Articles Posted in Delaware Supreme Court

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Curtis White appealed a superior court’s denial of his claim for post-conviction relief under “Strickland,” which contended that White was prejudiced when his trial counsel unreasonably failed to accede to his request to ask for a lesser included offense instruction. In the post-conviction proceeding, trial counsel admitted that he did not understand the lesser included offense of the major charge that his client faced. White was charged with First Degree Reckless Endangering after he fired a gun on a residential block, and asked his counsel to seek a lesser included offense instruction on the crime of Second Degree Reckless Endangering. His counsel did not, believing that: (1) at the very least his client’s use of a gun created a risk of “serious physical injury;” (2) First Degree Reckless Endangering encompassed not just a risk of death, but also a risk of serious physical injury; and (3) therefore he could not seek the lesser included offense instruction. The Delaware Supreme Court determined a reasonable jury could have found White guilty of Second Degree Reckless Endangering because there was evidence that White was not pointing his gun at anyone in particular and was instead aiming blindly behind himself. Thus, there were factual grounds to give the lesser included offense instruction. Because trial counsel conceded he acted without a tactical purpose, and there was no plausible tactical reason for failing to request the instruction, the Supreme Court concluded counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness for purposes of “Strickland.” And because a jury could have concluded that White was guilty of Second Degree Reckless Endangering rather than First Degree Reckless Endangering, there was prejudice under Strickland. For those reasons, the Supreme Court reversed. View "White v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Appellant Prentiss Butcher appealed after he was convicted and sentenced for Possession of a Firearm By a Person Prohibited. At sentencing, the Superior Court held that Butcher had two prior “violent felony” convictions warranting a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence pursuant to Section 1448(e)(1)(c). On appeal, Butcher argued that the Superior Court erred in sentencing him because one of the two predicate offenses was no longer designated a violent felony when he committed Person Prohibited. Thus, this appeal required the Delaware Supreme Court to determine which version of Section 4201(c) controlled when a sentencing court must decide whether a prior conviction constitutes a predicate violent felony for the purpose of enhanced sentencing under Section 1448(e). The Supreme Court concluded a sentencing court must look to the version of Section 4201(c) in effect upon commission of the Section 1448 offense for which a defendant is being sentenced. Because the Superior Court in this case applied a version of Section 4201(c) that was no longer in effect when Butcher violated Section 1448, it vacated the Sentence Order and remanded for resentencing. View "Butcher v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Rule 61 is effectively a “gating mechanism” allowing a superior court to summarily dismiss certain claims. Appellant Cleveland Baldwin appealed a superior court’s summary dismissal of his first timely motion for postconviction relief. The charges against Baldwin that led to the convictions he sought to overturn were based on the allegation that he, along with two other men, assaulted a tenant who supposedly owed Baldwin’s aunt back rent. To wit, the State alleged that Baldwin confronted the victim, complained that he had disrespected his aunt, and pulled a pipe out of his pants and beat him with it. The Superior Court Rule of Criminal Procedure that governs postconviction relief, Rule 61, strikes a balance between fair consideration of postconviction claims and the preservation of scarce defense resources by granting access to counsel for certain first petitions, but also by allowing the superior court to weed out, by summary dismissal, claims that lack colorable merit. Here, the Superior Court used the mechanism of Rule 61 to summarily dismiss all the claims of a first petitioner without appointment of counsel for him, without adversarial briefing, and without any factual record beyond the form petition and trial record. On appeal, the Delaware Supreme Court concluded that the superior court was correct in most of its rulings, but that as to one claim, the superior court erred by not recognizing the potential merits of the claim and appointing counsel for the petitioner to present it in a more adequate way. View "Baldwin v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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The Delaware Supreme Court found that the trial court abused its discretion in this case when it denied defendant Chistopher Clay’s motion for judgment of acquittal on his Tampering with Physical Evidence charge, but rejected his remaining claims. The Court also found the trial court erred by requiring the State to provide a copy of the Department of Justice’s intake document and copies of the prosecutor’s notes under Superior Court Criminal Rule 26.2. Clay appealed after a jury verdict found him guilty of Robbery in the First Degree, Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Felony, Tampering with Physical Evidence, Conspiracy in the Second Degree, and Resisting Arrest. He claimed: (1) the trial court abused its discretion by denying his motion to sever his trial from the trial of his co-defendants; (2) the trial court erred by denying his motion for judgment of acquittal on all charges; and (3) the trial court erred by finding the police possessed a reasonable, articulable suspicion to seize him and probable cause to arrest him. On cross-appeal, the State argued that the Superior Court abused its discretion by requiring the State to provide the defendant with a redacted copy of a Department of Justice intake document and a copy of the prosecutor’s notes from witness interviews under Superior Court Criminal Rule 26.2. View "Clay v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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A 54-count indictment charged Otis Phillips and numerous co-defendants with gang participation and charges associated with the activities of the “Sure Shots” criminal street gang, including three counts of first degree murder and first degree attempted murder. The jury acquitted Phillips on a count of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, but guilty on all other charges. Phillips was sentenced to death for the murder charges, life for second degree murder, and 130 years for the remaining offenses. Phillips appealed, arguing multiple errors at trial warranted reversal of his convictions. After review, the Delaware Supreme Court found Phillips’ death sentence should be vacated, and that he should have been resentenced on his first degree