Jermaine Wright will be known as a great example of a Death Row Inmate freed from death row not because he was factually innocent (did not do the killing) but because he was only legally innocent (released on a technical terms).
Jermaine Wright in October listens as the Delaware Supreme Court considers arguments.(Photo: JASON MINTO/THE NEWS JOURNAL)
INTERNET SOURCE: http://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/local/2016/09/12/jermaine-wright-enters-plea-gets-time-served/90260184/
Once on death row, Jermaine Wright is now free
Brittany Horn, The News Journal 5:10 p.m. EDT September 12, 2016
Wright's attorney stressed that his no contest plea was a way to end the cycle of retrials and appeals Wright faced for more than 24 years.
Jermaine Wright, who spent more than 20 years on death row before a Delaware court overturned his 1991 conviction, walked out of prison a free man Monday after he pleaded no contest to second-degree murder on the eve of his retrial.
Wright, 43, was sentenced to the maximum 20 years and released after Superior Court Judge Eric Davis ruled his more than 24 years of incarceration counted as time served. He was sentenced to death in 1992 in the killing of 66-year-old Phillip Seifert, a clerk at a liquor store and bar outside Wilmington. At the time the Supreme Court overturned his sentence, he was the longest-serving death row inmate in Delaware.
“After 24 years incarcerated, I would just like to go home,” Wright told the court Monday. He was expected to head to his mother's home for a barbecue celebration upon his release.
Wright's attorney, Herbert Mondros, stressed that Wright has maintained his innocence since he was first arrested at 18.
“As Mr. Wright made clear ... this no contest plea is not an admission of guilt,” Mondros said in a statement. “It is simply a way for Wright to put an end to this unjust nightmare and get back to his family.”
Wright's case has been the focus of the Delaware legal system for more than two decades. In the latest turn six weeks ago, Delaware's Supreme Court found the state's death penalty law unconstitutional, meaning Wright couldn't be sentenced to death in the retrial of his case.
Monday's plea brought an end to a lengthy back-and-forth between attorneys and Wright, and ended the possibility of another long trial.
Superior Court Judge John Parkins Jr. overturned Wright’s conviction and death sentence in 2012 on the premise that Wright wasn't properly advised of his rights during the police interrogation – a nearly 13-hour event in which Wright provided a confession while he was high on heroin. He was freed from prison for nearly a year until prosecutors refiled charges in January.
“Justice was not served when Mr. Wright was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, nor was justice served by keeping this young man in solitary confinement for over half his life for a crime he did not commit,” Mondros said. “This case exemplifies all that is wrong with the death penalty. Indeed, the arbitrariness of its application is exemplified by the fact that a mere two months ago, the State actively sought Mr. Wright’s execution. Today, he is a free man."
For Philip Seifert's son, Royce, the sentencing Monday marked the final example of a "broken" justice system. In a statement to the court, he explained that Wright had already been convicted by a jury and sentenced to death. A confession he gave to police, Seifert added, contained details only the killer would know.
“It has taken 9,374 days to get to this point,” Seifert said, adding that his family had persevered over the years in the hope of seeing justice done.
“The final determination will have a hollow sound, for the murderer will go free and be returned to the streets of Wilmington,” he said.
“Jermaine is not a hero or a celebrity. He is a confessed murderer,” added Seifert, who told Wright that while he may go free, “you will never be free from the truth of what you did.”
Seifert's father was shot three times – once in the neck and twice in the head – during a robbery of the former Hi-Way Inn on Governor Printz Boulevard on Jan. 14, 1991. The robber took $30 from the cash register.
There were no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence from the murder, but an anonymous tip led police to Wright. With no probable cause to charge him with the murder, they arrested him as a suspect in two unrelated crimes. It was during an interview at Wilmington Police headquarters that Wright confessed on camera to the Hi-Way Inn murder.
The state used the videotape to convince a jury to convict Wright in 1992. In the years since, Wright filed many appeals to avoid the death penalty. Two years ago that he was released from prison when Parkins overturned his conviction.
In 2013, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed Parkins’ ruling, saying his review of Wright’s confession, the linchpin of the prosecution’s case, was procedurally barred. The court also rejected Parkins’ determination that there was an “actual innocence” exception allowing him to reconsider the issue.
A majority of justices also said Wright was not prejudiced by the withholding of evidence about the earlier robbery attempt because it would not have bolstered his alibi defense.
Following yet another appeal, however, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously last year that Wright was entitled to a new trial because prosecutors repeatedly withheld potentially exculpatory evidence suggesting that Seifert may have been killed by two men who tried to rob another liquor store in the vicinity a short time earlier.
Parkins, whom Royce Seifert described Monday as “a liberal judge with his own agenda,” then ruled that Wright’s confession could not be used at his retrial. Shortly after, the Supreme Court overturned that ruling and ordered that the case be assigned to a different judge. Wright was taken back into custody after nearly a year of freedom when prosecutors refiled charges against him in January.
“Criminal cases do not get better with age,” prosecutor Steve Wood said Monday when asked about the plea bargain, adding that memories change and that some of the physical evidence in the case has gone missing. He declined to provide details.
“Given the state of the evidence and the passage of time, today’s resolution was appropriate,” Wood said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Contact Brittany Horn at (302) 324-2771 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @brittanyhorn.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Previous versions of this story had Wright's plea incorrect. Wright pleaded "no contest."