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Sykes v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

January 30, 2015

AMBROSE SYKES Defendant Below, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

Submitted: November 19, 2014

Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware in and for Kent County Cr. ID. No. 0411008300

Upon appeal from the Superior Court.

Patrick J. Collins, Esquire, (argued), Appellant.

John R. Williams, Esquire, (argued), for Appellee.

Before STRINE, Chief Justice, HOLLAND, RIDGELY, VALIHURA, and VAUGHN, Justices.

VAUGHN, Justice, for the Majority:

The Movant-Below/Appellant, Ambrose Sykes, appeals the Superior Court's denial of his Motion for Postconviction Relief. In 2006 Sykes was convicted by a jury of two counts of Murder in the First Degree, two counts of Rape in the First Degree, one count of Kidnapping in the First Degree, two counts of Burglary in the Second Degree, and other offenses.[1] After a penalty phase hearing, the trial judge imposed the death penalty. On direct appeal, Sykes' conviction and sentence were affirmed. In this appeal, Sykes asserts five claims. First, he contends that his trial counsel was ineffective in investigating, preparing and presenting mitigating evidence during his penalty-phase hearing; and that the Superior Court in this proceeding committed error in analyzing this claim. Second, he contends that trial counsel was ineffective by failing to argue that an erroneous comment which the trial judge made about allocution during the guilt phase of the trial violated his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial by an impartial jury; and that the Superior Court in this proceeding committed error by finding that this claim was barred by prior adjudication. In connection with this second claim, Sykes also argues that his appellate counsel was ineffective for not arguing this claim on direct appeal. Third, Sykes contends that the trial judge committed error when he failed to remove Juror No. 9 from the jury after her impartiality was called into question during the guilt phase of the trial; that trial counsel was ineffective for not challenging the juror for cause or using a peremptory challenge to strike her during jury selection; that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to argue for her removal from the jury after her impartiality was called into question during the guilt phase of the trial; and that appellate counsel was ineffective for not raising the issue on direct appeal. Fourth, Sykes contends that the State failed to prove Burglary, Rape and Kidnapping beyond a reasonable doubt; that trial counsel was ineffective for not retaining a forensic pathology expert to challenge the medical evidence of homicide; and that appellate counsel was ineffective for not raising on direct appeal the unfairly prejudicial impact these convictions had on the sentencing phase. Fifth, he contends that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to move for a judgment of acquittal on the kidnapping charge on the grounds that the restraint of the victim was incidental to, and not independent of, restraint pertaining to the underlying rape charge. We find no merit to any of these claims and affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[2]

The following is the statement of facts contained in this Court's opinion on direct appeal:

On November 8, 2004, sixty-eight year old Virginia Trimnell was scheduled to fly from Washington, D.C. to Detroit to visit her daughter. When Trimnell did not arrive as scheduled, her daughter contacted the Dover Police Department. Officer Jeffrey Gott went to check on Trimnell. Gott testified that when he arrive at Trimnell's apartment, it was tidy and undisturbed and he observed no signs of forced entry. He also testified that he saw two shopping bags sitting on the bed. However, he could not locate Trimnell's car or purse.
At approximately 3:30 a.m. on November 10, 2004, Dover Police Sergeant Timothy Mutter saw Trimnell's car traveling on Kings Highway in Dover. The driver, later identified as Sykes, got out of the vehicle, and Mutter asked him for his licence and registration. Sykes initially complied but then fled after Mutter asked about Trimnell. The police could not apprehend Sykes that night.
Police found Sykes's fingerprints on a shovel and a rubber glove inside Trimnell's car. The police also found three gas cans and women's clothing that matched what others saw Trimnell wearing on the day she disappeared. In the trunk of the vehicle, police found a large green suitcase with Trimnell's name and Trimnell's purse inside a green duffel bag. Police found Trimnell's body stuffed into the large green suitcase.
An autopsy indicated that Trimnell died by strangulation. A sexual assault kit detected sperm in Trimnell's vagina. The autopsy did not, however, reveal any defense wounds on Trimnell. DNA testing was conducted. Sykes's saliva reference sample was ultimately determined to match all sixteen loci from Trimnell's vagina swab. Sykes's DNA also matched the sperm located on a comforter found in Trimnell's trunk.
Police seized a computer during a search of Trimnell's apartment. An examination of that computer revealed that it had been used to access pornographic websites on November 7, 2004. Trimnell's credit cards had been used to access the website. That computer had not been previously used to visit similar websites. Police also seized two pornographic magazines and four computers from Sykes's mobile home. Files on two of those computers contained "similar images of adult pornography" to those found on Trimnell's computer. Additionally, police found a leather bag containing silver dollars in the home of Sykes's girlfriend, Jenny St. Jean. Trimnell's daughter later identified that bag as Trimnell's.
Trimnell's telephone records revealed that a cell phone registered to Sykes made three calls to her home on the morning of November 7, 2004. Sykes, a night shift restaurant custodian at Dover Downs, did not work on November 7, 2004. He quit this job on November 8, 2004 due to alleged transportation problems. After he quit his job, Dover Downs security cameras showed him leaving the parking lot on November 8, 2004 in Trimnell's car.
Police arrested Sykes on November 29, 2004 and the State later indicted him on two counts of Murder First Degree and other felony and misdemeanor charges. The State later re-indicted him and added two counts of Rape First Degree.

