Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Delaware Supreme Court
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After arresting Aaron Garnett in whose care were three young children, the police promptly sought to locate the children’s parent or guardian. This search, initiated before sunrise on a cold and rainy day, led the police to a house where they were told the children’s mother lived and was sleeping. Once there, the police knocked, then banged, on the front door and loudly announced their presence. When no one answered, one of the officers went to the rear of the house where, after another round of knocking and announcing, the officer noticed the back door was unlocked. He pushed open the unlocked door and, peering into the interior of the residence with the benefit of a flashlight, saw a motionless body under a blanket at the foot of a stairway. Joined now by fellow officers, he entered the residence and found the lifeless body of Naquita Hill, the mother of one of the children whose welfare had motivated the police’s visit. Seven or so hours later, Garnett confessed that, during a heated argument, he had choked Hill until she slumped to the floor and beat her with his fist after that. After a jury trial, Garnett was convicted of Naquita Hill’s murder. He appealed, but the Delaware Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed Garnett's conviction. View "Garnett v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Shamayah Thomas (“Thomas”) was convicted after a bench trial of Stalking and related acts of intimidation and harassment. Before his bench trial, Thomas filed a pro se Motion to Dismiss Current Counsel and/or to Appoint New Counsel on grounds that his then-current counsel was not following his instructions regarding his pretrial defense (the “First Motion to Dismiss Current Counsel”). Also before trial, Thomas’ counsel filed a motion to suppress digital evidence (the “Motion to Suppress”) collected from Thomas’s pink iPhone (“Pink iPhone”), alleging that law enforcement seized the phone without a warrant and, alternatively, that the search warrant issued following the seizure of the Pink iPhone (“Search Warrant”) was constitutionally defective. The trial court denied Thomas’ motion for new counsel pursuant to Superior Court Rule 47; the court granted in part, and denied in part, the Motion to Suppress, ultimately admitting certain evidence extracted from the Pink iPhone. After trial, but before his sentencing, Thomas filed a second motion to dismiss current counsel and/or appoint new counsel. Although the Superior Court prothonotary’s office failed to direct the second motion to dismiss counsel to defense counsel or to the trial judge, the trial court addressed the motion at Thomas’ sentencing hearing. Given the option of either delaying sentencing and proceeding pro se, or proceeding with his then-current counsel, Thomas chose to proceed with sentencing as scheduled, represented by his then-current counsel. On appeal, Thomas argued the Superior Court: (1) erred when it categorized the Pink iPhone Search Warrant as an overbroad warrant as opposed to an unconstitutional general warrant; and (2) failed to adequately address Thomas’ Motions to Dismiss Counsel. Thomas asked the Delaware Supreme Court to reverse his convictions and remand for a new trial. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court. View "Thomas v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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In 2013, defendant-appellant Darnell Martin received an unconditional gubernatorial pardon for his previous criminal convictions, which included several felony convictions. Several years later, Martin was arrested and charged with new offenses. After his convictions for those charges were affirmed on direct appeal, he filed a motion for postconviction relief, arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective. More than two years passed as the parties briefed Martin’s motion and the trial court considered it. During that time, Martin served his prison sentence and his term of probation. He was discharged from probation while the postconviction motion was under advisement with the Superior Court. After Martin’s probation was discharged, the Superior Court dismissed his postconviction motion as moot, concluding that he no longer was “in custody” as required by Rule 61(a) and, given his extensive criminal history, he would not suffer any collateral consequences as a result of the convictions he was challenging. When the Superior Court dismissed the motion, it was not aware that Martin’s previous convictions had been pardoned. Martin appealed, and the Delaware Supreme Court remanded to the Superior Court to further consider the effect of Martin’s pardon, including whether a pardoned defendant suffers collateral consequences in the same manner as a first-time felon and therefore should not have his postconviction motion mooted if he is released from custody before the motion is resolved. The Superior Court concluded the collateral consequences doctrine, which the Supreme Court adopted more than 50 years ago based on United States Supreme Court precedent, has no continuing application in postconviction proceedings in Delaware. Martin’s appeal then returned to the Supreme Court, where he again challenged dismissal of his motion and the Superior Court’s application of the mootness doctrine. Having carefully considered the Superior Court’s decision and the parties’ submissions, the Delaware Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court