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State v. Starling

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

August 28, 2014

STATE OF DELAWARE
v.
CHAUNCEY STARLING, Defendant.

Submitted: May 30, 2014

James J. Haley, Jr., Esquire, Wilmington, Delaware; Stephen H. Brose, Esquire, David M. Fragale, Esquire, Jeremy D. Engle, Esquire, Emily B. Nestler, Esquire, Sarah R. Lamoree, Esquire, of Steptoe & Johnson LLP, Washington, District of Columbia. Attorneys for Defendant.

Elizabeth R. McFarlan, Esquire, Maria T. Knoll, Esquire, and Karen V. Sullivan, Esquire, of Delaware Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware. Attorneys for the State of Delaware.

THE HONORABLE ANDREA L. ROCANELLI J.

On March 9, 2001, at 8:30pm, Darnell Evans, an adult, and Damon Gist Jr., ("DJ") a five-year old child, were killed by gunshots at the Made 4 Men Barbershop ("Barbershop") on Fourth Street between Market and Shipley Streets in Wilmington, Delaware. There were numerous other people in the Barbershop. Several witnesses heard gunshots and saw the shooter. None of the witnesses identified the shooter by name. Although ballistics testing identified the weapon used, no gun was ever recovered. No DNA or fingerprint evidence was recovered.[1]

According to witnesses, the shooter opened the door of the Barbershop and shot at Evans. Evans ran to the back of the Barbershop. The shooter followed him, stood over him, and shot him twice in his head. As a result of five gunshot wounds to the head, chest, abdomen, and groin, Evans died. Sometime during the shooting, DJ had been shot in the head and died as a result of this gunshot wound.[2]

At trial, the State relied heavily upon the testimony of Alfred Gaines who testified that he, Starling, and Richard Frink were driving around on the day of the shootings. According to Gaines, when they drove past the Barbershop, Frink saw Evans. Gaines relayed the following facts: Frink and Starling discussed whether Evans was "the guy, " but they did not explain what this meant. Frink asked if Starling was going to do anything and Starling testified that he would "put in some work." Gaines testified that this meant shooting or fighting someone. Frink parked the car in the block between Market Street and Shipley Street outside of the Barbershop. Starling got out and tucked a gun into his pants. Starling was wearing all dark clothes, including a black hooded sweatshirt. Starling then walked in the direction of Market Street while Frink and Gaines stayed in the car. Fifteen to twenty minutes later, Starling returned to the car and said to Frink, "I got him. I got him. I think I got a little boy, too."[3]

At the time of the shooting, Shaylynn Flonnory, Evans's girlfriend, was outside the Barbershop and saw someone dressed all in black, holding a gun. According to Flonnory's statements before trial, the shooter's face was covered, with openings for his eyes. When she testified at trial, Flonnory stated that the eyes of Defendant, Chauncey Starling, matched those of the gunman she saw outside the Barbershop. Flonnory also testified that the gunman was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt.

Gaines also testified to the following facts: Later on the evening of the shooting, Starling called Gaines at 10:04pm, saying Starling wanted to talk. Gaines took a taxicab to meet Starling at the home of Vicki Miller, who was Starling's girlfriend. Gaines testified that when he met with Starling, Starling looked upset and mentioned shooting the young boy. Then, Starling's brother, Michael, entered the room and Starling told Michael that Starling was drunk, stupid, and sorry for what he had done. Michael later relayed this statement to the police during an interview.[4]

In November of 2001, a grand jury indicted Starling and his co-defendant, Frink. Starling was charged with two counts of murder in the first degree, two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and one count of conspiracy in the first degree. The trials were severed.

John S. Malik, Esquire ("Trial Counsel") represented Starling at trial. On October 24, 2003, a jury convicted Starling on each count of the indictment. The jury unanimously agreed on the existence of three statutory aggravating circumstances[5] and unanimously recommended the death penalty on November 4, 2003. Starling was sentenced to death on June 10, 2004, for the murders of Darnell Evans and DJ Gist (two death sentences).

In Starling's direct appeal, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed Starling's convictions, but vacated his death sentences and remanded the case to the Superior Court for resentencing.[6] In the Superior Court on October 2, 2005, Starling was resentenced to two death sentences. The death sentences were affirmed in a second appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court.[7]

In April 2007, Starling filed three motions for postconviction relief pursuant to Delaware Superior Court Criminal Rule 61 as a self-represented litigant. Court-appointed ("Rule 61 Counsel") filed an Amended Petition for Postconviction Relief on April 1, 2008. Since the 2008 filing, the parties have submitted numerous amended petitions and responses and the Court has held numerous hearings. Most recently, the Court held oral argument on March 28, 2014 to address the claims of prosecutorial misconduct by Rule 61 Counsel. Supplemental briefing was completed on May 30, 2014.

