Two men freed from Delaware’s death row due to prosecutorial misconduct

Prosecutorial misconduct contributed to reversing the convictions and death sentences of two men who served time on Delaware’s death row.

In January, the Delaware Supreme Court overturned the conviction and sentence of Isaiah McCoy, who was sentenced to death in 2012 for the murder of James Mumford.

In February, Jerome Wright was set free after his conviction and sentence were overturned. Jerome Wright was sentenced to death in 1992 for the murder of Phillip Seifert.

Both men may face new trials.

More information on Isaiah McCoy

More information on Jermaine Wright

Pope Francis calls for abolishing the death penalty

Pope Francis calls for abolishing death penalty and life imprisonment

By Francis X. Rocca
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis called for abolition of the death penalty as well as life imprisonment, and denounced what he called a “penal populism” that promises to solve society’s problems by punishing crime instead of pursuing social justice.

“It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples’ lives from an unjust aggressor,” the pope said Oct. 23 in a meeting with representatives of the International Association of Penal Law.


Pope Francis speaks during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square Oct. 22. (CNS/Paul Haring)

“All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty. And this, I connect with life imprisonment,” he said. “Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.”

The pope noted that the Vatican recently eliminated life inprisonment from its own penal code.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, cited by Pope Francis in his talk, “the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” but modern advances in protecting society from dangerous criminals mean that “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

The pope said that, although a number of countries have formally abolished capital punishment, “the death penalty, illegally and to a varying extent, is applied all over the planet,” because “extrajudicial executions” are often disguised as “clashes with offenders or presented as the undesired consequences of the reasonable, necessary and proportionate use of force to apply the law.”

The pope denounced the detention of prisoners without trial, who he said account for more than 50 percent of all incarcerated people in some countries. He said maximum security prisons can be a form of torture, since their “principal characteristic is none other than external isolation,” which can lead to “psychic and physical sufferings such as paranoia, anxiety, depression and weight loss and significantly increase the chance of suicide.”

He also rebuked unspecified governments involved in kidnapping people for “illegal transportation to detention centers in which torture is practiced.”

The pope said criminal penalties should not apply to children, and should be waived or limited for the elderly, who “on the basis of their very errors can offer lessons to the rest of society. We don’t learn only from the virtues of saints but also from the failings and errors of sinners.”

Pope Francis said contemporary societies overuse criminal punishment, partially out of a primitive tendency to offer up “sacrificial victims, accused of the disgraces that strike the community.”

The pope said some politicians and members of the media promote “violence and revenge, public and private, not only against those responsible for crimes, but also against those under suspicion, justified or not.”

He denounced a growing tendency to think that the “most varied social problems can be resolved through public punishment … that by means of that punishment we can obtain benefits that would require the implementation of another type of social policy, economic policy and policy of social inclusion.”

Using techniques similar to those of racist regimes of the past, the pope said, unspecified forces today create “stereotypical figures that sum up the characteristics that society perceives as threatening.”

Pope Francis concluded his talk by denouncing human trafficking and corruption, both crimes he said “could never be committed without the complicity, active or passive, of public authorities.”

The pope spoke scathingly about the mentality of the typical corrupt person, whom he described as conceited, unable to accept criticism, and prompt to insult and even persecute those who disagree with him.

“The corrupt one does not perceive his own corruption. It is a little like what happens with bad breath: someone who has it hardly ever realizes it; other people notice and have to tell him,” the pope said. “Corruption is an evil greater than sin. More than forgiveness, this evil needs to be cured.”

END

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Mobilizing to Pass Delaware’s Death Penalty Repeal Legislation in 2015

by Abraham Bonowitz

Abraham Bonowitz is a member of Catholic Mobilizing Networks Advisory Board 

The Delaware Repeal Project (DE Repeal), a coalition of 29 partner organizations in Delaware, educates Delawareans about the problems of the death penalty system and leads the campaign to repeal the death penalty in the state.

The coalition was founded in 2011 as a partnership with Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty (organizing and educating about Delaware’s death penalty for over 20 years), the League of Women Voters, the Delaware Center for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, the NAACP and Pacem in Terris (a local peace and justice organization).

A bill to repeal the death penalty passed in the Delaware Senate in 2013 and died in the House Judiciary Committee in 2014.  The campaign and its many allies are setting the stage for quick passage of a new bill in the 2015 legislative session. There is strong bi-partisan support, including from conservative Republican legislators remaining true to their Catholic faith.

“The Delaware Repeal Project is mobilizing its partners from all corners of the state. We have collaborated with a broad range of religious communities, including the bishops and leadership of all of the major Christian and Jewish faiths, the heads of our most active African-American churches, and more than 120 other clergy,” said Ti Hall, DE Repeal Projects’ Campaign Manager. “Also involved are families who have lost a loved one to murder, non-profit organizations, civic groups and individuals who are all helping to promote a conversation about the flaws of Delaware’s death penalty system and the opportunity to replace it.”

