DONALD L. REED, Defendant Below, Appellant,
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.
Submitted: July 10, 2013
Court Below – Superior Court of the State of Delaware, in and for Kent County Cr. A. No. 1204004563
Before HOLLAND, JACOBS and RIDGELY, Justices.
Randy J. Holland, Justice
1) The defendant-appellant, Donald Reed ("Donald"), appeals from his convictions, following a Superior Court jury trial, for Assault in the Second Degree, Possession of a Deadly Weapon During the Commission of a Felony, Aggravated Menacing, and Conspiracy in the Second Degree.
2) Donald raises two claims on appeal. First, he contends that the Superior Court abused its discretion in denying his Motion for Mistrial after the trial court erroneously told the jury during preliminary instructions that Donald had pleaded guilty to all counts. Second, Donald submits that the Superior Court abused its discretion by precluding Donald from impeaching the State's key witness with a prior conviction of Assault in the First Degree, without conducting the proper balancing test. We have determined that both of those arguments are without merit.
3) On April 6, 2012, Christopher Miller ("Christopher") received a phone call from Donnie Reed ("Donnie"). Donnie told Christopher that his uncle, Charles Reed ("Charles"), had paid Donnie's father, Donald Reed, $100 to "beat up" Christopher. After receiving Donnie's call, Christopher and his housemate, Jeff Helm ("Helm"), decided to go to Donald's home.
4) Donald lived across the street from Christopher and Helm. As Christopher and Helm approached Donald's home, Donnie confronted the two men, telling them it was not a good time to be there. Thereafter, Donald emerged from the house and engaged in a physical altercation with Christopher. The fighting continued for approximately 3-10 minutes, during which both men exchanged punches, until they mutually separated, and Miller went home.
5) Approximately thirty to sixty minutes later, Karen Miller ("Karen"), who also lived in the house with Christopher and Helm, saw Donald, Charles, and Donnie all holding what appeared to be metal pipes or bars by their neighbor's garage. While standing on the back steps of her house, Karen witnessed one of the Reeds hit Helm's dog with a metal object. Immediately thereafter, she called for Helm, who ran outside to look for his dog.
6) Once outside, Helm saw Charles strike his dog again. While Helm was attempting to bring his dog into the house, Charles charged Helm and struck him in the head with a metal object. While Helm was still down, Donald began to strike him in the head with a metal object at least half a dozen times. After witnessing the attack, Karen called police and Helm was taken by helicopter to the hospital. Helm suffered a fractured skull and received seventeen staples to close three lacerations to his head.
7) Donald and his brother Charles were indicted with one count each of Assault in the Second Degree, Possession of a Deadly Weapon During the Commission of a Felony, Aggravated Menacing, and Conspiracy in the Second Degree.
8) On the first day of trial, the court, while giving preliminary jury instructions, read the counts each defendant was charged with in the indictment and then mistakenly stated that, "[e]ach has pled guilty to each charge." Defense counsel immediately interrupted and requested to approach the bench, where an off the record side bar ensued. Thereafter, the court concluded its preliminary instructions by stating: "I have just been advised that I just finished telling you that each defendant has pled guilty to each one of the charges which is incorrect, if that's what I said. Each has pled not guilty to each one of the charges; and I beg your pardon." (emphasis added). After opening statements, the court further addressed its mistake while the jury was out of the courtroom. The trial judge stated that he denied defense counsel's request for a mistrial based on the erroneous statement and that he instead chose to give a curative instruction to the jury.
9) We review a Superior Court's denial of a Motion for Mistrial for abuse of discretion. Donald claims that the trial court abused its discretion by not granting a mistrial after the court mistakenly told the jury that the defendants pled guilty to all charges during its preliminary instructions. Donald argues that the curative instructions given after the misstatement were inadequate and did not sufficiently emphasize the mistake made by the court. In Gomez v. State, this Court explained:
[A] prompt curative instruction that does not overemphasize an improper remark is often an appropriate meaningful and practical alternative to a mistrial. It is well established in Delaware that a trial judge's prompt curative instruction is presumed adequate to direct the jury to disregard improper statements and cure any error. But, in cases where there is no meaningful and practical alternative, a mistrial is required. We have recognized that a trial judge should ...