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State v. Spence

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

May 15, 2014

STATE OF DELAWARE
v.
CHRISTOPHER SPENCE, Defendant.

Submitted: March 13, 2014

Upon Defendant Christopher Spence's Motion for a Mistrial DENIED

Ipek Medford, Deputy Attorney General and John Downs, Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for the State of Delaware.

Eugene J. Maurer, Jr., Esquire and Allison Mielke, Esquire, Eugene Maurer, Jr., P.A., Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Defendant.

Eric M. Davis Judge

INTRODUCTION

On December 19, 2013, a jury returned a verdict of guilty against Christopher Spence on six indicted criminal offenses.[1] Mr. Spence, through counsel, filed a motion for a mistrial (the "Motion") on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct on December 27, 2013. Mr. Spence subsequently supplemented the Motion with a Memorandum in Support of the Defendant's Motion for Mistrial (the "Memorandum") on January 27, 2014. Mr. Spence argues that declaration of a mistrial is appropriate here due to alleged prosecutorial misconduct during closing arguments at Mr. Spence's trial. Mr. Spence contends that the State made numerous improper statements during its closing arguments as well as included improper statements in a PowerPoint presentation that was displayed during closing. Further, Mr. Spence alleges that these improper statements prejudiced the jury's deliberation and that therefore this Court should declare a mistrial. The State opposes the Motion, arguing that there was no prosecutorial misconduct during closing arguments and, alternatively, if the Court finds that there was prosecutorial misconduct then such conduct does not constitute grounds for a mistrial.

For the reasons stated in this opinion, Mr. Spence's Motion is DENIED.

BACKGROUND

The Court commenced trial on December 3, 2013. Over the course of the trial, the State called twenty-one (21) witnesses to testify in support of its case and Mr. Spence called three (3) witnesses, including himself, to testify in support of his case. The State had eighty-four (84) exhibits admitted into evidence and Mr. Spence had an additional four (4) exhibits admitted into evidence. Moreover, the Court took in, for various reasons, six (6) court exhibits. The Court charged the jury on December 18, 2013, but, due to the lateness in the day, did not let the jury begin deliberations until the morning of December 19, 2013. The jury deliberated less than six (6) hours before returning a verdict of guilty on the indicted offenses of Murder in the First Degree, Attempted Murder in the First Degree, Reckless Endangering in the First Degree, and three (3) counts of Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Felony.

This case arises from a shooting that occurred during an event at a party venue located at 1232 King Street in Wilmington, Delaware. During that shooting, Mr. Spence shot and killed Kirt Williams and shot and wounded Kelmar Allen. This is not a case of "whodunit" as Mr. Spence admitted shooting Mr. Williams and Mr. Allen. Instead, the case revolved around whether: (i) the State could prove each and every element of the indicted charges beyond a reasonable doubt; (ii) Mr. Spence was guilty of lesser included offenses; or, (iii) Mr. Spence had viable justification defenses -- self defense and defense of others.

At trial, Mr. Spence's defense was largely based on the Sure Shot gang's dangerousness and reputation for violence. Mr. Spence testified at trial that during the party certain threats were made and a fight occurred between members of a gang called the Sure Shots and friends of Mr. Spence. Afterward Mr. Spence approached two individuals—Mr. Allen and Mr. Williams— whom Mr. Spence associated with the Sure Shots, while they were waiting for an elevator. At that time, Mr. Spence had a pump-action shotgun in his hands that Mr. Spence testified he had just been handed by a man called "Trini" moments before. Mr. Spence testified that after he approached the victims he perceived Mr. Williams, also known as "Little Man" or "Short Man, " reaching for his waist. At that point Mr. Spence testified that he opened fire on them, firing multiple shots. Mr. Spence also testified that he did so because he feared for the safety of himself and his friends.

