WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — A man who was released from prison last year after more than two decades on Delaware's death row and was facing a retrial in a 1991 slaying pleaded no contest Monday to second-degree murder.
After entering the plea, Jermaine Wright, 43, was immediately sentenced to time served.
"After 24 years incarcerated, I would just like to go home," Wright told Superior Court Judge Eric Davis before being sentenced to the maximum 20 years.
Wright was expected to be released from custody later Monday and return to his mother's home and a barbecue celebration.
Wright's plea comes six weeks after Delaware's Supreme Court declared the state's death penalty law unconstitutional, although his plea was not directly related to the ruling. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in December on whether the ruling can be applied retroactively to the 13 men currently on death row.
Wright was sentenced to death in 1992 for the killing of Phillip Seifert, 66, a clerk at a liquor store and bar outside Wilmington. His plea brings an end to a decades-long legal saga that centered on a confession he gave to police following a nearly 13-hour interrogation that took place while he was under the influence of heroin. Defense attorneys also had argued that someone else may have killed Seifert.
Seifert's son, Royce Seifert, however, angrily denounced the justice system as "broken." In a statement to the court, he said that Wright's confession to police included details that only the killer would have known.
"It has taken 9,374 days to get to this point," Seifert said, adding that his family had persevered over the years in the hope of seeing justice done.
"The final determination will have a hollow sound, for the murderer will go free and be returned to the streets of Wilmington," he said. "Jermaine is not a hero or a celebrity. He is a confessed murderer." Addressing Wright, Seifert added, "You will never be free from the truth of what you did."
Before his conviction was thrown out, Wright had spent more time on death row than any other Delaware inmate currently facing execution.
Superior Court Judge John Parkins Jr. overturned Wright's conviction and death sentence in 2012, saying Wright was not properly advised of his rights during the police interrogation. He also concluded 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 in the vicinity a short time earlier.
In 2013, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed Parkins' ruling, saying his review of Wright's confession, the linchpin of the prosecution's case, was procedurally barred. The court also rejected Parkins' 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, however, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously last year that Wright was entitled to a new trial because prosecutors repeatedly withheld potentially exculpatory evidence.
Parkins, whom Royce Seifert described Monday as "a liberal judge with his own agenda," then ruled that Wright's confession could not be used at his retrial. The Supreme Court overturned that ruling earlier this year and ordered that the case be assigned to a different judge. Wright was taken back into custody after prosecutors refiled charges against him.
"Criminal cases do not get better with age," prosecutor Steve Wood said Monday when asked about the plea bargain, adding that memories change and that some of the physical evidence in the case has gone missing. He declined to provide details.
"Given the state of the evidence and the passage of time, today's resolution was appropriate," Wood said.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Wright pleaded no contest, not "guilty."