Wright v. State

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Delaware
Citation91 A.3d 972
Docket Number2013.,No. 423,423
PartiesJermaine WRIGHT, Defendant Below–Appellant, v. STATE of Delaware, Plaintiff Below–Appellee.
Decision Date19 May 2014

91 A.3d 972

Jermaine WRIGHT, Defendant Below–Appellant,
STATE of Delaware, Plaintiff Below–Appellee.

No. 423, 2013.

Supreme Court of Delaware.

Submitted: Feb. 19, 2014.
Decided: May 19, 2014.

[91 A.3d 976]

Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware in and for New Castle County, No. 91004136DI.

Upon appeal from the Superior Court.

Herbert W. Mondros, Esquire, Margolis Edelstein, Wilmington, Delaware, and Claudia Van Wyk, Esquire (argued), Billy Nolas, Esquire, James Moreno, Esquire, and Tracy Ulstad, Esquire, Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for Appellant.

Maria T. Knoll, Esquire (argued) and Gregory E. Smith, Esquire, State of Delaware Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellee.

Before STRINE,* Chief Justice, HOLLAND, BERGER, JACOBS, and RIDGELY, Justices, constituting the Court en Banc.

RIDGELY, Justice:

Defendant–Below/Appellant Jermaine Wright appeals from a Superior Court order denying his fourth motion for postconviction relief and reimposing Wright's conviction and sentence. In 1992, a jury convicted Wright of Murder in the First Degree, Robbery in the First Degree, and related weapons charges in connection with the robbery of the Hi–Way Inn liquor store and murder of the liquor store clerk, Phillip Seifert. Wright was then sentenced to death.

At his 1992 trial, the State did not present any forensic evidence including fingerprints, shoe prints, or fibers placing Wright at the scene. Nor did the State present the murder weapon, shell casings, the getaway car, or eyewitnesses to identify Wright. Instead, a jury convicted Wright on his confession to the police while under the influence of heroin and the testimony (since recanted) of a prison informant who testified that Wright admitted the crime.

In 2012, the Superior Court vacated Wright's conviction and sentence because it had “no confidence in the outcome of the trial.” The Superior Court found that the State suppressed exculpatory evidence of a

[91 A.3d 977]

similar attempted robbery at a nearby liquor store in violation of Brady v. Maryland.2 A Brady violation occurs where the State fails to disclose material evidence that is favorable to the accused, because it is either exculpatory or impeaching, causing prejudice to the defendant.

The attempted robbery took place at the Brandywine Village Liquor Store less than an hour prior to the Hi–Way Inn robbery by suspects matching the same description and using a similar weapon. The Superior Court also found that Wright did not knowingly and intelligently waive his Miranda rights because police obtained his confession through defective warnings. The remaining claims were denied. The State appealed Wright's Brady and Miranda claims. A majority of this Court reversed, ordering Wright's conviction and sentence reimposed, because the Miranda issue was procedurally barred and that, given his confession, the evidence about the Brandywine attempted robbery would not have led to a different result.

After a reinstatement of his conviction and sentence, Wright now appeals the remaining claims originally denied by the Superior Court. He argues that the State suppressed additional material Brady evidence prior to his trial. This evidence includes impeachment evidence related to Gerald Samuels, the prison informant who testified that Wright confessed to the murder, and exculpatory and impeachment evidence related to Kevin Jamison, a witness Wright contended committed the murder.

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. “[W]hen the State withholds from a criminal defendant evidence that is material to his guilt or punishment, it violates his right to due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.” 3 This is exactly what happened here. The cumulative effect of the multiple Brady violations in this case creates a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different if the exculpatory and impeachment evidence had been disclosed. Accordingly, we must reverse Wright's conviction and death sentence and remand for a new trial.

I. Facts4

On the evening of January 14, 1991, Phillip Seifert was murdered at the Hi–Way Inn, a tavern and liquor store located on Governor Printz Boulevard near Wilmington. Debra Milner was working at the bar of the Hi–Way Inn while Seifert was working in the adjacent liquor store. At about 9:20 p.m., Milner saw a black man in his mid-twenties with a round face wearing a red plaid flannel shirt enter the bar, look around, and leave without making a purchase.

