Judge considers holding bail hearing for Delaware ex-death row inmate

WILMINGTON — A judge is considering whether to hold a bail hearing for a man who was released from prison last year after more than two decades on Delaware’s death row and is now facing a retrial in a 1991 slaying.

Jermaine Wright, 43, was taken back into custody earlier this year after the Delaware Supreme Court said a judge erred in declaring that Wright’s 1991 confession was inadmissible, and that the confession could be used at his retrial.

The decision cleared the way for prosecutors to refile charges against Wright, who was sentenced to death in 1992 for the killing of Phillip Seifert, 66, a clerk at a liquor store and bar outside Wilmington.

A videotaped confession that Wright gave to police, after a lengthy interrogation while he was under the influence of heroin, was key to his conviction, as prosecutors had no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in January that Superior Court Judge John Parkins Jr. erred in declaring that Wright’s confession was inadmissible because he hadn’t been properly advised of his Miranda rights. The court said a judge’s 1991 ruling that Wright knowingly and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights was the “law of the case”, and that Parkins had no legal basis to reconsider that decision.

Similarly, prosecutors are now arguing that a judge’s 1991 ruling that Wright was not entitled to bail is the law of the case and should not be revisited.

Under Delaware’s Constitution, a person charged with capital murder is not entitled to bail if a judge finds there is “proof positive or presumption great” that he or she committed the crime. Under the law of the case doctrine, a Delaware court is prohibited from revisiting issues previously decided, with narrow exceptions for issues that are clearly wrong, would produce an injustice or should be revisited because of changed circumstances.

“Nothing has changed in this case since 1991,” prosecutor Steve Wood told Superior Court Judge Eric Davis at hearing Monday, arguing that none of the exceptions to the law of the case doctrine apply to Wright’s request for a new bail hearing.

Wright’s attorneys say he’s entitled to a bail hearing because “the evidentiary landscape has changed drastically since 1991.” They point specifically to potentially exculpatory information that was never given to Wright’s trial attorneys or discussed at the 1991 hearing suggesting that Seifert may have been killed by two men who tried to rob another liquor store about two miles away less than an hour earlier.

Wright’s attorneys also claim that the judge in the 1991 hearing was unaware of the “highly coercive” nature of Wright’s police interrogation, and that the body of knowledge about “false confession” has grown since then.

“A lot has changed in 25 years,” said Roberto Finzi, a lawyer representing Wright.

Davis, who was given the case after the Supreme Court directed that it be assigned to someone other than Parkins, said he would try to issue a quick ruling.

Before declaring Wright’s confession inadmissible last year, Parkins had overturned his conviction and death sentence in 2012, saying Wright was not properly advised of his rights, and that prosecutors withheld evidence about the earlier attempted robbery. The Supreme Court overturned Parkins, saying arguments about the confession were procedurally barred, and that evidence about the earlier robbery attempt would not have led to a different result.

But the Supreme Court itself overturned Wright’s conviction in 2014 after his attorneys subsequently argued that prosecutors failed to disclose potentially helpful information to the defense regarding a jailhouse informant and another witness who testified against Wright.

Randall Chase writes for the Associated Press

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.