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Norwood v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

June 24, 2014

CAMERON NORWOOD, Defendant-Below, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff-Below, Appellee

Submitted May 14, 2014

Case Closed July 10, 2014.

Page 589

Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware, in and for Kent County. Case No. 1209003131A.

Adam D. Windett, Esquire, Hopkins & Windett, LLC, Dover, Delaware, Attorney for Appellant.

Kathryn Garrison, Esquire, John Williams, Esquire, Department of Justice, Dover, Delaware, Attorneys for Appellee.

Before STRINE, Chief Justice, HOLLAND, BERGER, RIDGELY, Justices and NEWELL, Judge.[*]

OPINION

Page 590

STRINE, Chief Justice

I. INTRODUCTION

This appeal arises fro the robbery of a Family Dollar store in Dover on September 4, 2012 by three men. The identities of two of the perpetrators were not the subject of dispute between the State and the defendant, Cameron Norwood, who the State charged with being the third man. But Norwood claims that he is innocent because he was not the third man. Norwood sought to create a reasonable doubt about his guilt by arguing that another man, Khalil Dixon, had been the third man who robbed the Family Dollar store on September 4, 2012. In support of that defense, Norwood tried to introduce evidence that Dixon and the same two perpetrators had also robbed the same Family Dollar on August 18, 2012 and attempted to rob it again on August 27, 2012. The State objected, and the Superior Court excluded the evidence at the State's request.

The Superior Court's decision to exclude the evidence was an abuse of discretion, given the substantial similarities between the prior crimes and this one. Because Norwood offered the evidence for the proper purpose of establishing the identity of the third man, who Norwood claimed was the actual perpetrator, the evidence was admissible under Delaware Rule of Evidence 404(b) and relevant under Rule 402. Furthermore, any potential prejudice caused by the evidence did not substantially outweigh its probative value under Rule 403. Indeed, it is easier to pass the Rule 403 balancing test when Rule 404(b) evidence does not involve the prior acts of the defendant on trial, and therefore the evidence does not create a risk that a jury will convict the defendant because the jury is convinced, not that the defendant is guilty of the charges he faces, but merely that the defendant is a bad person who deserves punishment. That was the case here, and the evidence Norwood sought to introduce posed no risk of prejudice, delay, or confusion of the issue that substantially outweighed the evidence's obvious relevance. The State has not argued that the error was harmless. Thus, the decision of the Superior Court must be reversed and the case be remanded for a new trial.

II. BACKGROUND[1]

The defendant, Cameron Norwood, was charged with participating in a robbery of the Family Dollar store in Bay Court Plaza in Dover on September 4, 2012 with two other men. At trial, defense counsel argued that Norwood was not one of the three men who committed the robbery, and sought to create a reasonable doubt

Page 591

about Norwood's guilt by arguing that the third man was actually another person.

The same Family Dollar store had been robbed before. A few minutes before 9 p.m. on August 18, 2012, two men entered the store with masks on their faces, and armed with a handgun and a large knife.[2] The men took $1,451.11 from the register. On August 27, 2012, only nine days later, there was an attempted robbery of the same Family Dollar store. A man wearing a handkerchief over his face walked up to the door of the store a few minutes before 9 p.m. and brandished a handgun.[3] But the employees who were working that night, Rebecca Chillas and Martha Lewis, had already locked the door to close the store. The man pointed the gun at them and tried to get them to open the door, but they did not open it, and the man got into a car and left. When describing the man to the police, " Lewis stated that she is 5'3" and that this male was a little taller than she is and thin." [4]

Just before 7 p.m. on September 4, 2012, only eight days after the attempted robbery, three men entered the Family Dollar. Chillas and Lewis were the only employees working and there were no customers in the store at the time. The perpetrator who we will call the " first man" had a mask tied around his face and was holding a gun. The perpetrator who we will call the " second man" was a teenager who was wearing a green shirt and camouflage shorts, and he was not wearing a mask. The perpetrator who we will call the " third man" was wearing a black ski mask.

The first man grabbed Lewis, put the gun to her head, and told her to open the register.[5] Lewis told the first man that she did not have a key to the register. Then the first man ran over to grab Chillas, but the third man stayed with Lewis and made her get down on her knees in the candy aisle.[6] The first man pulled Chillas off the step stool she was standing on, pointed the gun at her, and brought her to the front of the Family Dollar to open the register.[7] Chillas had some problems putting her manager code into the register, and the first man yelled that if she didn't hurry up, then he was going to shoot her.[8] Meanwhile, the second man took packs of cigarettes and cigars from a cabinet behind the register and stuffed them into a shopping bag.[9] The first man asked Chillas about opening the safe, but determined that it would take too long to open because it was on a timer.[10] The three men left the Family Dollar with $403.25 from the register and a shopping bag full of cigarettes and cigars worth a total value of around $200.[11]

Page 592

After the three men left, Chillas and Lewis called the police. Chillas described the three robbers to the dispatcher, specifically noting that the second man was wearing a green shirt and camouflage shorts.[12] Corporal Lance Chandler of the Dover Police Department heard the dispatch about the armed robbery while he was out on patrol. Within minutes of the dispatch, Corporal Chandler reported to a foot path that connected Bay Court Plaza to the Capital Park housing development, because he thought that the suspects might use the foot path to escape. Corporal Chandler saw three men walking on the foot path, although during cross examination he admitted that it was possible there were four.[13] One of the men was wearing a green shirt and camouflage shorts matching the description of the ...


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