Two capital cases have been overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct in recent weeks: (1) William Ziegler’s case out of Mobile County, Alabama, and (2) Jermaine Wright’s case out of New Castle County, Delaware.
In both cases, prosecutors sought to win capital convictions by sitting on exculpatory evidence that didn’t suit their theories of the crimes.
In Mobile County, William Ziegler was prosecuted for the murder of Russell Allen Baker who was found stabbed to death near Ziegler’s apartment in early 2000. Law enforcement’s tunnel vision during the investigation led police and prosecutors to focus on Ziegler as their prime suspect, while pushing aside and suppressing from the defense evidence that suggested other people may be responsible. AL.com writes:
The prosecution theory was that Ziegler had threatened Baker the previous night. Writing for the appeals court, Judge Liles Burke found that law enforcement authorities never told the defense about witnesses who claimed that the two were not together that evening. Law enforcement authorities also failed to inform defense attorneys about evidence that the body may have been moved in co-defendant James Bennett’s car, a fact that contradicted the prosecution theory, Burke wrote.
“As noted above, the circuit court’s findings that the State suppressed favorable and material evidence are supported by the record,” he wrote. “Furthermore, the circuit court’s application of those findings to the law are correct.
In 2010, the witness who said Ziegler had threatened Baker the night before his death recanted that testimony.
In a 5-0 unanimous ruling, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the findings of Mobile County Circuit Judge Sarah Stewart in 2012 that prosecutors had committed misconduct by violating Brady v. Maryland’s requirement to disclose favorable evidence to the accused. Stewart’s ruling was 210 pages long; you can read it here.
Likewise, in New Castle County, Delaware, Jermaine Wright spent 21 years on death row for a crime he is likely innocent of because prosecutors and police suppressed critically important evidence about possible alternate suspects during Wright’s trial. There is no forensic or eyewitness evidence of any kind tying him to the crime.
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 New Castle County Superior Court found that the confession, which conflicts with the evidence in the case, is not credible. The only other evidence presented to Wright’s jury was the now-discredited testimony of a jailhouse snitch, who had a history of cooperating with the prosecution and falsely told jurors that he had no expectation of favorable treatment in exchange for his testimony when in fact he believed he would receive leniency in sentencing. CNN reports:
Four of Wright’s friends testified that Wright had spent the evening of the crime with them, and eyewitnesses were unable to recognize Wright as one of the men they saw enter the liquor store, but a jury still convicted the then-18-year-old defendant of first degree murder, first degree robbery, and related weapons charges. The conviction was based largely on a videotaped confession given by Wright and the testimony of a surprise witness and fellow prisoner who said that Wright admitted to him that he shot Seifert, court documents said.
… Additional testimony by a trial witness also was called into question, according to court documents. Wright’s attorneys suggested that the witness may have actually committed the crime.
… The Delaware Supreme Court found Monday that the cumulative effect of the suppression of the additional information was enough to vacate Wright’s conviction and death sentence and demand a retrial.
Herbert Montros, attorney for Jermaine Wright, said in a statement issued Monday: “As the Court recognized, the only evidence against Mr. Wright was a false confession, a confession that was ‘inaccurate,’ and squarely contradicted by the facts of the case. The Court further noted that ‘implicit in this search for truth is the need to protect the innocent.’ It would be unconscionable for the state to continue to pursue charges against this wrongfully convicted, innocent man.”
The Delaware Supreme Court’s opinion is available here.