erred in dismissing Martin’s postconviction motion as moot. View "Martin v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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In 2019, Tyrese Burroughs was convicted of felony drug dealing. As one consequence of that conviction, Burroughs was, from then on, prohibited from possessing a firearm or ammunition. According to an affidavit of probable cause, on November 25, 2020, police caught Burroughs engaging in a hand-to-hand drug transaction while in possession of a “Smith and Wesson Walther .380 firearm loaded with seven live rounds.” Burroughs was arrested and charged with six felonies, relevant here: possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, possession of a firearm by a person prohibited, possession of ammunition by a person prohibited, two counts of drug dealing, carrying a concealed deadly weapon. Together, these charges carried a minimum-mandatory of eight years and a statutory maximum of 77 years in prison. Burroughs filed a “Motion for Modification of Bail,” in which he requested, “[d]ue to his inability to post bail, . . . that his bail be converted to an unsecured or lower secured amount.” The State argued his financial conditions of release should be maintained because, in its view, there was strong evidence supporting his conviction and ample facts demonstrating that he posed a serious safety risk to the public. Burroughs filed a “Motion for Review of Commissioner’s Order,” arguing that the Commissioner erred by failing to test his motion under the strict-scrutiny standard of review on the grounds that he either fell into a suspect class by virtue of his indigency or that his pretrial detention deprived him of his fundamental liberty right under substantive-due-process principles. If the Commissioner had properly conducted a strict-scrutiny review, Burroughs contended, then the State would have had to prove by clear and convincing evidence that “no other non-monetary conditions of release [could] accomplish” its “compelling interest in preventing crime.” The Delaware Supreme Court was asked to decide whether, in light of Delaware's constitutional right to bail, it was permissible to attach unaffordable financial conditions to a dangerous defendant’s pretrial release on bail and, if it was, what procedural protections had to be observed when such bail is considered. The Court responded: (1) strict scrutiny, answering in the affirmative; and (2) the determination to set cash bail had to be supported by clear and convincing evidence that: the defendant is a flight risk or poses a substantial risk to the community and nonmonetary conditions of release would not alleviate that risk. Because these answers were consistent with, and yielded the same result as, the Superior Court’s decision on appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Burroughs v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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The issue in this appeal was the prosecution’s use of Khalif Watson’s prior felony convictions during cross-examination and in closing argument. The admissibility of the convictions was not at issue. Instead, Watson contended his conviction on weapons and resisting-arrest charges could not stand because the prosecutor asked him questions about his prior convictions that he had already answered on direct examination and then argued those convictions showed his propensity to possess weapons. Both of those tactics, appellant argued, were not only objectionable (though the appellant did not object in real time), but also amounted to prosecutorial misconduct so clearly prejudicial to his substantial rights that the Delaware Supreme Court should reverse his convictions. After review, the Supreme Court affirmed. “The questions the prosecutor asked on cross-examination, while arguably objectionable as cumulative, did not amount to prosecutorial misconduct. And even if we were to accept Watson’s characterization of the prosecution’s use of his prior convictions, he has failed to persuade us that the ensuing error was so clearly prejudicial of his rights as to compromise the fairness and integrity of his trial.” View "Watson v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Diandre Willis appealed his conviction following an 18-count indictment for rape, home invasion, kidnapping, intimidation, terroristic threatening, bribery, malicious interference of emergency communications, and breaching the conditions of bond and release. A jury found Willis guilty as to 17 of the 18 charges after the State nolle prossed one count of Kidnapping First Degree. Willis raised one issue on appeal: his constitutional right to due process was violated when the trial judge failed to recuse himself from the trial where that judge previously had signed and approved a search warrant at an earlier stage of the investigation. With respect to this sole issue on appeal, both sides agreed that there were no facts in dispute. The Delaware Supreme Court concluded the superior court judge did not err in determining that his recusal was not required. Therefore, the superior court's judgment was affirmed. View "Willis v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Seth Kinderman was convicted by jury for the murder of Jakeith Latham. Eventually, he pled guilty to second-degree murder, attempted robbery, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. In exchange for the guilty plea, the State agreed to a joint recommendation of thirty years of Level V incarceration. A few