DOVER, Delaware — A man who has spent more than two decades on Delaware's death row could soon walk free following a judge's ruling Tuesday that his videotaped confession to police would not be allowed into evidence.
Judge John Parkins Jr., who overturned Jermaine Wright's conviction and death sentence in 2012, only to have it reinstated by the Delaware Supreme Court, denied a prosecution motion to recuse himself from Wright's retrial. He also told attorneys that he will not allow Wright's confession into evidence because Wright was not properly advised of his rights.
"Without that illegally obtained evidence, the state has no case against Mr. Wright," defense attorney Herb Mondros said in an emailed statement.
Deputy attorney general Steve Wood said it's very unlikely that prosecutors would proceed with the case without the confession, which was a linchpin in Wright's 1992 murder trial.
While prosecutors are still awaiting a formal order and written ruling from Parkins explaining his decision on the confession, Wood said one option would be to dismiss the charges, appeal Parkins' ruling to the state Supreme Court, then reinstate the charges if the appeal is successful.
In the meantime, Wright, 41, could soon walk out of prison.
"That's a distinct possibility," Wood said.
In overturning Wright's conviction and death sentence in 2012, Parkins noted that Wright was under the influence of heroin and not properly advised of his rights during a lengthy police interrogation that resulted in a confession. Parkins also said Wright's trial attorneys were never given potentially exculpatory information suggesting that liquor store clerk Phillip Seifert, 65, may have been killed by two men who tried to rob another liquor store earlier that night.
Before his conviction was thrown out, Wright had spent more time on death row than any other Delaware inmate currently facing execution. He remained in custody while the state appealed.
In 2013, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed Parkins' ruling, saying his review of Wright's confession was procedurally barred. They also rejected the judge's 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 on issues that defense attorneys said were left unresolved in its earlier decision, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in May that Wright was entitled to a new trial because prosecutors repeatedly withheld potentially exculpatory evidence at his trial.
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