DOVER, Del. (AP)- The Delaware Supreme Court should restore the conviction of a man who was sentenced to death for killing a Wilmington liquor store clerk in a 1991 robbery, the state attorney general's office argued Thursday.
Prosecutors told the high court that Superior Court Judge John Parkins Jr. erred in ruling that Jermaine Wright's confession to police was defective because he had not been properly advised of his rights against self-incrimination and to have an attorney appointed to represent him.
Wright, 39, had spent more time on death row than any other Delaware inmate currently facing execution before Parkins in January threw out his conviction for the murder of Phillip Seifert, a 66-year-old amputee.
Court records indicate that Wright was questioned about three separate crimes during an interrogation that lasted almost 13 hours, and that he was under the influence of heroin at the time. According to a transcript, a detective mistakenly told Wright before he confessed that an attorney would be appointed for him not if he were "indigent," but if he was deemed to be "diligent."
Deputy attorney general Paul Wallace downplayed the mistaken wording and said Wright was familiar with Miranda warnings about his rights because he had been read them before. He also noted that another Superior Court judge had found that Wright's waiver of his Miranda rights was both knowing and intelligent.
Wallace also argued that Parkins was wrong in ruling that Wright's attorneys were never given potentially exculpatory information suggesting that Seifert may have been murdered by two other men who robbed another nearby liquor store less than an hour before Seifert was killed.
Wallace said police determined early on that the two crimes were not related, suggesting that any failure to turn over evidence about the earlier robbery was not prejudicial because it may not have been admitted at Wright's trial and therefore wouldn't have helped him.
"In the totality of all this, it is harmless as best," he said.
Federal public defender Billy Nolas disagreed, saying the two crimes were close in both time and location and involved many similarities, including witness descriptions of the suspects and the gun used.
"The descriptions match almost to a 'T'," said Nolas, adding that police ruled out Wright as a suspect in the earlier robbery, and that another man later told several other people that he killed Seifert.
In throwing out Wright's conviction, Parkins noted that, other than his confession, the evidence against him was "weak to nonexistent," with no forensic evidence linking him to Seifert's murder, no gun or shell casings found, and no eyewitnesses.
Nolas said Parkins' rulings were based on an intensive fact-finding process that included a two-week evidentiary hearing, and that, absent any proof that Parkins committed "clear error" by acting arbitrarily or capriciously, the Supreme Court must accept his findings.
The justices took the case under advisement but did not indicate when they would rule.