Justices mull confession in case of former death row inmate

AP News
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Posted: Oct 28, 2015 4:41 PM

DOVER, Del. (AP) — The Delaware Supreme Court is mulling whether to overturn a judge's ruling that resulted in an accused killer being set free after spending more than two decades on death row.

Prosecutors argued Wednesday that a Superior Court judge erred in ruling earlier this year that a confession given to police by Jermaine Wright in 1991 could not be used at his retrial on charges of killing liquor store clerk Phillip Seifert, 66, because he had not been properly advised of his Miranda rights.

Prosecutors say Judge John Parkins Jr. abused his discretion in taking it upon himself to reconsider the admissibility of Wright's statement, which has been the subject of repeated court rulings dating to 1991 but had never been suppressed until his January ruling.

"This was heavily litigated. It's been litigated for many, many years," said deputy attorney general Elizabeth McFarlan.

Chief Justice Leo Strine Jr. seemed to agree, noting that the Supreme Court would have to overturn previous court decisions, including its own, in order to uphold the suppression ruling.

"How can we rule for you without essentially reversing our prior decision?" Strine told defense attorney Allison Mielke.

Mielke argued that Parkins, who overturned Wright's conviction in 2012, only to be reversed by the Supreme Court, had information about Wright's mental capacity that was not considered in previous hearings. She argued that the state has not "safeguarded" Wright's constitutional rights, and that the suppression ruling should be upheld despite previous court rulings because of exceptions for "the interests of justice" or "change of circumstance."

Prosecutors, who dropped murder charges against Wright in order to appeal the judge's ruling, have said it's very unlikely they would proceed with the case without the confession, which was a linchpin in Wright's 1992 murder trial. If the Supreme Court overturns the suppression ruling, prosecutors are expected to refile charges against Wright, who attended Wednesday's hearing but declined to comment afterward.

Defense attorneys have argued that the confession is invalid because Wright was high on heroin at the time and had not been properly informed about his right to have an attorney. At one point, a detective mistakenly told Wright, who Mielke said has a verbal IQ of 62, that an attorney could be appointed to represent him if he were "diligent," rather than "indigent."

"It is so egregious that it does not adequately provide the right," Mielke said of the mistaken Miranda warning.

But McFarlan noted that Wright was given two other Miranda warnings during his lengthy interrogation that were correct.

The admissibility of the videotaped confession became a key issue for the defense after the Supreme Court overturned Wright's conviction on other grounds last year and ordered a retrial, ruling that prosecutors repeatedly withheld evidence that might have helped the defense.

Before his sentence was overturned, Wright, 43, had spent more time on death row than any other Delaware inmate currently facing execution.