By Amelia Rodriguez, with research by Joyce L. Carroll
For every nine people executed in the United States, one on death row has been proven innocent and released. Every day, Jermaine Marlow Wright counts his blessings that he was not one of the nine.
At 18, Wright, of Wilmington, was the youngest person on death row in Delaware’s prison system. He would also be its longest inhabitant, spending 20 years in solitary confinement following his 1992 murder conviction. During that time, he watched as 15 fellow inmates walked to the death chamber, he told CNN’s Death Row Stories in 2020.
Wright’s case “was wrought with prosecutorial and police misconduct,” says attorney James Moreno, a member of Wright’s defense team since 2009. When new evidence came to light in 2013, Moreno requested a retrial and argued to suppress Wright’s ’92 confession tape, which had been filmed while Wright was under the influence of drugs. It had been the prosecution’s sole evidence. In 2015, Superior Court Judge John Parkins Jr. ruled Wright’s confession inadmissible. Wright’s charges were dismissed, and he walked free for the first time in two decades.
But just 10 months later, in 2016, prosecutors successfully reinstated the confession as evidence, and a new trial was scheduled. While that year saw the repeal of Delaware’s death penalty, concern that a new jury would send him back to prison resulted in a difficult and bittersweet decision for Wright. Shortly before trial, he agreed to a no-contest plea deal. The offer, Moreno explains, is a prosecutorial tool often used when a state doesn’t want to admit wrongdoing.
“A lot of innocent people leave prison this way and are saddled with the disabilities of a felony conviction despite their innocence,” Moreno says.
It was cases like Wright’s that led attorney Megan Davies to her current role as the executive director of the Delaware Innocence Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit housed at the Delaware Law School at Widener University. Davies started out in nonprofit work in her native New Jersey and pursued a law degree in order to move up in the organization, only to fall in love with criminal defense work. From the beginning of her career as a practicing attorney, “I started to see repetitive conduct that had a negative impact on our criminal justice system,” Davies says. “It gave me concerns about how investigations were being conducted and how people were being overly charged. I wanted to advocate for corrections [to the system] because I have had clients who were innocent of their charges.”
Delaware Innocence Project was founded in 2018, but Davies’ position was created only last year, following the organization’s receipt of two federal grants totaling $500,000. Musician, youth advocate program director and Innocence Project board member Ian Smith recalls his role in the search for an executive director.
“All of the people that applied—all innocence projects need people like that,” he points out. “But [Davies] stood out to us as being someone that could have the excitement, energy and knowledge to move us onto the next big stage.”
Among those next steps is membership to the wider Innocence Network, an umbrella organization overseeing and aiding nearly 70 innocence work–focused organizations throughout the world. The network provides the support innocence projects need to free clients who have been wrongly convicted.
“We document the role of professional exonerators, including projects,” explains Barbara O’Brien, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. “What we see is proportional. Sixty-nine of 149 exonerations in 2019 had the involvement of an innocence organization. There are so many hurdles a convicted [individual] needs to overcome. Without resources, it’s almost impossible.”
Successful applicants to the network “have good infrastructure in place to manage our cases,” Davies explains, including “structural and ethical criteria” that allow them to effectively screen for cases of actual innocence. Davies has worked on developing that criteria based on perspective gleaned from jail visits, trainings and community outreach. The organization recently hired an in-house investigator to uncover the new evidence that is generally needed to bring cases back into court. They have also formed partnerships with Delaware law firms who offer pro bono law counsel to the project and their clients.
Widener provides aid in the form of office space, administrative support and a cohort of student volunteers. Admission to serve in the Delaware Innocence clinic is ultra-selective, Davies explains, so the three students chosen have the opportunity to be deeply hands-on as they assist with investigations and case management.
“They have a lot of passion and a lot of energy,” Davies says. “They’re not jaded or worn down. They’re eager and will work incredibly hard on a case, so it’s great to have them, and they’re also going to go out into the world and hopefully help change it.”
Changing the world—and the system—doesn’t happen only at the level of individual cases. That’s why the Delaware Innocence Project’s other main task is to advocate for legislative reform. “Unfortunately, Delaware is rather behind a lot of other states who have taken positive and affirmative steps in dealing with criminal justice reform and protecting against wrongful convictions,” Davies explains.
Though the Delaware Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in 2016, citing its unconstitutionality, the Egregious Crimes Accountability Act (HB299) was introduced in the state last year. The bill, which would situationally reinstate the death penalty, remained with the judiciary committee at the close of the legislative session in July 2020.
“A lot of innocent people leave prison called with the disabilities of a felony conviction despite their innocence.” -Attorney James Moreno
Perhaps the greatest setback is the state’s stalled compensation bill for the wrongfully convicted. Delaware is one of just 17 states that does not provide restitution. House Bill 196, sponsored by Rep. Sean Lynn, moved out of committee in February 2019 with bipartisan support but never made it to the house floor. It’s anticipated the bill will be reintroduced this year. As it stood, it would have provided $50,000 in compensation for each year of wrongful imprisonment. The monetary amount is consistent with federal recommendations established in 2004 by former President George W. Bush. Still, it lags behind a number of states that not only offer funds but also other forms of assistance ranging from tuition, job search and housing assistance to coverage for medical expenses and counseling services. Additionally, an award stipulation requires exoneration based upon new evidence, so Delawareans exonerated on other criteria may miss out on compensation.
Recent victories include a 2018 upgrade to the state’s interrogation policy requiring start-to-finish recording. In 2019, the Delaware Police Chiefs Council and the Delaware Attorney General’s office opted to tighten procedures pertaining to eyewitness identification, a move that is particularly key in light of known issues with eyewitness testimony.
“Scientifically, it’s incredibly difficult to be sure of someone that you haven’t seen before and describe that person accurately. Yet that evidence is powerful at trial,” Davies notes.
The Delaware Innocence Project looks forward to having access to the Innocence Network’s resources and campaigns to help them continue their reform work. “[We need] better recordings and evidence preservation and understanding of bad science that’s been relied on in the past…more informed juries and better jury instructions and laws on these topics,” Davies asserts. “The goal is to not have anyone [be wrongfully convicted] to begin with.”
These efforts to enact change come at a moment when racial justice and criminal law reform are the forefront of the national conversation. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people. Moreover, a Black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is 3.5 times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault perpetrator. The major cause of the latter miscarriage of justice is misidentification of Black defendants by white victims.
“I’m a 44-year-old Black man who is in a room with mostly non–African Americans,” board member Smith says. “I feel I’m closer to the people that [false convictions] may happen to. So it makes me feel good to be in the room with people who are passionate about fixing this.”
Davies’ own passion shines through as she speaks about the organization’s goals. “We want people in Delaware to know that we’re here and we want to help,” she says. She also hopes that the project’s presence generates broader support for structural change. “We want the community to understand. We want to see some excitement,” she enthuses, adding, “People shouldn’t hide behind a love of a system. I love it—it’s beautiful—but it’s broken.”