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Delaware high court overturns 1992 murder conviction and death sentence

By Laura Ly, CNN
updated 2:35 PM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
  • 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.

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