murder charge. The remainder of his arguments were without merit. View "Phillips v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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In 2015 Appellant Gabriel Pardo was convicted of Manslaughter, Leaving the Scene of a Collision Resulting in Death (LSCRD), Reckless Driving, and six counts of Endangering the Welfare of a Child. The charges arose from his involvement in a fatal hit-and-run collision with a bicyclist, Phillip Bishop, in 2014. The principal issue raised in this appeal was whether Pardo’s conviction for LSCRD violated his Due Process rights, as he contends that the LSCRD statute imposes strict liability. Pardo also contended that the Superior Court erred by adding a voluntary intoxication instruction to the pattern jury instruction for manslaughter, by denying his motion for judgment of acquittal, and by denying his request for a missing evidence instruction. The Supreme Court concluded that the statute governing LSCRD did not impose strict liability because it required the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant had knowledge that he or she was involved in a collision. Because the Court found Pardo’s other arguments without merit, it affirmed his conviction and sentence. View "Pardo v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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This appeal addressed the legal issues raised by the second of two criminal trials over a single incident where defendant Djavon Holland allegedly burst into an apartment, brandished a gun, and demanded money. A brawl unfolded in which Holland and the apartment‘s occupants were all injured. Holland was indicted before the first trial for two counts of Assault First Degree along with twelve other related charges. After trial, Holland was acquitted on both of the Assault First Degree counts, but the jury was unable to reach a conclusion on the other charges. The various issues in this appeal stemmed from the State‘s decision to reindict Holland. The second indictment included both the charges on which the first jury hung, and, for the first time, three counts of Attempted Robbery First Degree. After the second trial, the jury convicted Holland of two of the three counts of Attempted Robbery and the majority of the other charges from the second indictment. On appeal, Holland made a series of arguments challenging the new charges in the second indictment, and attacking the second trial as a whole on Sixth Amendment grounds. After review, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed Holland‘s convictions for Attempted Robbery and Home Invasion and the associated counts of Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Felony because the State failed to overcome the presumption of vindictive prosecution. But, because the Court found that his waiver of his right to counsel was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary, and reject his other claims, Holland‘s convictions for Assault Second Degree, the related count of Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Felony, and Criminal Mischief stand. View "Holland v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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In 2001, Luis E. Reyes was convicted of two counts of Murder in the First Degree, two counts of Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Felony, and two counts of Conspiracy in the First Degree in what came to be known as the "Rockford Park Murders." For these crimes, he was sentenced to death, which was affirmed on direct appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court. On March 25, 2004, Reyes filed a timely motion for postconviction relief. Twelve years later, after a lengthy procedural process, during which the trial judge retired and the postconviction proceeding was assigned to his successor, the Superior Court issued an opinion granting Reyes' motion and vacating his convictions and sentences. The Superior Court found that several errors occurred during the guilt phase of Reyes' trial. The Superior Court also found that Reyes' trial attorneys were ineffective for failing to establish that certain testimony was based on hearsay; by failing to calling certain witnesses; failing to request a "missing evidence" jury instruction; and by failing to offer into evidence statements a witness made in an interview with one of Reyes' trial attorneys. In addition, Reyes contends that his trial attorneys were ineffective in ways not ruled upon by the Superior Court. The State claims that the Superior Court committed error in all of its rulings. The State also contended that the other ineffective assistance of counsel claims asserted by Reyes were without merit. After careful consideration of all the issues presented, the Delaware Supreme court concluded the State was correct. The Superior Court's grant of Reyes' postconviction motion was reversed. View "Delaware v. Reyes" on Justia Law

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A grand jury issued a 54 count indictment charging defendant-appellant Otis Phillips, Jeffrey Phillips, and fourteen other co-defendants with gang related crimes relating to criminal activity of the "Sure Shot" street gang. Otis was charged with three counts of first degree murder, first degree attempted murder, gang participation, conspiracy, reckless endangerment, possession of firearms, assault and criminal mischief. The superior court denied severance motions and instead conducted a joint capital trial of Otis and Jeffrey lasting 21 days. The jury acquitted Otis of one possession charge and conspiracy, but convicted on everything else. Otis would later be sentenced to death for the first degree murder charge, life imprisonment plus an additional 130 years for everything else. Otis appealed. Finding that Otis' death sentence had to be vacated, the Supreme Court remanded this case for resentencing on the murder charge only. The Court affirmed the remaining sentences, finding no reversible error in the superior court's judgment. View "Phillips v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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A grand jury issued a 54 count indictment charging defendant-appellant Jeffrey Phillips, Otis Phillips, and fourteen other co-defendants with gang related crimes relating to criminal activity of the "Sure Shot" street gang. Jeffrey was charged with two counts of first degree murder, first degree attempted murder, gang participation, first degree conspiracy, reckless endangerment, possession of firearms, assault and criminal mischief. The superior court denied severance motions and instead conducted a joint capital trial of Otis and Jeffrey lasting 21 days. The jury acquitted Jeffrey of assault and conspiracy charges, but convicted on everything else. Jeffrey would later be sentenced to life imprisonment plus an additional 72 years. Jeffrey appealed. Finding none of Jeffrey's arguments had merit, the Supreme Court affirmed his convictions. View "Phillips v. Delaware" on Justia Law