months later, Kinderman sought to withdraw his guilty plea. He claimed his plea counsel failed to advise him of the specific charges in the plea agreement and failed to conduct a mitigation investigation for use during plea negotiations. The superior court denied the plea withdrawal motion and sentenced Kinderman to thirty-seven years of Level V incarceration. Kinderman argued on appeal that the superior court erred in denying the motion to withdraw his plea because he did not knowingly and voluntarily enter into the plea agreement, and the plea was the result of ineffective assistance of counsel. After review, the Delaware Supreme Court disagreed and affirmed the superior court’s judgment: Kinderman did not show a “fair and just reason” to withdraw his guilty plea. View "Kinderman v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Deshaun Harris was convicted of first degree robbery, first degree assault, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, burglary, possession of a firearm by a person prohibited, aggravated menacing, wearing a disguise during the commission of a felony, conspiracy, theft, aggravated intimidation, and breach of conditions of bond during Commitment. After Harris’s arrest, before trial, one of the victims was confronted by individuals who offered him money to sign papers stating that Harris was not the perpetrator of the attack. They threatened the victim, warning him that if he testified on the stand or identified Harris, they would kill his family and him. At trial, the State produced three documents purporting to be affidavits of the victim recanting his identification of Harris. Each document was in a different format — one was written in cursive, one was printed, and one was typed. The victim testified that he did not draft any of the documents, but that he signed the typed affidavit under the threat of being killed. During its investigation, the State found multiple prison phone calls between a person believed to be Harris and an unidentified woman. The State sought to introduce certain portions of the calls to corroborate the victim's testimony and to contextualize the three affidavits wherein the victim had recanted his identification of Harris. These recordings were admitted to the trial record over Harris' objection, and he appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court the trial court erred in so admitting them. The Supreme Court found no merit to the appeal and affirmed Harris’s conviction and sentence. View "Harris v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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After defendant-appellant Roderick Owens was convicted of possession of a firearm by a person prohibited and, separately, of possession of ammunition by a person prohibited, and the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed those convictions on direct appeal, Owens moved for postconviction relief under Superior Court Criminal Rule 61. Owens claimed the proceedings leading to his convictions were unfair in a way that was not remediable on direct appeal. Owens also complained that his trial counsel failed to investigate and present friendly witnesses at a hearing on a motion to suppress. These deficiencies, according to Owens, amounted to ineffective assistance of trial counsel, and that his case would have been resolved more favorably had his counsel more ably assisted him. The superior court rejected Owens’s bid to have his convictions set aside on those grounds. To this, the Supreme Court concurred: Owens’s trial counsel conveyed all plea offers to Owens is supported by trial counsel’s affidavit and entitled to our deference, and Owens’s trial counsel’s analysis of the relevance of the potential witnesses’ testimony and his decision not to call them was reasonable. View "Owens v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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In 1983, Alan Bass was convicted by jury on two counts of first degree rape, three counts of first degree kidnapping, two counts of first degree robbery, two counts of second degree robbery, and one count of third degree burglary. The superior court sentenced Bass to five consecutive life sentences plus 45 years in prison. The convictions were affirmed in 1985. Bass thereafter applied for post-conviction relief, relying in part on the announcement by the FBI and Innocence Project of a years long investigation into whether trial testimony by forensic examiners contained erroneous statements regarding microscopic hair comparison analysis used in certain cases. The Delaware Department of Justice determined that the forensic examiner who testified in Bass’ case “included statements that exceeded the limits of science.” According to Bass, without this improperly admitted testimony, the State’s remaining evidence was insufficient to support a conviction. As a result, he asserted the State’s use of this unreliable hair evidence violated his right to a fair trial and that he is entitled to a new trial. The Delaware Supreme Court determined that Bass did not meet his burden to establish that the erroneous testimony offered by the forensic examiner in his case, and new evidence, created a strong inference that Bass was actually innocent. The Supreme Court thus concluded the superior court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Bass post-conviction relief. “Thus, this is not the ‘extraordinary case’ where the defendant has met his heavy burden to overcome the procedural bar of Rule 61(d)(2).” View "Bass v. Delaware" on Justia Law