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

Bryan Stevenson event on 12/15 in lieu of monthly meeting

Due to our monthly meeting date falling during Christmas week, we encourage attendance instead at this event on Monday, December 15 at the World Cafe Live at the Queen. Delaware’s own Bryan Stevenson, attorney and founder of Equal Justice Initiative, will give a presentation with Q&A, followed by signing of his new book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and redemption. 5-7pm. Free to the public. Please spread the word.


The Death Penalty in the USA

The Death Penalty in the USA

This post by is filled with simple and informative graphics on the Death Penalty in the USA. The graphics include data regarding:

  • countries and states with the most executions,
  • methods of execution,
  • statistics on race, “the single-most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death,”
  • wrongful convictions and reasons for them,
  • and public opinion about alternatives to the death penalty.

Death Penalty Infographic

The Death Penalty in the USA. Produced from

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.


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.”

Rep. Darryl Scott responds to reversal of Jermaine Wright’s conviction and death sentence

Delaware State Rep. Darryl Scott, House sponsor of SB19 to repeal Delaware’s death penalty, responds to the Delaware Supreme Court’s reversal of Jermaine Wright’s conviction and death sentence.

I issued the following statement today in response to Monday’s decision by the Delaware Supreme Court to reverse the murder conviction and death sentence of Jermaine M. Wright.

This decision from the Delaware Supreme Court highlights an important flaw in our criminal justice system, one even the best systems possess: No criminal justice system is perfect. No criminal justice system is infallible. It is possible, even in cases that receive as much scrutiny and have the highest burden of proof, that mistakes can be made.

We must remember that justice does not only mean convicting those who are guilty, but also acquitting the innocent and ensuring that all receive a fair trial. If we cannot guarantee that, how can we take a person’s life?

Since we introduced Senate Bill 19 last year, opponents have said that we do not need to repeal the death penalty in Delaware in part because we do not have the problems other states have had and we haven’t exonerated a man sentenced to death row like Maryland. Now we have evidence that a Delaware jury convicted and a judge sentenced Jermaine Wright to death in a case where the prosecution withheld evidence that would have had a material impact on the outcome of the trial. Had the Supreme Court not reversed Wright’s conviction, Delaware might very well have sent a man unfairly convicted to his death.

When do we as a society have enough evidence that this is an inherently flawed system? When we actually execute an innocent person? Smart government is legislating to prevent tragedies like this, not waiting for one to happen and then passing a law to fix it. We have an opportunity to prevent this type of error from ever occurring again by bringing SB 19 to the House floor for a vote to repeal the death penalty.

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.

Comment on 4/6/14 Death Row Stories episode by Richard Kiger

Tonight’s episode of the series questioning how some people ended up on death row was about a man named John Thompson who was convicted of murder in 1985. The treatment of his connection to the murder of a young man was a little on the thin side. That’s not the point. The problem examined, once again, was government misconduct. In this case, Thompson was convicted of two crimes, one involving a car-jacking with people in the car and the other a murder. It was important to the prosecution case to go to trial first on the car-jacking and get a conviction because that conviction could then be used against Thompson in the murder trial, to show that he had a record. The conviction effectively prevented Thompson from taking the witness stand in his own behalf because the conviction could be used against him. As I remember the description of Thompson, he did not have a record otherwise.

There was evidence collected at the scene of the car-jacking indicating that the person responsible was injured and his blood ended up on the clothing of the victims. The clothing disappeared and the blood test performed on it was not revealed to the defense. When this aspect of the case was investigated years later, it turned out that the presumed criminal had a different blood type from Thompson. If the police theory is correct that the blood on the victim’s clothing was that of the car jacker, this would exonerate Thompson. The government’s explanation of its treatment of evidence is not credible, leaving one to infer that it was not in the prosecution’s interest to tell the defense it had good reason to believe Thompson was innocent. Of course, this is not what was said, but that is, I suggest, a reasonable interpretation of the evidence set forth in the show. There was also a question of the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

The murder case was built upon the car jacking case, so its foundation was shaky at best. It turns out that the star witness was paid $10,000 to testify against Thompson. There was a reduced sentence deal in this trial also. None of this was revealed until Thompson had been in jail for many years. Eventually, the convictions were vacated and after some indecision on the part of the prosecution, Thompson had a new trial on the murder charge and was not convicted. Because he was, for all intents and purposes framed by the government, as presented in this show, he sued the authorities involved and received a judgement of $14,000,000. This was appealed and reversed in a decision by the United States Supreme Court. The 5-4 decision was written by Justice Thomas.