Jury selection began on May 30, 2006 and continued until June 7, 2006. The guilt phase of the trial began June 9, 2006 and went through June 26, 2006. On June 27, following deliberations, the jury found Sykes guilty on all counts.

The penalty phase of the trial took place on June 29 and June 30. The State primarily relied upon the evidence of the facts and circumstances of the crimes of which Sykes was convicted at the guilt phase. It also presented the testimony of a daughter and three close friends of the victim, who gave the jury information about the victim and the impact of the crimes upon her family and friends. The defense presented the testimony of four witnesses: St. Jean (who also testified at the guilt phase of trial as both a State witness and a defense witness); Sykes' mother, Debora Sykes; and two of Sykes' sisters, Debray Sykes and Creshenda Jacobs. St. Jean's testimony focused on a loving relationship among Sykes, St. Jean, and their eleven year old son, and the impact Sykes' execution would have upon their son and her. Debray Sykes discussed her good relationship with her brother and the impact on the family if the death penalty were imposed. Jacobs testified that she had a good relationship with her brother and described the closeness of the relationship between Sykes and his son. Debora Sykes discussed the closeness of the relationship between Sykes and his father, Jesse, when Sykes was a child. She testified that he had a good aptitude as a student and was creative. She also testified about the loving relationship between Sykes and his son. She testified that when Sykes was fourteen, she allowed him to go live with his father because Sykes had a strong desire to do so. She described that decision as a mistake because at the time Jesse was "running the street, running his women, doing his own thing." She testified that while Sykes was with Jesse, Jesse lived with several different women at different times. After two and a half years, Jesse asked Deborah to take him back, which she did. When Sykes returned, she saw that the time with Jesse had really damaged him emotionally, and he was a different kid. She testified that he been exposed to too many things and too much that he should not have been exposed to at his age. When he returned, he did not want to enroll in high school. An effort at Job Corps was unsuccessful. She testified that she and Sykes loved each other and broke down when asked to describe how his receiving the death penalty would impact her.

Sykes did not allocute.

On June 30, 2006, the jury unanimously found beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of a statutory aggravating circumstance: that Trimnell was murdered while Sykes was engaged in the commission of, or flight after committing, Burglary in the Second Degree. The jury recommended a sentence of death by a unanimous vote.

