Articles Posted in Delaware Supreme Court

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David Buckham was convicted at trial of assault in the first degree and related charges in connection with a shooting. His appeal presented two questions of criminal procedure for the Delaware Supreme Court’s consideration: (1) the propriety of the trial court’s decision to call a recess at the State’s request so that one of the State’s witnesses, who was in the middle of testifying (and in the middle of recanting a statement he had given to investigators before trial) could consult with his lawyer; and (2) whether it was plain error for the trial court to uphold a warrant that authorized a search of “[a]ny and all store[d] data” on Buckham’s cell phone for any evidence of any kind that might link him to the shooting. Buckham was forbidden by the trial court from cross-examining the witness about what transpired during the consultation. He argued it was reversible error to allow it and a violation of his confrontation rights to bar him from cross-examining the witness about it. The trial court sustained the warrant despite recognizing that the only nexus the warrant application established between his phone and the shooting was that the phone might have contained GPS data that might have been useful to investigators. The search instead turned up some arguably incriminating Facebook messages Buckham contended should have been suppressed. The Supreme Court agreed the trial court’s decision to allow the State’s witness a midtestimony consultation with counsel was reversible error, and that the decision to uphold the warrant and admit the Facebook messages was plain error. The Court therefore reversed Buckham’s convictions and remanded for a new trial. View "Buckham v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Appellant Christopher Rivers was convicted by jury trial on two counts of Murder in the First Degree, two Counts of Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Felony, Conspiracy in the First Degree, and Criminal Solicitation in the First Degree. He appealed, arguing: (1) the trial court’s denial of his motion for a change of venue from New Castle County to either Kent or Sussex County prevented him from receiving a fair and impartial jury trial because of highly inflammatory and sensationalized media coverage and the New Castle County public’s reaction to it; and (2) the trial court abused its discretion by admitting into evidence co-defendants’ statements made after the murders were committed pursuant to the co-conspirator hearsay exception under Delaware Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2)(E). Finding no merit to either claim, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed. View "Rivers v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Appellant Christopher Rivers was convicted by jury trial on two counts of Murder in the First Degree, two Counts of Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Felony, Conspiracy in the First Degree, and Criminal Solicitation in the First Degree. He appealed, arguing: (1) the trial court’s denial of his motion for a change of venue from New Castle County to either Kent or Sussex County prevented him from receiving a fair and impartial jury trial because of highly inflammatory and sensationalized media coverage and the New Castle County public’s reaction to it; and (2) the trial court abused its discretion by admitting into evidence co-defendants’ statements made after the murders were committed pursuant to the co-conspirator hearsay exception under Delaware Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2)(E). Finding no merit to either claim, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed. View "Rivers v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Two 16-year-old high school students got into a shouting match in the girls' bathroom. Things turned physical when Tracy Cannon threw Alcee Johnson-Franklin to the ground and started throwing punches. Alcee tried to protect herself from the blows, and the two ended up on the floor of the bathroom, grappling and kicking at each other. It was over in less than a minute, but within two hours of the assault, Alcee was pronounced dead, not from blunt-force trauma, but from a rare heart condition that even Alcee did not know she had. This tragic result prompted the State to charge Tracy with criminally negligent homicide, and, after a five-day bench trial in Family Court, she was adjudicated delinquent. Tracy appealed, arguing no reasonable factfinder could have found that she acted with criminal negligence or, even if she did, that it would be just to blame her for Alcee’s death given how unforeseeable it was that her attack would cause a 16-year-old to die from cardiac arrest. The Delaware Supreme Court agreed: a defendant cannot be held responsible for criminally negligent homicide unless there was a risk of death of such a nature and degree that her failure to see it was a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would have understood, and no reasonable factfinder could conclude that Tracy’s attack - which inflicted only minor physical injuries - posed a risk of death so great that Tracy was grossly deviant for not recognizing it. View "Cannon v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Defendant Darius Harden argued he suffered prejudice because his attorney did not represent him effectively at his sentencing hearing. As originally charged, Harden faced potential convictions for Home Invasion, Assault Second Degree, Terroristic Threatening, Theft, Offensive Touching, and Endangering the Welfare of a