May 19, 2022

Milbank Wins Dismissal of Murder Conviction, Freeing Innocent Man After Nearly 16 Years in Prison


On April 28, a Milbank team representing pro bono client Mark Purnell convinced the State of Delaware to dismiss its murder case against him. After spending nearly 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Purnell is finally a free man.

In June 2021, in a 132-page opinion, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed Mr. Purnell’s 2008 murder conviction, concluding that he had shown a strong inference of his “actual innocence” and “spent more than fourteen years in prison for murder based on a manifestly unfair trial and conviction.” Yet, the State decided to retry Mr. Purnell, and the trial court subsequently denied his application for release pending trial. Milbank teamed with the Innocence Project Delaware and the law firm Rigrodsky Law, P.A. to fight for Mr. Purnell’s freedom.

Following the Delaware Supreme Court’s decision, the injustices suffered by Mr. Purnell continued to mount. When the State’s discovery deadline arrived in December 2021, Milbank received only a fraction of the materials to which it was entitled. During a January 2022 conference, the Court ordered the State to promptly comply with its disclosure obligations. In March, and after relentless defense requests, the State produced – for the first time – a 2006 recorded interview of a witness telling the lead case detective that a different suspect had admitted to the murder. This and other key exculpatory Brady evidence, which was provided months after the discovery deadline and never produced before the first trial, underscored the State’s failure to comply with its disclosure obligations.

In late March, Milbank submitted a renewed bail motion and an extensive motion to dismiss, highlighting the State’s numerous disclosure failures and inability to establish even probable cause that Mr. Purnell committed the murder. Days after filing these motions, tragedy struck: Mr. Purnell’s mother was placed on life support. Milbank immediately arranged for an emergency conference to request a one-day furlough for Mr. Purnell to visit his dying mother. The State deferred to the Delaware Department of Correction, which denied his request. On the night of the emergency conference, the State called Milbank and offered to let Mr. Purnell out of prison with a time-served sentence if he agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder. Mr. Purnell held strong, even though it meant he would never see his mother alive again. A few days later, his mother passed away and his request to attend the funeral was denied.

Over the ensuing weeks, Milbank was eagerly waiting for the State’s responses to its motions to dismiss and for bail. On April 28, which was the day before the State’s opposition papers were due, and just a few weeks after the State offered a time-served plea deal, the State dismissed the case outright, stating that it could not “ethically proceed” with Mr. Purnell’s prosecution. Mr. Purnell, who had been detained since January 2007 when he was only 16 years old, was released from prison that evening.

“The dismissal heralds the end to a protracted battle for Mr. Purnell’s freedom,” said Milbank partner Alan Stone. “Despite spending years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Purnell remained steadfast and determined to clear his name. We are thrilled for Mark who is a wonderful person.”

The Milbank team includes Mr. Stone, special counsel Matt Laroche, and associates Will Denker, Marguerite O’Brien, Jordan Fernandes, Barrett Mills and Sandhya Ramaswamy.