Motions for postconviction relief are governed by Superior Court Criminal Rule 61. As the moving party on a postconviction motion, the defendant bears the burden of proof.[8] Rule 61 does not establish which burden of proof must govern, nor has Delaware case law articulated the specific burden. It is clear, however, that a petitioner must establish that he has been deprived of a "substantial constitutional right before he is entitled to any [postconviction] relief."[9]

I. STARLING'S CLAIMS OF BRADY VIOLATIONS ARE PROCEDURALLY BARRED

The Brady rule demands that the prosecution disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense.[10] Starling claims that the State failed to disclose exculpatory evidence when the State withheld information that Trial Counsel could have used to impeach Gaines; information that implicated another person committed the crimes; and for failing to disclose witness Vicki Miller's statement. However, a claim of a Brady violation cannot be made for the first time in a postconviction proceeding. The Court finds these claims are procedurally barred under Rule 61(i)(3).

Starling's claims that the State withheld information necessary to impeach Gaines is procedurally barred under 61(a)(3).

With respect to information to impeach Gaines, the Court finds this claim is procedurally barred under Rule 61(i)(3). The record reflects that Starling's claim of a Brady violation regarding information to impeach Gaines was never presented at trial or on Starling's direct appeal. Despite the procedural bar, the Court addresses this claim on the merits below.

Starling's claim that the State withheld information regarding other suspects is procedurally barred under 61(i)(3).

Starling argues that the State did not provide evidence that would tend to establish that another person committed the crimes. For instance, before the police investigated Starling, the police attempted to question Bruce Stewart for the shootings and at the scene of the crime;[11] two witnesses told police that Stewart was the shooter. The State claims it had no evidence that Stewart committed the murders. Instead, police questioned Stewart's whereabouts at the scene of the crime because victim Evans and Stewart had recently been indicted for an unrelated crime. Police initially theorized that Evans might have been murdered to prevent him from testifying against Stewart.

The Court finds this claim procedurally barred under Rule 61(i)(3). The record reflects that Starling's claim of a Brady violation regarding information that other people were suspected of the crimes was never presented at trial or on Starling's direct appeal.

Starling's claim that the State withheld information from Vicki Miller is procedurally barred under Rule 61(i)(3).

Gaines told the police that following the shootings, Gaines, Starling, Michael Starling, and Vicki Miller all met at Miller's home. Gaines also stated that in the presence of those people, Starling admitted to shooting DJ. When the police attempted to corroborate Starling's statement with Miller in an interview, Miller stated that Starling had never made such a comment and the only thing Starling said was in reference to a news report about the shooting.

Starling argues that he was prejudiced without this information because Trial Counsel was unable to call Miller as a witness to refute Gaines' story that Starling said he was sorry in front of Gaines, Michael, and Miller about shooting the little boy. Starling asserts that this was particularly prejudicial because the jury also repeatedly heard the police say that Miller corroborated Starling's story when the State played Michael Starling's interview with the police.

Starling notes that Trial Counsel's motion for a new trial based on this allegedly withheld information was denied and Starling appealed the issue to the Delaware Supreme Court.[12] Starling argues, however, that this claim is not barred because the portion of the statement being raised here is distinct from the issue previously addressed. Starling contends that the Court only ruled on Miller's statement that she could not recall whether Starling was at her home on the night of the shootings and did not consider Miller's statement about Starling merely saying that the person should be caught.

The State counters that Trial Counsel knew of the entirety of Miller's statement and thus there was no Brady violation. Miller was not an unknown witness to Starling, but instead she was Starling's girlfriend and was available as a witness.[13] Trial Counsel admitted to the Court that he had an opportunity to interview Miller before trial and thus the State asserts that there is no Brady violation when the Defense had equal access to Miller.[14] Moreover, the State argues that even if this issue was not addressed by the trial court, it is procedurally barred because Starling did not raise it on direct appeal.

With respect to Miller's statement, the Court finds this claim procedurally barred under Rule 61(i)(3). The Court is satisfied that Miller's statement in contention here is distinct from Miller's statement previously litigated such that Starling's claim is not barred under Rule 61(i)(4).[15] However, this claim is procedurally barred under Rule 61(i)(3) because the record reflects that it was never presented at trial or on Starling's direct appeal. Moreover, Starling's argument that Trial Counsel could not call Miller as a witness is without merit. Miller, Starling's girlfriend, was an available witness and Trial Counsel had the opportunity to interview her before trial. Accordingly, Starling has failed to meet his burden of establishing prejudice, the third requirement of a valid Brady violation claim.

II. THE STATE DID NOT VIOLATE BRADY WITH RESPECT TO GAINES AS A TRIAL WITNESS

The Delaware Supreme Court has held that a defendant must satisfy three elements to establish a Brady violation: (1) the evidence in contention must be favorable to the defense, "either because it is exculpatory, or because it is impeaching;" (2) the State must have suppressed such evidence either inadvertently or willfully; and (3) prejudice must have resulted from the suppression of the evidence.[16] Under the third prong, the State's duty to disclose is only applicable where the evidence is relevant to the defendant's guilt or punishment.[17]

For Brady purposes, evidence is relevant if it tends to prove someone else committed the crime or someone else had equal motive to commit the crime.[18] In order to reverse a conviction based on a Brady violation, the petitioner must "show that the favorable evidence could reasonably be taken to put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict."[19] Therefore, a Brady violation cannot serve as the basis to overturn a conviction where "the untainted evidence of guilt [is] overwhelming."[20] Moreover, as noted above, these claims are procedurally barred unless Starling can demonstrate: (1) "cause for relief from the procedural default" and (2) "prejudice ...


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