Child. Eventually, he pled guilty to Assault Second Degree and Endangering the Welfare of a Child, and the State agreed to cap its sentencing recommendation to 15 years. This agreement was important because Harden, due to his habitual offender status, faced a potential maximum sentence of life imprisonment for the crimes to which he pled guilty. Before his sentencing hearing, Harden’s trial counsel from the Public Defender’s Office changed jobs. Rather than seek a continuance to prepare for sentencing with Harden and develop a sound strategy, Harden’s new sentencing counsel proceeded to the sentencing hearing after, at best, a fleeting discussion with Harden on the day of the hearing either in lock-up or in the courtroom itself. Sentencing counsel did not prepare Harden for allocution or make any effort to discuss with him whether there was mitigating evidence that might support a more lenient sentence. Instead, Harden’s new counsel acted on the supposed strategy of seeking less than the 15 years that the State agreed not to exceed in its recommendation. Harden did not appeal his conviction. After his pro se motion for a sentence reduction was denied, Harden brought a Rule 61 petition alleging that his counsel’s performance in the sentencing phase was ineffective and prejudiced him. In addressing Harden’s petition, the Superior Court assumed that Harden’s counsel had performed unreasonably, but held that there was no prejudice because the record supporting a sentence of 18 years was so strong. The Delaware Supreme Court reversed: “When a defendant’s counsel fails to prepare himself or his client, and the sentencing decision itself reflects the negative effects of that failure, prejudice under Strickland [v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)] exists. For these reasons, we reverse and remand for resentencing before a different judge.” View "Harden v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Prior to “Rauf v. Delaware,” Craig Zebroski was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. After the Delaware Supreme Court held in “Powell v. Delaware” that Rauf was retroactive, his death sentence was vacated and he was resentenced to a mandatory term of life without parole. Zebroski contended that this sentence was unconstitutional in light of both Rauf and the United States Constitution. He contended Rauf invalidated not just Delaware’s capital sentencing scheme, but all of 11 Del. C. 4209, the statute that specifies the penalties for first-degree murder, which was where the capital sentencing procedures are codified. Under Zebroski’s reading, Rauf invalidated the entirety of section 4209, and thus the statute’s life-without-parole alternative could not be enforced and he should have instead been sentenced to the residual punishment prescribed by statute for all other class A felonies: a term of years ranging from fifteen years to life. In the alternative, Zebroski argued if Rauf did not strike down all of section 4209, it should have, because the life-without-parole alternative was not severable from the rest of the statute. The Delaware Supreme Court held Rauf did not invalidate the entirety of section 4209, and, as the Court held in Powell, the statute’s life-without-parole alternative was the correct sentence to impose on a defendant whose death sentence is vacated. And the Court found no constitutional fault in imposing that sentence on him. View "Zebroski v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Prior to “Rauf v. Delaware,” Craig Zebroski was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. After the Delaware Supreme Court held in “Powell v. Delaware” that Rauf was retroactive, his death sentence was vacated and he was resentenced to a mandatory term of life without parole. Zebroski contended that this sentence was unconstitutional in light of both Rauf and the United States Constitution. He contended Rauf invalidated not just Delaware’s capital sentencing scheme, but all of 11 Del. C. 4209, the statute that specifies the penalties for first-degree murder, which was where the capital sentencing procedures are codified. Under Zebroski’s reading, Rauf invalidated the entirety of section 4209, and thus the statute’s life-without-parole alternative could not be enforced and he should have instead been sentenced to the residual punishment prescribed by statute for all other class A felonies: a term of years ranging from fifteen years to life. In the alternative, Zebroski argued if Rauf did not strike down all of section 4209, it should have, because the life-without-parole alternative was not severable from the rest of the statute. The Delaware Supreme Court held Rauf did not invalidate the entirety of section 4209, and, as the Court held in Powell, the statute’s life-without-parole alternative was the correct sentence to impose on a defendant whose death sentence is vacated. And the Court found no constitutional fault in imposing that sentence on him. View "Zebroski v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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The State appealed the Superior Court’s dismissal of an indictment under Superior Court Criminal Rule 48(b) for unnecessary delay in bringing the defendant to trial. The Superior Court relied upon Delaware v. Pruitt, 805 A.2d 177 (Del. 2002) in deciding to dismiss the indictment. After review, the Delaware Supreme Court found that "Pruitt" was distinguishable and that dismissal of this case was made in error. View "Delaware v. Hazelton" on Justia Law

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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