Jermaine Wright, who has resided on death row following his conviction of the 1991 murder of Phillip Seifert at a liquor store just outside of Wilmington, Delaware, was granted a new trial yesterday. The Supreme Court of Delaware unanimously agreed with Wright’s contention that undisclosed exculpatory and impeachment evidence cumulatively amounted to a reversible Brady violation.
“Wright is not entitled to a perfect trial, but he is entitled to a fair one where material exculpatory and impeachment evidence is disclosed and not suppressed,” wrote Justice Ridgely.
The case history in the opinion explains that no physical or forensic evidence connected Wright to the crime. The State presented no “murder weapon, shell casings, the getaway car, or eyewitness to identify Wright.”
He was convicted upon a confession taken while he was under the influence of heroin and now-recanted testimony of a prison informant who testified that Wright had admitted the crime to him.
The 38-page opinion noted that the United States Supreme Court “has explained exculpatory evidence is any evidence that is ‘material either to the guilt or punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution’ and that impeachment evidence is evidence that ‘the defense can use to impeach a prosecution witness by showing bias or interest.’”
According to the opinion, among evidence not disclosed to Wright’s attorney was that a witness for the prosecution, Gerald Samuels, just six months before Wright’s trial had entered into a plea bargain in another case in which he agreed to testify against a co-defendant in exchange for reduced charges and sentence. The opinion notes, “Several state and federal courts have found the prosecution’s failure to disclose a witness’s prior cooperation with law enforcement alone amounts to a Brady violation.”
The State also did not disclose important information that could have impacted the credibility of a witness. Wright’s attorney had sought to show that Kevin Jamison and his cousin, Norman Curtis, not Wright, were the actual perpetrators of the robbery and murder. When Wright’s attorney asked Jamison if he knew Curtis well and saw him often, he answered “now and then” but “not often.” The State knew or should have known otherwise. Jamison and Curtis had been charged as co-defendants in a robbery just a month before Wright’s trial, and Jamison was arrested for the robbery just “two days after he testified in Wright’s trial.”
“Both pieces of information about Jamison—the robbery charge with co-defendant Curtis and the delay in making the arrest—would have provided exculpatory and impeaching evidence for Wright,” the court opined.
The court had previously ruled that a third piece of evidence not shared with the defense, taken alone, “did not prejudice the verdict,” but it came to a different conclusion when weighing the cumulative effect of this combined with the other undisclosed evidence.
The State did not reveal to the defense important information regarding a similar robbery by two black males, which occurred less than an hour earlier and less than two miles from the robbery that resulted in the murder of Seifert. The Court noted, “a plausible argument could be made that the unsuccessful perpetrators of the…attempted robbery were the same individuals involved in the Hi-Way Inn robbery shortly thereafter.” Unknown to the defense, police had ruled out Wright as a suspect in the earlier robbery attempt based on the fact that he did not match the description provided by a witness. “Such evidence, if presented at trial, would have been exculpatory,” the opinion stated.
“The potential cumulative impact of this evidence is material. The postconviction evidence led the Superior Court to conclude that it had no confidence in the outcome of the trial. Neither do we… Both the State and the defense are entitled to a fair trial in this case. We reverse the judgments of conviction and remand so that the Superior Court may conduct one,” concluded the Court.
According to an article published by Delaware Online/The News Journal, (here) a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office indicated a decision on whether the State will retry Wright could come soon. “The Department of Justice respects the court’s ruling,” Joe Roglasky said. “We will evaluate in short order the feasibility of re-trying a case that is 20-years old.”
Many proven wrongful convictions reveal that a combination of several types of unreliable evidence prompted the miscarriage of justice. Wright’s case is an example of the cumulative impact of multiple pieces of undisclosed exculpatory and impeachment evidence. Very unfortunately, neither the Supreme Court of Delaware nor anyone else can have confidence in the verdict that put Jermaine Wright on death row for more than 20 years and gave some closure to the family of Phillip Seifert.
The Delaware Supreme’s Courts opinion can be accessed (here).