Death sentence


Jermaine Wright was convicted in 1992 in the killing of a clerk at a liquor store on Gov. Printz Boulevard.
WILMINGTON -- The second-longest-
serving inmate on Delaware's death row
may be free on bail as soon as next week.

At a brief hearing Tuesday that left
prosecutors speechless, Superior Court
Judge John A. Parkins Jr. overturned the
conviction and death sentence of Jermaine
Wright for the January 1991 slaying of
liquor store clerk Phillip Seifert.

Parkins said he had "no confidence" in the
evidence against Wright, despite a
videotaped confession. He said he plans to
hold a hearing next week that appears
likely to result in Wright's release on bail.

Wright has been under sentence of death
for 20 years. The only person who has
been sitting on Delaware's death row
longer is Robert Gattis, who is scheduled to
die by lethal injection later this month.

When Parkins announced that he found
Wright's conviction and sentence
"constitutionally infirm," more than a dozen
family and friends of Wright in the
courtroom erupted in cheers before they
were quickly quieted by bailiffs.

Wright shook hands and exchanged hugs
with his attorneys Herbert Mondros and
James Moreno.

Afterward, Moreno said they saw the
judge's action as a total vindication for their

Wright's original trial counsel, Jack Willard,
was also in court and spoke briefly to say
that the case had kept him awake nights
for 20 years. He praised Parkins for his
ruling. "You know there is a God and God
hates injustice," Willard told Parkins.

Prosecutors Greg Smith and Danielle
Brennan were clearly stunned by Parkins'
ruling and declined to comment as they left
the court. Several hours later, the Delaware
Attorney General's Office issued a one-
sentence statement: "We are reviewing the
court's opinion to determine the next step
and will communicate our decision when it
is made."

Members of Seifert's family did not attend
Tuesday's proceedings, but Phillip's
brother Lawrence, who owned the liquor
store, said Tuesday that Parkins was
"wrong" and that after having sat through
the trial he has no doubt of Wright's guilt.

"One judge says he's guilty and another
judge says he wants to let him go," Seifert
said. "I think there should be a third

Laurie L. Levenson, a professor at Loyola
Law School in Los Angeles, said the Wright
case "is extraordinarily troubling,"
especially because there had been so
many prior reviews of the conviction before
Tuesday's ruling.

"Bells and sirens should go off for the
criminal justice system," she said, adding
that such stunning turnarounds are
happening more and more in cases like
this one, cases that are 10, 15 or 20 years
old. "This is probably why we are seeing
that juries are less and less willing to give
the death penalty. We are seeing how easy
it is to get it wrong."

Evidence lacking

Wright was convicted at a 1992 trial for
shooting Seifert, 66, during a robbery at
the Hi-Way Inn on Gov. Printz Boulevard
that only yielded about $30.

The jury at the time unanimously
recommended the death penalty for
Wright, and it was imposed by the judge.
Several years later, on appeal, Wright was
granted a second penalty hearing. A
second jury voted 10-2 in favor of the
death penalty. Both the conviction and
sentence were upheld by the Delaware
Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, Seifert said the evidence
 showed that Wright shot his brother, who
had part of one leg amputated, and that
Wright left and returned to shoot him again.
"He was trying to kill the evidence and he
did," Seifert said, adding that the time
Phillip Seifert was in the hospital afterward,
brain-dead from his wounds, "was torture."

However, in his 101-page opinion
responding to Wright's fourth petition for
post-conviction relief, Parkins noted that
the case against Wright -- with the
exception of a videotaped confession --
"was weak to non-existent."

He said there was no physical evidence
linking Wright to the crime, no murder
weapon was recovered, no fingerprints or
shoe prints were recovered, no one was
able to pick Wright out of a lineup and
there were no security camera images of
the crime.

Parkins also noted that detectives were so
desperate for leads in the case that one
officer put out the word that he would pay
for information and also "passed out twenty
dollar bills at the Kirkwood Community
Center looking for informants."

As for the confession, Parkins wrote, Wright
was high on heroin -- and apparently had
heroin with him during his 13-hour
detention and interrogation -- and at times
displayed bizarre behavior. At one point,
according to the ruling, Wright curled up in
a fetal position under the table in the
interview room. Later, Wright "insisted on
writing down his answers on a piece of
paper, passing the paper to [the
detective], who in turn handed it back to
Wright, whereupon Wright would eat the

Only the last 40 minutes or so of the
interrogation were taped.

On the video, Parkins wrote, Wright clearly
gets details about the crime wrong and
several times changes his statement to
"yield to suggestions" from the detective.

Parkins said the court could not completely
discount the confession -- in which Wright
charged that co-defendant Lorinzo Dixon
threatened to shoot him if he didn't shoot
Seifert -- because Wright did get some
details correct.

But Parkins also ruled that when the police
advised Wright of his Miranda rights, they
got it wrong. A detective told Wright he had
a right to an attorney, and, if he could not
afford one, one would be appointed, "if the
state feels that you're diligent and needs
(sic) one."

Prosecutors claimed the detective said
"indigent" and not "diligent," but Parkins
noted the same detective botched the
Miranda warning to co-defendant Dixon as
well. (Dixon later admitted to robbery and
a weapons charge in a plea deal, but
according to the ruling Dixon now denies
he was there.)

Evidence withheld

Parkins also ruled that investigators
withheld key evidence from attorneys --
which they were required to produce --
that could have led a jury to believe Wright
was innocent.

On the night of the slaying, there was a
nearly identical attempted robbery at a
different liquor store a short distance away
where the victim saw the robbers, and
police had ruled out Wright as a suspect. A
jury could have concluded that that pair,
and not Wright and Dixon, were
responsible for shooting Seifert, according
to Parkins.


Parkins also raised doubts about testimony
from a jailhouse snitch, who claimed at trial
to have heard Wright confess and who has
since recanted his sworn testimony.

"Taken altogether the court has no
confidence in the outcome of the trial,"
Parkins wrote.

Parkins started and concluded his opinion
-- and his comments from the bench -- by
talking about the victim, describing his
slaying as brutal and senseless.

"Throughout these proceedings, the court
has not lost sight of the fact that an
innocent man needlessly died on Jan. 14,
1991, at the hands of another human
being," Parkins said, adding that he knows
his ruling will cause Seifert's family and
friends additional anguish and frustration.
"Nonetheless, the court stands as a
guardian of the constitutional rights of
every citizen, including those of the
defendant," Parkins said.

"This is a model case for what could go
wrong," said professor Levenson. "It should
make everyone stop and gasp that a man
could come so close to being put to death
when there were so many problems with
his conviction."