In his report of Findings After Penalty Hearing, the trial judge stated that "Ambrose L. Sykes brutally raped and murdered Virginia Trimmell in her own home and thereafter drove her car with her body in the trunk along with a shovel and gas cans, in preparation of disposal of the body. One could not describe a more heinous, diabolical crime." He found two additional statutory aggravating circumstances were established beyond a reasonable doubt by the jury's guilty verdicts: the murder was committed while Sykes was engaged in the commission of, or during his flight after committing, Rape in the First Degree; and the murder was committed while Sykes was engaged in the commission of, or during his flight after committing, Kidnapping in the First Degree. The court also found that the following statutory and non-statutory aggravating circumstances were established by a preponderance of the evidence. The victim was over 62 years of age or older and defenseless. The murder was committed for pecuniary gain; specifically, Sykes accessed and used the victim's computer along with her credit card to view a pornographic website, and removed a bag containing silver dollars from her home. The court further found that the victim was targeted and the murder was planned in advance, and that pecuniary gain and preplanning were substantial aggravating circumstances. The court further found that "the act of secreting the body out of the apartment with evidence of the crimes of Murder, Rape and Burglary coupled with the shovel and gas cans provide ample evidence of an effort to destroy or conceal evidence. This is a substantial aggravating circumstance." The trial judge further found that "[t]here is evidence that Sykes did not know the victim and it does appear that he selected her at random for the purpose of committing the crimes of Rape, Burglary and Murder." He further found that the actions of Sykes were heartless, depraved, cruel and inhuman and that the defendant terrorized and abused the victim before murdering her. He further found that the act of tying up the victim and strangling her with her own clothes and thereafter depositing her in her own suitcase in her own car demonstrated a callous depravity. He also found that "[t]here is no doubt that her loss and the manner of her death will have a substantial, adverse impact on her family and friends." As a final aggravating circumstance, the trial judge found that the defendant was potentially dangerous in the future.

The trial judge found the existence of several mitigating circumstances, including: the "defendant clearly lacked guidance as a youth, in that the lack of a fatherly presence at critical times of his life were a major factor." He further found that "he did not receive timely intervention by his parents during these times, although the Court would note that he had indeed a loving and nurturing mother and sisters who cared about him a great deal." The trial judge further found that he has talent and potential based upon testimony from his mother about his ability as a youth to take a battery and wiring and make a radio. The trial judge further found that he does adjust well in a controlled environment and does not pose any obvious danger to other inmates. The trial judge further found that in "joining his father to live as a youth, despite his mother's justified protesting, he lacked parental guidance and suffered a lack of parental care evidenced by a rambling existence with his father. This experience created a psychological maladjustment for a young man." The trial judge further found that although there was no "strong evidence of the effect of corporal punishment [a fact contradicted by the evidence at the postconviction hearing] and running away from home, his placement by his father at each household where he hung his hat can be equated with a vagabond existence similar to being an abandoned child." The trial judge further found that Sykes had a strong and loving relationship with his son, St. Jean, his siblings, and his mother; and that his "death would negatively impact his mother, son, family and Jenny."

The trial judge summarized his findings as follows: [t]he aggravating factors in this case are serious and substantial. The factual record established by the evidence is overwhelming. The circumstances of the crimes are gruesome and shocking. While there are mitigating factors present, they are not substantial when compared to the aggravating factors." Based on his analysis, the trial judge found that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances, and that Sykes should therefore be sentenced to death.

In his automatic, direct appeal to this Court, Sykes raised six claims: (1) the trial judge infringed upon the his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent when the judge erroneously commented to the jury during the guilt phase that Sykes would have the opportunity to allocute following closing arguments; (2) his right to an impartial jury was denied because the State improperly exercised its peremptory challenges on the basis of race; (3) the trial judge erred by denying his motion for a change of venue; (4) the trial judge failed to order a new trial after St. Jean improperly contacted two jurors between the guilt phase and penalty phases of the trial; (5) death by lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment; and (6) Sykes' death sentence is disproportionately severe compared to other similar cases.[3]

After a remand for additional evidence on the claim that the State improperly exercised its peremptory challenges, this Court rejected all of Sykes' claims on appeal and affirmed his conviction and sentence.

On October 24, 2008, Sykes, represented by new counsel, filed his original Motion for Postconviction Relief. On October 19, 2009, he filed an Amended Motion for Postconviction Relief in which he raised twenty-three separate claims for relief. Beginning October 10, 2011 and concluding November 7, 2012, the Superior Court judge, who was the same judge who presided at trial and imposed sentence, conducted a hearing over the course of eleven days. Testimony was received from twenty-four witnesses. More than forty exhibits were admitted into evidence.