At about 10:20 p.m., the liquor store doorbell rang indicating that someone had entered. Seifert went to wait on the customer, and Milner answered the telephone. While she was on the phone, Milner heard the bell ring two more times, followed by a noise that she thought sounded like a firecracker. When Milner walked toward the passageway to the liquor store, she saw Seifert slumped across the counter. She heard a gunshot and saw blood around Seifert. Milner then ran and hid.

Around 10:30 p.m., George Hummell, a customer who stopped at the Hi–Way Inn

[91 A.3d 978]

on his way to work, saw two men leave the liquor store as he was waiting to turn into the parking lot. Hummell observed one of the men, the shorter of the two, return to the store while the other ran across the parking lot. After a short interval, the man who had reentered the liquor store came back outside, ran across the road, and entered a black Volkswagen Rabbit parked in a parking lot across the street from the Hi–Way Inn. The other man ran toward Wilmington on Governor Printz Boulevard and disappeared. According to Hummell, the man who returned to the store and then left by car was black and about five feet eight inches tall. The other man was also black and roughly six feet tall.

Upon entering the Hi–Way Inn, Hummell discovered Seifert sitting on a stool slumped over on the counter in a pool of blood. Hummell ran to a pay phone in the tavern and called 9–1–1. While he was on the phone with the 9–1–1 operator, Milner ran out from the back. Hummell then heard Seifert fall off the stool onto the floor.

Sergeant Gary Kresge of the Delaware State Police was the first officer to arrive at the scene. Inside, Sergeant Kresge saw the cash register in disarray and Seifert lying on his back, bleeding profusely. Paramedics arrived shortly thereafter to render assistance to Seifert, who was still alive. Seifert later died at the hospital. An autopsy revealed that Seifert had been shot three times with a .22 caliber weapon.

The scene investigation found no shell casings or useable prints belonging to the perpetrators. Without any leads, a State Police detective, the Chief Investigative Officer of the Seifert murder, passed out twenty-dollar bills at the Kirkwood Community Center in search of informants. Later, an unknown author passed a handwritten note to a Hi–Way Inn clerk indicating that “Marlo” was somehow involved in the killing.

Based on this anonymous tip, police started to consider Wright, whose middle name and alias is “Marlow,” as a possible suspect. Police obtained an arrest warrant for Wright and a search warrant for his home based on two separate incidents unrelated to the Hi–Way Inn murder in which children in the Riverside area were injured by gunfire. The search warrant did not uncover any physical evidence linked to the Hi–Way Inn murder.

Two weeks after the murder, police arrested Wright based on the Riverside warrant just after 6 a.m. Wilmington Police Detectives started the interrogation of Wright by asking questions related to the Riverside shootings. According to one detective, Wright eventually brought up the Hi–Way Inn murder. Initially, Wright told the detectives that the murder involved someone name “Tee,” who was later identified as Lorinzo Dixon, and another unnamed person. Later, Wright admitted in an unrecorded interview that he was the second, unnamed person and that he was the triggerman. Throughout this interview, Wright appeared erratic, due in part to his usage of heroin during the interrogation that officers failed to discover during the initial processing.

Roughly thirteen hours after his arrest, the Chief Investigative Officer of the Seifert murder, who had been listening to the interrogation, decided to record Wright's statements. On videotape, Wright told the detectives that Dixon had scouted the Hi–Way Inn, determining that it would be an easy target. Wright stated that when the two returned, Dixon ordered Wright to shoot the clerk or else Dixon would kill Wright. But many of the facts recited by Wright did not line up with the evidence. For example, Wright explained that the murder weapon was the .38 caliber handgun

[91 A.3d 979]

that police found at his home even though Seifert was killed by a .22 caliber weapon. The video confession lasted about forty minutes.

Based on this information, police obtained and executed a search warrant for Lorinzo Dixon's apartment. Again police failed to uncover any evidence linking either Dixon or Wright to the crime. State Police also showed a photograph of Dixon to Milner to determine if Dixon was the man in the plaid shirt that came into the tavern before the shooting. Milner did not recognize the photo of Dixon or a photo of Wright. Nor did Hummell identify Dixon or Wright as one of the men he saw leaving the Hi–Way Inn.

II. Procedural History

At Wright's trial, Milner, Hummell, and Sergeant Kresge, the first officer on the scene, testified for the State. The Chief Investigative Officer of the Seifert murder and the two Wilmington Detectives also testified regarding the investigation and Wright's interrogation. Wright's videotaped confession was introduced through the Chief Investigative Officer. The Deputy Chief Medical Examiner testified that Seifert died...

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