On cross-examination with respect to his justification defenses, Mr. Spence testified that he did not call the police because the police would have just broken up the party. Mr. Spence also stated that he had the opportunity to leave safely before he approached the victims with the shotgun as well as after he began to fire:

Q. But you had opportunities to get away before any of this?
A. Yeah.
Q. Before you took the shotgun you had an opportunity to leave; right?
A. Right.
Q. After you fired the first shot, you could have left?
A. Yeah. I could have.
Q. But you didn't?
A. But I want [sic] to make sure that everybody was safe.
Q. You want [sic] to make sure they were dead?
A. Yes.[2]

Although Mr. Spence testified that he only fired three shots at the victims, other witnesses, forensic evidence and expert testimony suggested that four shots were fired. Mr. Williams' body was later found by Wilmington Police in the elevator of the party venue. Mr. Spence never testified to seeing either victim with a firearm and in fact no weapons (including the shotgun) were found at the scene or on Mr. Williams' body. Mr. Allen survived the shooting despite receiving gunshot wounds. No witness testified that they saw a weapon on Mr. Allen or Mr. Williams during the party.

During the State's closing argument the Defense objected to two statements in which the State said "he wants you to believe his story." After the State's closing argument, the Defense objected to a slide in a PowerPoint presentation that was displayed during the State's closing on which the word "MURDER" written in red lettering appeared above a picture of the body of Mr. Williams. The Defense also objected to statements which Mr. Spence alleges undermined the dangerousness of the Sure Shot gang while the State was simultaneously prosecuting members of that gang for violent crimes.

Upon the conclusion of closing arguments, the Court instructed the jury on the law governing the case. The jury instructions were the product of a lengthy prayer conference among the Court, the State's counsel and Mr. Spence's counsel. Not including the verdict sheet, the jury instructions are fifty-six (56) pages long. The Court included instructions regarding all the indicted offenses, lesser included offenses and the two justification defenses. The jury instructions also contained instructions regarding "Credibility of Witnesses" and "Attorney's Belief or Opinion."[3] After instructing the jury, the Court asked the parties whether there were any exceptions to the jury instructions. The parties stated that they had no exceptions to the instructions. In addition, Mr. Spence has not raised any objections to the form and nature of the instructions in the Motion or the Memorandum. The Court provided each juror with a copy of the jury instructions to use during deliberations.

While the Court did make the State's closing argument slideshow a court exhibit, the Court did not allow the slideshow to go back with the jury during its deliberations.

At the end of closing arguments, Mr. Spence's counsel moved this Court to declare a mistrial based on the alleged instances of prosecutorial misconduct. The Court reserved ruling on the motion until after trial. Mr. Spence thereafter filed the Motion on January 27, 2014. In Mr. Spence's brief, he identifies several other statements included in the State's PowerPoint presentation that he alleges constituted prosecutorial misconduct. Both parties submitted briefings on the Motion and oral arguments were heard on March 13, 2014.

PARTIES' CONTENTIONS

Mr. Spence moves for a mistrial based on six instances of alleged prosecutorial misconduct. Mr. Spence objected to three of the purported instances during the trial, and objections to the other three were raised and argued for the first time in the Motion and the Memorandum. Mr. Spence made objections at trial to the following: (1) two statements during closing in which the State said "he wants you to believe his story;" (2) a PowerPoint slide which displayed the word "MURDER" in red lettering above a picture of Mr. William's body; and (3) statements by the State which Mr. Spence claims undermined the dangerousness of the Sure Shots. In the Motion and Memorandum, Mr. Spence raised, for the first time, objections to the following: (1) two PowerPoint slides which referred to the victims as helpless; (2) PowerPoint slides containing alleged misstatements of the justification defenses; and (3) a PowerPoint slide containing the statement that "Defendant is guilty of all charges against him." Mr. Spence argues that these statements amounted to prosecutorial misconduct and that this misconduct prejudiced the jury's deliberations. Therefore, Mr. Spence moves this Court to declare a mistrial. In response, the State argues that the conduct that Mr. Spence points to did not amount to ...


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