At the hearing, Sykes presented mitigation evidence which he claims should have been, but was not, included in the mitigation case at the sentencing hearing. The additional mitigation evidence was presented through Debora Sykes, Debray Sykes, Creshenda Jacobs, Richelle Herriott, who is Sykes' older sister, Jania Watkins, who is Sykes' younger sister, Dawn Hawkins, who is a former girlfriend who lived with Jesse and Sykes during the above-mentioned two and one-half year period that Sykes lived with Jesse, Tara Whittlesay, who was Dawn's daughter, Yolanda Jones, who taught Sykes when he was in elementary school, Douglas Dyer, a former employer, Dr. Carol Armstrong, a neuropsychologist, and Dr. Craig Haney, a psychology professor. The mitigation evidence describes a traumatic childhood suffered by Sykes, and other mitigating circumstances. A summary of their testimony is as follows:

Debora Sykes, Debray Sykes, Creshenda Jacobs, Richelle Herriott, and Jania Watkins testified that the Sykes had a loving relationship with his son; that Sykes' household when he was a child was one of little to no means with no real parental presence, particularly by Sykes' father, Jesse; that the neighborhood where the family lived was infested with crime and high drug use, and the family moved from home to home; that during grade school, Sykes attended four different elementary schools due to his family's frequent moves; that Sykes suffered from poor hygiene and often went to school in dirty clothes; that Debora attempted to maintain a strict household and often inflicted corporeal punishment upon her children that at times could be considered harsh; that Sykes would often receive the worst punishment, and the punishment would often leave welts and bruises on his body; that Debora made Sykes' sisters hold him down while she beat him; that on one occasion, while beating him with a belt in this fashion, she opened up a gash near his eye, and he was held home from school while the wound healed; that Jesse was verbally and physically abusive to Debora, often in the presence of the children, and made no attempts to conceal his affairs with other women before ultimately abandoning the marriage; that despite this, Sykes adored his father as a child; that while living with Jesse, Sykes continued to be exposed to his father's sexual relationships and substance abuse; and that Sykes was physically abused by his father.

Dawn testified that Jesse was a heavy drug user, sometimes using drugs while in Sykes presence; that while Sykes was living with them, Jesse was arrested and convicted on a drug charge; that Jesse was physically abusive toward Dawn, and on one occasion put a gun in her mouth; that Jesse was physically abusive toward Sykes on a frequent basis; that Jesse used drugs in Sykes' presence; that Jesse often stole items while on his job as a moving van driver, and would force Sykes and her to accompany him on the thefts; and that Sykes was aware of his father's criminal and other activities, including seeing his father have sex with another woman.

Tara added that she recalled Jesse's abuse toward Sykes; that she recalled seeing Sykes to the point where his eyes swelled up and he had knots on his head; that Jesse hit Sykes with tennis rackets or whatever other object may have been close by; that Sykes longed for his father's affection, despite the abuse; that Jesse raped her; and that she did not believe that Sykes was sexually abused, but believed he was aware of what his father was doing to her.

Yolanda Jones was a homebound teacher, meaning that she would visit children in their homes to teach them if they were unable to attend school. She described Sykes' neighborhood as one with a high poverty and crime rate. She testified that she often taught Sykes at his home due to a number of chronic illnesses he suffered from as a child; that one home Sykes lived in had no heat, electric or refrigerator; and that Sykes struggled as a student and had to repeat first and fifth grades.

Douglas Dyer, a former employer, testified that Sykes was a hard worker.

Dr. Carol Armstrong is the director of the neuropsychology lab for the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. In July of 2009, Dr. Armstrong evaluated Sykes over the course of six hours. Dr. Armstrong found that his abilities meet the range of someone his age, but that Sykes scored statistically lower on memory tests compared to the rest of his evaluation. Dr. Armstrong concluded that Sykes suffered from brain damage in the form of associative memory impairment, which would cause Sykes to be unable to remember new information or learn new things beyond his normal effort. Dr. ...


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