On Monday, May 19th, in a 5-0 unanimous ruling, the Delaware Supreme Court overturned the conviction of death row prisoner Jermaine Wright, citing a “miscarriage of justice.” After 21 years, Mr. Wright was the longest serving inmate on Delaware’s death row.
With no physical evidence linking him to the crime, Mr. Wright was convicted on the basis of a false confession extracted over the course of 13 hours of confinement and ten hours of interrogation, during which he was high on heroin. The Superior Court found, and numerous nationally recognized experts have testified, that the confession, which conflicts with the evidence collected in the case, is not credible and that Mr. Wright’s ability to waive his Miranda rights was impaired. The only other evidence presented against him was the now-discredited testimony of a jailhouse snitch, who had a history of cooperating with the prosecution and later revealed that he believed he would receive leniency in sentencing for his testimony.
The Delaware Repeal Project is a coalition of organizations, community partners, faith leaders and individuals dedicated to repealing the death penalty in Delaware through the passage of Senate Bill 19. We have 29 partner organizations, including the ACLU of Delaware, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and Delaware Center for Justice, as well as the Bishops and leaders of the largest religious organizations in our state. Members of the Delaware Repeal Project today issued the following statements.
Statement by Senator Karen E. Peterson (D – Stanton)
The Jermaine Wright case proves that Delaware’s death penalty system is just as flawed as any other states’. This was a textbook case of wrongful conviction—no physical evidence, false snitch testimony, a coerced confession that didn’t even line up with the facts of the case, and prosecutorial misconduct. It is time for us to turn our back on this broken system and bring Senate Bill 19 to the House floor for a full debate and vote. We cannot risk executing an innocent person for a crime they did not commit.
Statement by Sherry Dorsey Walker, 6th District Council Member, City of Wilmington and spokesperson for the Delaware Repeal Project
For close to two years now, the coalition partners of Delaware Repeal have been educating the community and engaging in a dialogue about the death penalty in Delaware. The facts are on our side—the death penalty does not deter crime or keep our community safe; it is unfairly applied to poor people, people of color and the mentally ill; it is exorbitantly expensive and wastes state resources; and it risks executing an innocent person.
Until yesterday, the risk of executing an innocent person in Delaware was brushed aside. However, the case of Jermaine Wright proves that Delaware does make mistakes when it comes to the criminal justice system. When dealing with the severity of a death sentence, we cannot afford to make mistakes.
We call on the House of Representatives to bring Senate Bill 19 to the floor for a full debate and vote. We call on the General Assembly and Governor Markell to end Delaware’s flawed death penalty immediately.
Statement by Kristin Froehlich, Board President, Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty:
The members of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty are pleased with the Delaware Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Jermaine Wright’s wrongful conviction and death sentence. We have heard so often from death penalty supporters, “Delaware does it right. Delaware doesn’t make mistakes.” This reversal demonstrates that Delaware’s death penalty process is indeed flawed. The time, money, and financial resources that went into convicting and sentencing Mr. Wright were merely an effort to win a case, not to find the true killer and hold him accountable. This reversal confirms once again that Delaware’s death penalty is ineffective, with more than 1/3 of death sentences in Delaware being reduced or overturned.
Although we are pleased for Mr. Wright and his family, we are mindful of the suffering this decision gives to the family of murder victim Philip Seifert. The legal finality that would allow them some peace has been shattered again. As long as we tell families that the death penalty is going to heal their pain, we are setting them up for more suffering.
We need to be vigilant that we are not convicting the wrong person, both for the sake of the defendant, but also for victims’ families. If we don’t find the real killer, then we also put our communities at risk of more violence.
We ask that the Attorney General not retry this case and instead focus on reducing violent crime in Delaware.
Statement by Kathleen MacRae, Executive Director, ACLU of Delaware:
Delaware must face the fact that the state’s so-called criminal “justice” system is severely and chronically flawed. The case of Jermaine Wright illustrates a failure of justice dating back over 20 years. Prosecutors and police violated the Constitution and ignored evidence in order to close a case and get a win. Mr. Wright’s life has been spared, not because of the system, but in spite of the system. We should be profoundly thankful to the judge and justices who decided to overturn his conviction because of repeated errors and withheld evidence. They have kept us from executing an innocent man.
Unfortunately, the death penalty system is not Delaware’s only problem. Evidence stolen and replaced in the Medical Examiner’s Office has undermined the validity of hundreds of drug convictions. The severe underfunding of the Public Defender’s office has led to thousands of poor Delawareans represented by legal counsel who are spread too thin when facing serious prosecution or not represented at all, in direct violation of their Constitutional rights.
We need to repeal the death penalty in Delaware immediately. We have too many other criminal justice challenges to confront and remedy. We should not be wasting further time, talent and money on continued use of the death penalty in Delaware.
Statement by President Richard Mouse Smith, Delaware State NAACP Conference of Branches
The Delaware State NAACP Conference of Branches has historically opposed the death penalty for a variety of reasons, including racial disparities in how it is applied, which is particularly egregious in Delaware. The fact that Jermaine Wright, a black man with impaired mental capacity, was coerced into a false confession while evidence of other suspects in the crime was suppressed does not surprise us. The fact that a jailhouse snitch was instrumental in securing this conviction does not surprise us. There can be no more excuses. Delaware nearly executed an innocent black man. The NAACP of Delaware demands that Senate Bill 19 be brought to the House floor for an up or down vote in the current session. Any legislator who opposes repeal of the death penalty under these circumstances is risking further miscarriages of justice, and that is simply unacceptable.
Statement by Rev. Dr. Silvester S. Beaman, President, Interdenominational Ministers Action Council
As leaders in the faith community, and particularly in the African American community, the Interdenominational Ministers Action Council (IMAC) stands all too often with the victims of homicide and their families. As we hold them in love and prayer, we express renewed concern at the possibility of wrongful incarceration and execution in Delaware. When the wrong person is held accountable, the guilty remain free to create more victims. IMAC is particularly concerned now that the Delaware Supreme Court has recognized such injustice as to vacate the conviction and death sentence of Jermaine Wright. We urge that the death penalty be removed as a sentencing option so that the only ultimate punishment used in Delaware is that which the vast majority of killers already receive: life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Life imprisonment keeps us safe, it is severe punishment, and if we find that we have made a mistake, we can release an innocent person. One cannot release someone from a grave.
Statement by Rabbi Yair D. Robinson, Congregation Beth Emeth, Wilmington
In light of the Delaware Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in the Jermaine Wright case, we cannot avoid the question: how many innocent people have been executed in our name? Delaware law, despite its attempts at safeguards, cannot guarantee accuracy. Problems of coerced confessions, false witnesses, mishandled physical evidence, and questionable testimony may exist, despite best efforts, compromising truth and justice. Even if more stringent rules of evidence were put in place, the possibility for error remains. The only safeguard against mistaken executions is no executions. It is time to pass Senate Bill 19.