More than 140 faith leaders have added their names to a “Clergy Sign-on letter,” and those who have not yet done so may add their names here.

DE Repeal is focusing on expanding the coalition and grassroots support. To this end, the organization attends festivals and fairs throughout Delaware and regularly engages the faith community. “Death Penalty Awareness Days” are scheduled from November 14-23, 2014, providing two weekends in which clergy are asked to preach on the issues and mobilize worshipers. Town Hall meetings will take place in various parts of the state on November 18, 19 and 20. Details on these events and the Death Penalty Awareness Days will be posted soon at www.DERepeal.org.

One of the featured speakers at the upcoming Town Hall meetings will be John Breckenridge, a retired police officer from New Hampshire whose partner was murdered as they investigated a disturbance. Breckenridge originally supported the death penalty for the killer; however, in time and with a return to his Catholic faith, he has come to forgiveness. He now advocates for an end to the death penalty.

Catholics and others ready to help end the death penalty in Delaware are urged to sign up with the DE Repeal Project at www.DERepeal.org and to ask their state Senator and Representative to support a bill to repeal Delaware’s death penalty. Legislative Advocacy can begin now and will be very important when the legislative session resumes in January, 2015. The Delaware Repeal Project seeks volunteer “captains” to assist in local organizing, leading the effort within their Parish, and/or helping to ensure that many Delaware Repeal supporters are at Legislative Hall in Dover on lobby days and on days when the bill will be voted on. For more information and to get involved, contact ti@derepeal.org.

To read the full issue of Catholic Mobilizing Network’s newsletter, click here.

Washington Post-ABC News Poll shows support for death penalty declining.

A new Washington Post-ABC News Poll reports that support for the death penalty continues to decline. “But for the first time in Post-ABC polling, more than half of Americans say they prefer life sentences for convicted murderers, rather than the death penalty. Fifty-two percent of those polled said they would choose life in prison, while 42 percent said they favored execution.” Check out the full article here.

Statements by Delaware Community Leaders Responding to Delaware Supreme Court Unanimous Reversal of Conviction and Death Sentence of Jermaine Wright

Statements by Delaware Community Leaders Responding to Delaware Supreme Court Unanimous Reversal of Conviction and Death Sentence of Jermaine Wright

Wilmington (May 21, 2014) – On Monday, May 19th, in a 5-0 unanimous ruling, the Delaware Supreme Court overturned the conviction of death row prisoner Jermaine Wright, citing a “miscarriage of justice.” After 21 years, Mr. Wright was the longest serving inmate on Delaware’s death row.

With no physical evidence linking him to the crime, Mr. Wright was convicted on the basis of a false confession extracted over the course of 13 hours of confinement and ten hours of interrogation, during which he was high on heroin. The Superior Court found, and numerous nationally recognized experts have testified, that the confession, which conflicts with the evidence collected in the case, is not credible and that Mr. Wright’s ability to waive his Miranda rights was impaired. The only other evidence presented against him was the now-discredited testimony of a jailhouse snitch, who had a history of cooperating with the prosecution and later revealed that he believed he would receive leniency in sentencing for his testimony.

The Delaware Repeal Project is a coalition of organizations, community partners, faith leaders and individuals dedicated to repealing the death penalty in Delaware through the passage of Senate Bill 19. We have 29 partner organizations, including the ACLU of Delaware, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and Delaware Center for Justice, as well as the Bishops and leaders of the largest religious organizations in our state. Members of the Delaware Repeal Project today issued the following statements.

Statement by Senator Karen E. Peterson (D – Stanton)

The Jermaine Wright case proves that Delaware’s death penalty system is just as flawed as any other states’. This was a textbook case of wrongful conviction—no physical evidence, false snitch testimony, a coerced confession that didn’t even line up with the facts of the case, and prosecutorial misconduct. It is time for us to turn our back on this broken system and bring Senate Bill 19 to the House floor for a full debate and vote. We cannot risk executing an innocent person for a crime they did not commit.

Statement by Sherry Dorsey Walker, 6th District Council Member, City of Wilmington and spokesperson for the Delaware Repeal Project

For close to two years now, the coalition partners of Delaware Repeal have been educating the community and engaging in a dialogue about the death penalty in Delaware. The facts are on our side—the death penalty does not deter crime or keep our community safe; it is unfairly applied to poor people, people of color and the mentally ill; it is exorbitantly expensive and wastes state resources; and it risks executing an innocent person.

Until yesterday, the risk of executing an innocent person in Delaware was brushed aside. However, the case of Jermaine Wright proves that Delaware does make mistakes when it comes to the criminal justice system. When dealing with the severity of a death sentence, we cannot afford to make mistakes.

We call on the House of Representatives to bring Senate Bill 19 to the floor for a full debate and vote. We call on the General Assembly and Governor Markell to end Delaware’s flawed death penalty immediately.

