he was capable of. Due to the injuries he had already suffered, Denny knew he had no chance of stopping another barrage of punches. In an act of self-defense, Denny grabbed an oxygen tank (which was the closest object nearby) and struck his brother with it.
The blow from the oxygen tank would turn out to be fatal. Denny had no intention of killing his brother. He was simply trying to stop him. Denny immediately asked another person in the trailer to call 911. Denny was taken to be questioned by police before he received news about his brother’s condition. During questioning, he was unable to control his emotions, spending most of the time crying. His brother’s condition was clearly his only concern, as he asked the police repeatedly if his brother was okay. When he finally received the terrible news, he was completely devastated. Within hours, Denny was charged with first degree murder.
Tony had a history of violence which had caused many people in his life to go their separate ways. Tony’s family would later say that they had no choice other than to stay away from him due to his violent nature. Denny was the one exception. He loved his brother and refused to give up on him. Family members stated that Denny would often make excuses for Tony’s behavior and that he would do his best to look out for Tony when he happened to drink too much or lash out at others.
After an error-riddled trial, which included bad lawyering and jury misconduct, Denny was convicted of murder. Many people spoke in support of Denny at his sentencing hearing. Here are just a few of the quotes from that hearing:
Kelly Thompson: “He’s a great guy, he’d do anything to help anybody out. I’ve never seen him be violent. I met my step-dad when I was 7-years-old, when he married my mom and helped raise my brother and I.”
“The jury made a mistake. Trying to stop someone from beating you is not first-degree murder. He was defending himself and he was drunk. My Dad loved Tony. My Dad also said he wished that it would’ve been him that died that night. My Dad loved Tony so much that he bailed him out of jail and he took him to where he was staying because no one else wanted to deal with Tony.”
Connie Deihl: “Denny was a hard worker, a good father and a great brother. Denny loved Tony probably more than any of us.”
Donna Holliday: “He always helped others for free. Denny was and is an honorable man.”
“In 1969 Denny went into the Army. He boxed in Tacoma, Washington on their boxing team. He was good enough to be invited to train with the All Army Team in North Carolina. While training with the All Army Team, I had to be hospitalized with a miscarriage. Denny would be allowed to break training but would not be able to return for All Army. Denny came home for a week and gave up All Army and when he returned he had orders for Vietnam. He spent a year there and was honorably discharged in 1971. He came home and we started building a new life together.”
Benita Goldsberry: “Denny was always there for everybody. If I asked him for anything and he had it, he would never hesitate, as he would for anybody, not just family, a perfect stranger, that was Denny. He’s already sentenced himself on what he’s already done to himself, he can’t change it. I don’t think that he should be sentenced. I think he’s already done to himself what no court could do. I have eight pages to add, eight pages of how Tony Petitt used to be and what he was on March 30th, no the family doesn’t have Tony anymore, Denny didn’t take Tony, Tony died a long time ago. Denny was still here for all of us, Denny was still family to my grandchildren. I couldn’t even allow my grandchildren around Tony anymore. I’m not sure where the line is here, I have eight pages of terrible things that I’ve been forced to write about somebody that helped us raise our children but I could no longer be around him anymore, but that man sitting there took him in. He was the only one left in the family that had anything to do with him and now he sits there fighting for his life because he remained Tony’s brother. Now he’s fighting for his life.”
In the end, the words from Denny’s supporters fell on deaf ears. The judge sentenced Denny to 30 years in prison.
Denny’s daughter Kelly told the court that part of her father died when his brother died. From that day on, he was a broken man. Hopefully, the love and support that Denny received from his family, helped him to find some peace in the years following his brother’s death. The death of Denny’s brother was certainly a tragedy, but it is no less tragic that Denny was left to die in prison for an act of self-defense.
You can learn more about Denny and his case by visiting: www.justicefordennypetitt.org.