Skip to main content

Delaware high court overturns 1992 murder conviction and death sentence

By Laura Ly, CNN
updated 2:35 PM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jermaine Wright, 41, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1992
  • The Delaware Supreme Court overturned his conviction and death sentence Monday
  • The high court ruled that prosecutors withheld important information during the 1992 trial
  • Wright was 18 at the time of his conviction

(CNN) -- A Delaware man who spent more than 20 years on death row saw his murder conviction and death sentence reversed by the state Supreme Court Monday, according to court documents.

Jermaine Wright, 41, was sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of liquor store clerk Phillip Seifert. State Supreme Court justices ruled that prosecutors withheld critical and potentially exculpatory information during the 1992 trial that violated his right to due process, entitling Wright to a retrial.

The suppression of such information "creates a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different if the exculpatory and impeachment evidence had been disclosed," wrote Justice Henry Ridgely in the decision. "Accordingly, we must reverse Wright's conviction and death sentence and remand for a new trial."

Seifert was fatally shot while working at the Hi-Way Inn, a tavern and liquor store located on Governor Printz Boulevard near Wilmington, the evening of January 14, 1991. A co-worker and customer witnessed two men entering and leaving the liquor store at the time and found Seifert slumped over the counter in a pool of blood. Wright was arrested and interrogated after police received an anonymous tip that appeared to indicate that Wright was involved in the killing, court documents said.

Four of Wright's friends testified that Wright had spent the evening of the crime with them, and eyewitnesses were unable to recognize Wright as one of the men they saw enter the liquor store, but a jury still convicted the then-18-year-old defendant of first degree murder, first degree robbery, and related weapons charges. The conviction was based largely on a videotaped confession given by Wright and the testimony of a surprise witness and fellow prisoner who said that Wright admitted to him that he shot Seifert, court documents said.

This is not the first reversal Wright's case has seen.

In 2012, the Delaware Superior Court vacated Wright's conviction and sentence because it had "no confidence in the outcome of the trial."

The Superior Court found that prosecutors failed to disclose information about a similar attempted robbery at a nearby liquor store less than an hour before the Hi-Way Inn robbery by suspects matching the description given by eyewitnesses. A similar weapon was also used at both locations.

Additionally, it was discovered that Wright was not properly read his Miranda rights at the time of his arrest, according to the Superior Court decision. But the Supreme Court reversed that opinion and reinstated Wright's conviction and death sentence on the grounds that the information about the other robbery would not have affected the outcome given Wright's videotaped confession, court documents said.

After the 2012 reinstatement of his conviction and death sentence, Wright's attorneys argued that prosecutors withheld additional critical information, particularly that the surprise witness who testified that Wright had confessed had a history of cooperating with prosecutors in exchange for reduced charges. Wright's attorneys argued that this information would have been helpful to the jury in determining the credibility of the witness's testimony.

Additional testimony by a trial witness also was called into question, according to court documents. Wright's attorneys suggested that the witness may have actually committed the crime.

Attorneys for Wright also argued that the main evidence for Wright's 1992 conviction, his video confession, was given when Wright was barely 18 years old, was severely sleep deprived and under the influence of heroin, court documents say.

The Delaware Supreme Court found Monday that the cumulative effect of the suppression of the additional information was enough to vacate Wright's conviction and death sentence and demand a retrial.

Herbert Mondros, one of Wright's attorneys, wrote in a statement: "As the Court found, not a shred of forensic or eyewitness evidence ties Mr. Wright to the crime, and, in violation of Mr. Wright's constitutional rights, evidence was illegally suppressed in the case... [T]he only evidence against Mr. Wright was a false confession, a confession that was 'inaccurate,' and squarely contradicted by the facts of the case."

Wright remains held at the James T. Vaughn Correction Center in Smyrna, Delaware, according to a facility official.

A date for retrial has not yet been set. CNN's request for comment from the Delaware Attorney General's office was not immediately returned.

