DOVER, Del. -- A man who spent more than two decades on Delaware's death row has been set free, for now, as prosecutors appeal a judge's ruling that they cannot use a coerced confession he gave to police while high on heroin.
Jermaine Wright, 42, walked out of the maximum-security prison in Smyrna and into the arms of his mother, Delores, on Friday, 24 years to the day that he was taken into custody following the 1991 killing of a liquor store clerk near Wilmington.
"It was an emotional reunion with his family. It was quite a day," said Herb Mondros, one of Wright's defense attorneys.
"He and his mom embraced, he walked out the door, said 'thank you' to the guards, put his stuff in the car and we drove off," Mondros said.
Prosecutors promptly moved to dismiss the charges against Wright last week in a procedural requirement that clears the way for an appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court of the suppression ruling by Superior Court Judge John A. Parkins Jr. If their appeal is successful, prosecutors will seek to refile the charges against Wright.
"The admissibility of Wright's confession was fully litigated before the Superior Court in 1992, and in the Delaware Supreme Court in 1993," said deputy attorney general Steve Wood. "Now, we will ask the Delaware Supreme Court to finally resolve the issue."
Before Parkins initially overturned Wright's conviction and death sentence in a 2012 ruling, which was subsequently reversed by the state Supreme Court, Wright had spent more time on death row than any other Delaware inmate currently facing execution.
Wright was sentenced to death for the murder of Phillip Seifert, 66, at the Hi-Way Inn liquor store and bar outside Wilmington on Jan. 14, 1991.
In overturning Wright's conviction and death sentence, Parkins ruled in 2012 that a confession Wright gave to police during an interrogation lasting nearly 13 hours was defective because he had not been properly advised of his Miranda rights against self-incrimination and to have an attorney appointed for him. The confession was a linchpin for prosecutors at Wright's 1992 murder trial, and Wood has said it's unlikely that prosecutors would proceed with the case without the confession.
"The police extracted Mr. Wright's confession after 13 hours of interrogation in a windowless 13 x 10 room while handcuffed to a table," Mondros said in a written statement Friday. "Mr. Wright, who was 18 at the time, was under the influence of heroin and, as the Superior Court found, behaved bizarrely, a fact ignored by his interrogators.
"The result was a so-called confession that was factually inconsistent with the physical evidence and eyewitness accounts, and found wholly unreliable by the court."
Parkins also ruled in 2012 that Wright's case was prejudiced by the failure of the chief investigating officer to advise prosecutors, and thereby defense attorneys, of an attempted robbery at Brandywine Village Liquors, less than two miles from the Hi-Way Inn, about half an hour before Seifert was killed. Wright's attorneys have argued that such evidence might have exonerated him.
"The evidence of this close in time and proximity robbery supports a reasonable inference that the (Brandywine) perpetrators were also the Hi-Way Inn perpetrators, and thus that Wright was not involved in either crime," Justice Henry duPont Ridgely wrote in a dissenting opinion when the state Supreme Court reinstated Wright's conviction in 2013.
Following yet another appeal on issues defense attorneys said were left unresolved in its earlier decision, the Supreme Court sent the case back to Parkins, ruling unanimously last year that Wright was entitled to a new trial because prosecutors repeatedly withheld potentially exculpatory evidence.