What I’ve said up to now raises many questions. Here are a few that jump out.

Who has $10,000 to buy a witness’s testimony? We’re all familiar with plea deals, but who has that kind of money to give someone? That is, where did it come from? If the government itself, where does the paper trail lead and why were we not told that someone has been prosecuted? I assume we were not told about a prosecution because no one was prosecuted. Surely, this is not a legitimate governmental use of public money, so what about a prosecution of any government officials involved in this transfer of funds? If it was private money, wouldn’t that qualify as corruption, obstruction of justice, if you will? Suborning perjury? Maybe misprision of a felony (perjury)? Again, where’s the prosecution? Surely, even in Louisiana this must be wrong, mustn’t it?

Also, supposedly one of the goals of any justice system is to punish those who commit crimes, especially violent crimes with victims. Does anyone care that an innocent person was convicted and lost many years of his life in a jail cell instead of being with his family, and the person who committed the crime was free to commit more crimes if he chose? The law enforcement personnel in these shows never seem to care about these things, and I don’t have the impression (I may be wrong) that the show is trying to paint them in a bad light in these instances.

Next, why should we respect the rulings of the United States Supreme Court? That’s not a rhetorical question. Brady v. Maryland was decided in 1963. The murder case under discussion was tried in1985. That’s over two decades when lawyers are supposed to know that exculpatory or potentially exculpatory evidence has to be revealed to the defense. Put aside for the moment the payment of money to suborn perjury and just look at the Brady material. Maybe there is an important decision to be made at times as to whether evidence is exculpatory. I don’t think that was the case here or in some of the other shows we have seen in this series. No one gives a damn about complying with the ruling in Brady, apparently, and it seems as though we hear next to nothing about this attitude. Why should ordinary members of the public respect the rulings of the United States Supreme Court when it is obvious that there are law enforcement personnel, some of them lawyers, who must not respect the rulings because they do not obey them.

There is a part of this evening’s show that strikes me as poorly handled or perhaps just disingenuous. Prosecutors were asked about the guidance they received in the office for situations such as those involving Brady material. They said that there was no intention to share anything more than could not be avoided and handbooks were incorrect in setting forth standards. Well, so what? Handbooks are there for the use of those who need guidance in such matters. We are talking about lawyers, I assume members of the Bar in Louisiana, who ought to know what the Supreme Court has said about the conduct of the cases they handle. It is pathetic to hear Harry Connick, Sr. say that he hasn’t opened a law book since law school. That by itself probably tells you everything you need to know about the justice system in New Orleans if not all of Louisiana. What about the younger prosecutors who came into the office as the years passed? Should we really believe they knew nothing of something covered in basic criminal procedure courses in law school? For that matter, if I remember correctly, Connick was the DA from about 1972 to 2003, so it is not clear from this information when he was graduated from law school (or where he went to school, not that the school should make a difference as long as it was an ABA accredited school), but is it too much to ask that he be familiar with a critical element of law enforcement that had been the law of the land for about 10 years when he became DA? In other words, it sounds like he was never worthy of the job from the time he took office until he left. That statement is based on his words, and is not merely a personal opinion on my part.

A well-known retired Superior Court judge in Delaware told the lawyers in a case he was hearing before his retirement that he kept up with changes in the law by reading Readers Digest. I was told that by one of the lawyers in the pretrial conference who heard him say it. I do not practice criminal law, but I have been a faithful watcher of Law & Order for many years.