Statement by Kristin Froehlich, Board President, Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty:

The members of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty are pleased with the Delaware Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Jermaine Wright’s wrongful conviction and death sentence. We have heard so often from death penalty supporters, “Delaware does it right. Delaware doesn’t make mistakes.” This reversal demonstrates that Delaware’s death penalty process is indeed flawed. The time, money, and financial resources that went into convicting and sentencing Mr. Wright were merely an effort to win a case, not to find the true killer and hold him accountable. This reversal confirms once again that Delaware’s death penalty is ineffective, with more than 1/3 of death sentences in Delaware being reduced or overturned.

Although we are pleased for Mr. Wright and his family, we are mindful of the suffering this decision gives to the family of murder victim Philip Seifert. The legal finality that would allow them some peace has been shattered again. As long as we tell families that the death penalty is going to heal their pain, we are setting them up for more suffering.

We need to be vigilant that we are not convicting the wrong person, both for the sake of the defendant, but also for victims’ families. If we don’t find the real killer, then we also put our communities at risk of more violence.

We ask that the Attorney General not retry this case and instead focus on reducing violent crime in Delaware.

Statement by Kathleen MacRae, Executive Director, ACLU of Delaware:

Delaware must face the fact that the state’s so-called criminal “justice” system is severely and chronically flawed. The case of Jermaine Wright illustrates a failure of justice dating back over 20 years. Prosecutors and police violated the Constitution and ignored evidence in order to close a case and get a win. Mr. Wright’s life has been spared, not because of the system, but in spite of the system. We should be profoundly thankful to the judge and justices who decided to overturn his conviction because of repeated errors and withheld evidence. They have kept us from executing an innocent man.

Unfortunately, the death penalty system is not Delaware’s only problem. Evidence stolen and replaced in the Medical Examiner’s Office has undermined the validity of hundreds of drug convictions. The severe underfunding of the Public Defender’s office has led to thousands of poor Delawareans represented by legal counsel who are spread too thin when facing serious prosecution or not represented at all, in direct violation of their Constitutional rights.

We need to repeal the death penalty in Delaware immediately. We have too many other criminal justice challenges to confront and remedy. We should not be wasting further time, talent and money on continued use of the death penalty in Delaware.

Statement by President Richard Mouse Smith, Delaware State NAACP Conference of Branches

The Delaware State NAACP Conference of Branches has historically opposed the death penalty for a variety of reasons, including racial disparities in how it is applied, which is particularly egregious in Delaware. The fact that Jermaine Wright, a black man with impaired mental capacity, was coerced into a false confession while evidence of other suspects in the crime was suppressed does not surprise us. The fact that a jailhouse snitch was instrumental in securing this conviction does not surprise us. There can be no more excuses. Delaware nearly executed an innocent black man. The NAACP of Delaware demands that Senate Bill 19 be brought to the House floor for an up or down vote in the current session. Any legislator who opposes repeal of the death penalty under these circumstances is risking further miscarriages of justice, and that is simply unacceptable.

Statement by Rev. Dr. Silvester S. Beaman, President, Interdenominational Ministers Action Council

As leaders in the faith community, and particularly in the African American community, the Interdenominational Ministers Action Council (IMAC) stands all too often with the victims of homicide and their families. As we hold them in love and prayer, we express renewed concern at the possibility of wrongful incarceration and execution in Delaware. When the wrong person is held accountable, the guilty remain free to create more victims. IMAC is particularly concerned now that the Delaware Supreme Court has recognized such injustice as to vacate the conviction and death sentence of Jermaine Wright. We urge that the death penalty be removed as a sentencing option so that the only ultimate punishment used in Delaware is that which the vast majority of killers already receive: life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Life imprisonment keeps us safe, it is severe punishment, and if we find that we have made a mistake, we can release an innocent person. One cannot release someone from a grave.

Statement by Rabbi Yair D. Robinson, Congregation Beth Emeth, Wilmington

In light of the Delaware Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in the Jermaine Wright case, we cannot avoid the question: how many innocent people have been executed in our name? Delaware law, despite its attempts at safeguards, cannot guarantee accuracy. Problems of coerced confessions, false witnesses, mishandled physical evidence, and questionable testimony may exist, despite best efforts, compromising truth and justice. Even if more stringent rules of evidence were put in place, the possibility for error remains. The only safeguard against mistaken executions is no executions. It is time to pass Senate Bill 19.

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Wright death sentence overturned

Wright death sentence overturned – 5/21/14 News Journal article by Sean O’Sullivan.

“Wright is not entitled to a perfect trial, but he is entitled to a fair one,” wrote Justice Henry duPont Ridgely for the full court, noting that the state improperly withheld evidence. While each item withheld was comparatively minor, the cumulative effect “creates the reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different … [had] the evidence been disclosed.”

Delaware murder conviction and death sentence overturned

Delaware murder conviction and death sentence overturned

Breaking news: Delaware may join the 26 other states with wrongful death penalty convictions. Originally sentenced in 1992, Jermaine Wright’s conviction and death sentence were overturned today by the Delaware Supreme Court due to prosecutorial misconduct. The A.G.s office is assessing whether to retry the case.