Delaware Supreme Court Grants New Trial to Rigrodsky Law, P.A. Client, Mark Purnell, Finding He “Spent More Than Fourteen Years in Prison for Murder Based on a Manifestly Unfair Trial and Conviction”
On June 17, 2021, the en banc Delaware Supreme Court issued its opinion in Purnell v. State, Case No. 113, 2020, holding that Mark Purnell of Wilmington, Delaware had presented new evidence creating a strong inference that he was actually innocent of the charges for which he has spent more than fourteen years in prison.
The case stemmed from a January 2006 robbery and shooting of Tameka Giles in downtown Wilmington. The only eyewitness to the shooting did not identify Mr. Purnell as being present at the scene and told police that she saw two people running from the scene at full speed immediately after a single gunshot was fired. One week prior to this incident, Mr. Purnell had undergone knee surgery, and multiple witnesses and doctors confirmed that he could walk only with the assistance of crutches. Despite the absence of any eyewitness or physical or forensic evidence linking Mr. Purnell to the crime, a jury convicted him of Ms. Giles’ murder, and the Court sentenced Mr. Purnell, then eighteen years old, to a term of no less than forty-five years imprisonment. Mr. Purnell’s conviction was affirmed on direct appeal and his first motion for post-conviction relief was denied.
A successive motion for post-conviction relief is procedurally barred under the 2014 version of the Delaware Criminal Rules of Procedure, unless the petitioner can present with particularity new evidence that creates a strong inference that he is actually innocent of the charges, and that the new evidence will probably change the result if a new trial were granted. The high Court stated: “In this extraordinary case, we find that Mr. Purnell has made just such a showing.”
In vacating Mr. Purnell’s conviction and sentence, the Supreme Court cited a litany of improper police and prosecutorial conduct that the State had used to secure Mr. Purnell’s conviction, including lying to multiple witnesses, threatening them with the death penalty if they did not implicate Mr. Purnell, and interrogating one cognitively impaired witness for more than eleven hours while he remained handcuffed to a chair in the interrogation room.
The Court also ruled that Mr. Purnell’s defense attorney during his 2008 trial was impermissibly conflicted from representing Mr. Purnell due to counsel’s prior representation of a witness against Purnell in the same case. Defense counsel’s motion to withdraw was denied by the trial judge. As a result of that conflict, defense counsel could not, and did not, present evidence or pursue a theory of defense that pointed toward his former client as the true perpetrator.
The Court ruled that new evidence presented by Mr. Purnell more than a decade after he was convicted creates a strong inference that he is actually innocent of the crime and that evidence would probably change the result if a new trial was granted.
Justice Karen Valihura, writing for a majority of the Court, wrote: “Because Purnell has spent more than fourteen years in prison for murder based on a manifestly unfair trial and conviction, and based on his new evidence, viewed as a part of the entire evidentiary record, we are convinced that in this extraordinary case remand for an evidentiary hearing would serve no useful purpose. Instead, we reverse and remand for a new trial.”
Purnell v. State is the first case in which the Delaware Supreme Court has found the actual innocence exception to the bar against successive post-conviction motions to apply. “Although findings of actual innocence are reserved for the “rare” or “extraordinary” case, . . . we believe this is such a case.”
Mark Purnell was seventeen years old when he went to prison. He is now thirty-two. The State has not yet commented on whether it will seek to re-try Mr. Purnell.
Mark Purnell was represented by Herb Mondros of Rigrodsky Law, P.A., and Tiffani Hurst of Hurst Legal Services.