You see, there really are ways to find out about developments in the law that took place in the ancient days of 1963.

Aside from an innocent person or someone wrongfully convicted going free occasionally, is there ever any reason to pay attention to Brady? For most of us, that is a rhetorical question and the answer is that we have a personal code of ethics that demands we try to do our jobs properly. By now, we all know of too many instances when Brady material is not made available to the defense, and so we must conclude that there are prosecutors who do not intend to obey the law. How can we respect the law when we know there are people entrusted with its enforcement who do not obey the law? To be vulgar about it, is there ever an episode of the new Hawaii 50 where the perp should not go free because of egregious police misconduct in handling the case?

Something I wonder about a lot is the Wong Sun doctrine. This is sometimes referred to on tv shows as the “fruit of the poisoned tree” doctrine. Briefly, if you break the law to gain evidence and this results in finding evidence of criminal conduct on the part of the person being investigated, it cannot be used against that person because of the way the evidence was obtained. It makes sense and it seems right, but does anyone really abide by it?

Step back from these situations and look at the big picture. There are a lot, a very large number, of police officers and prosecutors who are dedicated to doing their jobs lawfully and well, and they deserve the respect and gratitude of all citizens. The people in law enforcement who do not obey the law stand out from the others because their behavior is so unacceptable and offensive. I really do not believe they are in the majority. The problem is, how are we to know who is a bad apple? Eventually, it will come out, but knowing that it may take a long time, perhaps years or even decades, how can we afford to have a death penalty that may lead to the executions of innocent people? It’s bad enough that an innocent person may spend years in jail, but there can be release and perhaps even a monetary reward that will never make amends. You can’t say that with the death penalty.

The 5-4 decision to prevent Thompson from receiving compensation for his years in jail may be rightly decided. I haven’t had a chance to read it and so I don’t have an opinion. As presented in this show, it is unsupportable. My own bias may come into play here. I’ve never had a good opinion of the author. As you may recall, when Justice O’Connor was still on the Court he took a position that there was nothing wrong with prison guards beating up prisoners. Justice O’Connor and others wrote that this behavior could be described as “cruel and unusual punishment.” There’s no way we can get more information out of one of the people responsible for putting him on the Court, the one who advocated the single bullet theory unless he left diaries or letters that have yet to see the light of day. There is, of course, someone still alive who had a role in this appointment, but how can you know what to believe when he talks about his career? That’s rhetorical, too.

Perhaps the big lesson we can take from the cases aired on this show is that government misconduct that can lead to the imprisonment or even deaths of persons charged with crimes they did not commit is not restricted to one geographic area. It does, however, appear to happen a lot to those unable to afford a good defense. Thompson, tonight, did not even know his own blood type, which strikes me as evidence of socioeconomic disadvantage during most or all of his life. Would someone differently situated have ended up on death row? That’s a fair question and I’m not sure there is a really good answer, although I suspect the correct answer is “no”. Is there any wonder that many people distrust law enforcement? That is not healthy for any segment of society.

This show is now on hiatus, returning in the summer with new episodes. It will be interesting to see if it continues to present thought provoking stories.

Interdenominational Ministers Action Council calls for repeal of Delaware’s death penalty

ImageRev. Lawrence Michael Livingston outlines IMAC’s support of Senate Bill 19, the bill calling for repeal of Delaware’s death penalty. He cites bias, harm to families, risk of executing an innocent, and morality as reasons Delaware legislators should repeal the death penalty and replace it with life without parole. Check out the article that appeared 3/30/14 in the News Journal.

“The Exonerated” Reception with Witness to Innocence Death Row Exonerees

It was a wonderful evening at “The Exonerated” play Friday night at The Delaware Theater Company. Exonerees and staffers from Witness to Innocence joined members of the Delaware Repeal Project, Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty, the Delaware Center for Justice, the ACLU, the Campaign to Repeal the Death Penalty, Because Love Allows Compassion, local legislators, and members of the public. Check out for ways to get involved to abolish Delaware’s death penalty. Check out to read more about the exonerees.
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