Rigrodsky Law, P.A. Client Mark Purnell Is Freed 15 Years After Wrongful Conviction
On Thursday, April 28, 2022, more than 15 years after being convicted of a murder he did not and could not have committed, Rigrodsky Law, P.A. client, Mark Purnell, walked out of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Institution in Smyrna, Delaware, a free man.
In January 2007, Purnell, then 16 years old, was arrested and charged with the 2006 murder of Tamika Giles in Wilmington, Delaware. Purnell proclaimed his innocence. Represented by a state public defender, he was convicted by a jury in April 2008, and sentenced to 45 years imprisonment (release date April 2053). Purnell’s conviction was affirmed on appeal, and his first post-conviction motion was denied by the courts.
Under Delaware law, successive post-conviction motions are procedurally barred unless the defendant can produce new evidence that creates “a strong inference of actual innocence.”
In June 2018, Assistant Delaware Federal Public Defender Tiffani Hurst teamed with Rigrodsky Law’s Herb Mondros and filed a second post-conviction motion on behalf of Purnell. This motion claimed, among other things, that the defense lawyer appointed to represent Purnell at trial was ineffective because of his simultaneous representation of Dawan Harris, a witness against Purnell, and a suspect in Ms. Giles’ murder. The Delaware Superior Court denied Purnell’s claim. Mondros and Hurst appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court.
On June 17, 2022, the Delaware Supreme Court, sitting en banc, issued a 134-page opinion holding that Purnell had provided new evidence that “created a strong inference that he is actually innocent.” The Court stated that “Purnell has spent more than fourteen years in prison for murder based on a manifestly unfair trial and conviction.” The high court found that Purnell’s defense counsel at trial “failed to investigate evidentiary leads implicating Dawan Harris, did not call him as a witness, and failed to present even then-known or obvious evidence and argument to the jury that would have inculpated his former client, and should have been permitted to withdraw from representing Purnell.” The Court also found that the new evidence submitted by Purnell, including new ballistic evidence, the recantation of a key witness, new evidence undermining the testimony of other witnesses and new medical evidence demonstrating that Purnell, who had major invasive knee surgery a week before Ms. Giles’ murder, was not physically able to run from the crime scene as witnesses described at trial, all created a strong inference of Purnell’s actual innocence.
Purnell v. State is the first case in which a Delaware court has found the actual innocence exception to the procedural bar against successive post-conviction motions to be satisfied.
Fourteen years after Mark Purnell was convicted, the high court reversed his conviction and sentence and granted him a new trial.
Given the Supreme Court’s comprehensive indictment of the State’s case against Purnell, it was reasonably expected that the State would choose not to retry him. When the State announced that it would retry Purnell, Rigrodsky Law’s Mondros put together a trial team that included Alan Stone and Matthew Laroche of Milbank, LLP, and Megan Davies of the Innocence Project of Delaware. All counsel represented Purnell pro bono.
The trial team engaged in aggressive discovery, and the State’s case against Purnell soon imploded. After multiple requests, the State produced a videotape in which a witness told police that Dawan Harris had admitted to shooting Ms. Giles and that the witness would testify to that fact. The State, however, had concealed this information from Purnell’s trial counsel, the trial court, and the Supreme Court. This was just one Brady violation uncovered by Purnell’s new trial team. A new ballistics expert hired by the State (after the previous expert, Carl Rone, was convicted of fraud) opined that, contrary to the State’s theory at the first trial, a bullet casing found near the scene was not connected to the crime, and the State’s medical expert conceded he could not testify that Purnell was capable of running from the scene of the crime as the State had alleged at trial.
On March 29, 2022, Purnell filed a motion asking the court to dismiss all charges against him, and a bail motion asserting that the issues raised in the motion to dismiss were so serious that Purnell, who was being held on $1.1 million bail, should be released on bail while the issue was decided. The State responded to the bail motion by arguing that Purnell was “extremely violent,” and could not be released. During this same time, the State also denied Purnell a furlough to visit his mother on her deathbed, and later to attend her funeral, and instead placed Purnell in solitary confinement. While all of this was transpiring, the State, on April 4, 2022, offered Purnell a no contest plea that would have set him free immediately and allowed him to visit his dying mother. Purnell rejected the plea, and days later, the State dismissed all charges against Purnell.
On April 28, 2022, Mark Purnell, who was 16 when he went to prison, walked out of the Vaughn Correctional Institution a free man. He is now 32 years old.
After Purnell’s release, Rigrodsky Law’s Mondros stated: “What happened to Mark Purnell – a poor Black teenager convicted of a crime he did not commit based upon false evidence, coerced witness testimony, and concealed exculpatory evidence – was outrageous, but it was not unusual. It took three people a week to wrongfully convict Mark. But it took teams of lawyers and investigators from the Delaware Federal Public Defender, Rigrodsky Law, Milbank, and the Delaware Innocence Project, more than 15 years to right that wrong. This is not just an isolated issue about Mark Purnell, it is an institutional problem with the Delaware Department of Justice and law enforcement that must be addressed.”