The Delaware Supreme Court has overturned a ruling that freed a man from death row, and the justices say his 1991 confession to killing a liquor store clerk can be used at his retrial.
In a unanimous ruling posted Tuesday, the justices said a Superior Court judge erred last year in declaring that a confession given to police in 1991 by Jermaine Wright was inadmissible because he hadn’t been properly advised of his Miranda rights.
The Supreme Court said a judge’s 1991 ruling that Wright knowingly and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights was the law of the case, and that Judge John Parkins Jr. had no legal basis to reconsider that decision last year.
“All of the facts and circumstances relevant to the adequacy of the Miranda rights were known when the Superior Court rendered its decision in 1991. There are no changed circumstances,” Justice James Vaughn Jr. wrote for the court.
The Supreme Court also ordered that the case be reassigned to a judge other than Parkins.
“The judge currently assigned to the case has stated on the record that he has virtually no confidence in the state’s evidence,” Vaughn noted, adding that public confidence in the impartial administration of justice would be enhanced if a new judge presides over Wright’s retrial.
The decision clears the way for prosecutors to refile charges against Wright, who was freed from prison last February while the state appealed Parkins’ ruling. Once the charges are refiled, Wright, 43, will be taken into custody and held without bond while awaiting retrial.
“Although we remained hopeful, we were always cognizant of the fact that this could go against us,” said Eugene Maurer Jr., an attorney representing Wright. “We’re all disappointed.”
Wright was sentenced to death for the January 1991 killing of Phillip Seifert, 66, a clerk at a liquor store and bar outside Wilmington.
Wright’s videotaped confession has been the subject of repeated court rulings dating to 1991 but had never been suppressed until last year.
Defense attorneys have argued that the confession was invalid because Wright was under the influence of heroin at the time, and that he had not been properly informed about his right to have an attorney. At one point, a detective mistakenly told Wright that an attorney could be appointed to represent him if he were “diligent,” rather than “indigent.”
“The Department of Justice thinks the state Supreme Court made the proper decision in allowing Jermaine Wright’s confession to be used in a trial,” Carl Kanefsy, a spokesman for Attorney General Matt Denn, said in an emailed statement, adding that the Department of Justice is committed to seeking justice for Seifert’s family.
The confession was a linchpin for prosecutors at Wright’s trial, and a prosecutor had said it was unlikely that the state would proceed to a retrial without it.
Before declaring Wright’s confession inadmissible last year, Parkins had overturned his conviction and death sentence in 2012. Parkins said in that decision that Wright was not properly advised of his rights, and that his trial attorneys were never given potentially exculpatory information suggesting that Seifert may have been killed by two men who tried to rob another liquor store earlier that night.
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.