CNN's Lorenzo Ferrigno contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:29 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
She depends on her iPhone and plays Plants vs. Zombies. At 75, death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean hasn't slowed down.
updated 6:46 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
As manufacturers cut off supplies of lethal injection drugs, states look for new drug combinations for executions.
updated 2:21 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
One death has reopened the debate about capital punishment and lethal injection.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
An infographic illustrates America's record on executions by race, state, year and method since the death penalty was reinstated more than 30 years ago.
updated 8:03 AM EDT, Wed May 7, 2014
More than 14,000 people have been executed under U.S. law. About 3,000 more are slated for execution on death rows across the nation.
updated 7:16 AM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
Clayton Lockett's botched lethal injection and deadly heart attack raises disturbing questions about how the U.S. executes death row prisoners.
updated 12:10 PM EDT, Sat April 5, 2014
After John Thompson survived 14 years on death row he had to figure out how to return to the world.
updated 9:46 AM EDT, Wed May 7, 2014
Just weeks away from execution, see the evidence that saved John Thompson's life.
updated 6:23 PM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
Death row inmate John Thompson describes his reaction after Louisiana set his official execution date.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
A first-time meeting between death row inmate John Thompson and his appellate lawyers yields mutual skepticism.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
Death row inmate John Thompson confronts a proposed shift in legal strategy aimed at saving his life.
updated 5:30 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Teresa McAbee, age 11, was found dead, floating in a Florida lake. Repercussions from her murder continue nearly 30 years later.
updated 5:38 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Longtime Miami-area homicide detective Marshall Frank has met some really bad people. He reveals three steps to coax killers to confess their crimes.
updated 4:11 PM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
A mother convicted of a murder to which her son has confessed won't be executed Thursday as judges review her post-conviction motion.
updated 6:17 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Never imprisoned before, ex-cop James Duckett describes his first moments as a convicted killer on death row.
updated 11:57 AM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Why wasn't a key piece of evidence shown to jurors? Can a simple notebook prove a man's innocence?
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
A retired homicide detective examines the strange case of an ex-cop sentenced to death row for the murder of an 11-year-old girl.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
He's been a priest, a nurse and an attorney -- but nothing could prepare Neil Kookoothe for his discovery in the case of Joe D'Ambrosio.
updated 12:05 PM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
Joe D'Ambrosio, like many inmates, claimed he was innocent. As he learned, claiming it is one thing. Proving it is another.
updated 12:06 PM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
Although his conviction was overturned, prosecutors tried to keep an ex-death row inmate locked up before his new trial.
updated 3:46 PM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
Why did Joyce Ride, mother of NASA's first woman in space, fight to free Gloria Killian? "I'm profoundly annoyed by injustice."
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Tue March 11, 2014
Judge the murder case against former law student Gloria Killian for yourself. Take a look at the evidence.
updated 3:40 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
When police questioned an unwitting Gloria Killian after a brutal murder, she used a poor choice of words.
updated 3:40 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Well into her 32-years-to-life murder sentence, Gloria Killian met a friend on the outside who was willing to listen.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Prison lifer Gloria Killian's defense team finds a previously unknown letter that may help win her freedom.
updated 4:10 PM EST, Fri March 7, 2014
Legal intern Diana Holt refused to believe that death row inmate Edward Lee Elmore was a killer. So began the fight of their lives.
updated 7:31 AM EST, Fri March 7, 2014
Examine the evidence in the murder case against Edward Lee Elmore.
updated 4:30 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
Three weeks before his execution date, Edward Lee Elmore asked his attorney a heartbreaking question. Watch her tearful response.
updated 4:28 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
Diana Holt was searching for alternate suspects in a brutal murder case. What she discovered made her head spin.
updated 1:51 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
A law student was sent to meet a death row inmate accused of a horrible murder. Their meeting triggered the beginning of an amazing story.
updated 4:16 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Virtual "killing sprees" in Iran and Iraq led to a spike in the number of executions globally last year, according to Amnesty International.
updated 6:15 PM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
Watch a frank, online discussion about the death penalty and the case of Edward Lee Elmore.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Thu August 22, 2013
Some death penalty opponents will admit it: the worst of the worst of the worst, DO deserve to die.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Thu March 20, 2014
Execution chamber
Killing people by lethal injection will soon be as old as burning heretics at the stake -- at least in the civilized world.
updated 1:01 PM EST, Fri January 17, 2014
Before Ohio executed him by legal injection, inmate Dennis McGuire appeared to gasp and convulse.
updated 1:58 PM EDT, Tue June 18, 2013
Death row inmates deal with demons in different ways. William Van Poyck chose to write.
updated 12:54 AM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
A shortage of lethal injection drugs contributes to a dip in the use of capital punishment.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT