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Joyner v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

January 20, 2017

RAMON A. JOYNER, Defendant Below, Appellant,
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: October 3, 2016

         Court Below-Superior Court of the State of Delaware Cr. ID No. 1502005446

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; HOLLAND and SEITZ, Justices.


          Leo E. Strine, Jr. Chief Justice.

         This 20th day of January 2017, upon consideration of the appellant's brief under Supreme Court Rule 26(c), his attorney's motion to withdraw, and the State's response, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) In April 2015, the appellant, Ramon A. Joyner, was indicted for Attempted Rape in the First Degree, Rape in the Second Degree, Kidnapping in the First Degree, Strangulation, and Malicious Interference with Emergency Communications. The charges arose from Joyner's assault of an acquaintance, Amanda Brooks, [1] on February 8, 2015, at a hotel in Newark, Delaware. Joyner went to trial on the charges in October 2015.

         (2) The trial transcript reflects that Brooks, her mother, and two friends, went to a casino in Wilmington, Delaware on February 7, 2015. Brooks saw Joyner at the casino and struck up a conversation with him. Brooks and Joyner were acquainted with each other and had each other's cell phone numbers. Early the next morning, Brooks and Joyner decided to leave the casino in separate cars and go out for breakfast. After picking up food at a drive-thru restaurant, Brooks and Joyner went to Joyner's nearby hotel room, where Brooks fell asleep after eating breakfast.

         (3) Brooks testified that when she woke up awhile later, Joyner was gone and her ID and car keys were missing. Brooks texted and called Joyner multiple times with no answer. Joyner finally responded to Brooks, sending her a text expressing his desire to have sex with her and his frustration that she would not oblige. Brooks eventually agreed to have sex with Joyner for the purpose of obtaining her keys. According to Brooks, when Joyner returned to the room with the keys, he stated that she needed to "live up to [her] end of the bargain" and have sex with him.[2]

         (4) Brooks testified that she did not want to have sex with Joyner, but that he was standing between her and the hotel room door and "something about his stance . . . let [her] know that he wasn't going to give up easily."[3] Consequently, Brooks picked up the room phone and dialed zero to call the front desk to ask for help, telling the woman who answered the phone, "I need someone in the room."[4]At that, according to Brooks, Joyner became angry, snatched the phone from her hand, and hit her with a closed fist. Brooks testified that Joyner continued to hit her as he held her down and buried her face in a pillow, which suffocated her, and that he pulled down her pants and touched her buttocks and vagina with his hands. According to Brooks, Joyner then took his arm off of the back of her neck and used his hand to try to guide his penis into her vagina. Brooks testified that when she felt his penis on her buttocks she "started squirming" and "thrust [her] body on the floor, and [she] literally fell on the floor."[5]

         (5) Brooks testified that she attempted twice to flee the hotel room during the ordeal. The first time, Brooks made it out of the room and to her car before Joyner caught her and dragged her back to the room where he continued to beat and choke her. When Brooks attempted to escape the second time, Joyner stopped her, ripped the phone cord from the base of the phone and tied her arms with it and her feet with another cord. According to Brooks, when Joyner eventually left the room, she untied her arms, deadlocked the door, and attempted without success to reconnect the phone and call 911. Brooks periodically looked outside for Joyner, but she stayed in the room even after there was no sight of his car. Eventually Brooks left the room and sought help from a maintenance worker.

         (6) When Joyner left the room he went to the hotel front desk to check out and retrieve his room deposit. A few minutes later, and while Joyner was still in the hotel lobby, Brooks and the maintenance worker entered the lobby and alerted other hotel staff about the altercation in Joyner's room. The hotel staff called 911. Joyner remained in the lobby, stating that he wanted to explain to the police that Brooks had attempted to rob him. Officers from the Delaware State Police then arrived at the scene and arrested Joyner.

         (7) Later that morning, Brooks went to Christiana Hospital where she was examined by a forensic nurse examiner. At trial, the nurse read from the medical history she prepared of the information Brooks told her about why Brooks was at the hospital, which included Brooks' report that Joyner had penetrated her vagina with his finger.[6]

         (8) On the second day of trial, the Superior Court granted Joyner's request for a jury instruction on unlawful sexual contact as a lesser-included offense of rape second degree. Later that day, at the conclusion of the State's case, Joyner moved for a judgment of acquittal on rape second degree, arguing that Brooks never testified that Joyner penetrated her with his finger. The Superior Court denied the motion, ruling that the forensic nurse examiner's testimony established a sufficient evidentiary basis to submit the rape second degree charge to the jury.

         (9) When it was his turn to testify, Joyner described a much different scenario. Joyner testified that when he returned to the room after Brooks woke up, the couple decided to shower together. According to Joyner, Brooks got out of the shower, saying that she had to get her facial cleanser, but instead she ran out of the hotel room with his jacket, which contained his money and ID. Joyner testified that he chased Brooks and stopped her before she made it to her vehicle, and when he found his money in her purse, Brooks struck him, and he struck her back. Joyner denied attempting any sexual contact.

         (10) At the conclusion of the three-day trial, the jury convicted Joyner of unlawful sexual contact in the first degree (as a lesser-included offense of rape second degree), kidnapping first degree, strangulation, and malicious interference with emergency communications. The jury could not reach a verdict on attempted rape first degree, and the State entered a nolle prosequi on that charge. The Superior Court sentenced Joyner to a total of twenty years of unsuspended Level V incarceration followed by six months at Level IV and concurrent terms of probation. This is Joyner's direct appeal.

         (11) On appeal, Joyner's appellate counsel[7] has filed a no-merit brief and a motion to withdraw under Supreme Court Rule 26(c). Appellate counsel asserts that, based upon a complete and careful examination of the record, there are no arguably appealable issues. Appellate counsel provided Joyner with a copy of the motion to withdraw and the no-merit brief in draft form and advised Joyner that he could submit written points for the Court's consideration. Joyner has submitted several written points, which are included in the brief filed with the Court. The State has filed a response to Joyner's points and has moved to affirm the Superior Court's judgment.

         (12) When reviewing a motion to withdraw and an accompanying brief under Rule 26(c), the Court must be satisfied that the appellant's counsel has made a conscientious examination of the record and the law for arguable claims.[8] Also, the Court must conduct its own review of the record and determine whether "the appeal is indeed so frivolous that it may be decided without an adversary presentation."[9] In this case, having conducted "a full examination of all the proceedings" and found "no nonfrivolous issue for appeal, "[10] the Court is satisfied that Joyner's appellate counsel made a conscientious effort to examine the record and the law and properly determined that Joyner could not raise a meritorious claim on appeal.

         (13) In his first point on appeal, Joyner claims that the Superior Court failed to rule on his motion to dismiss counsel and appoint new counsel that he filed in July 2015. The claim is not supported by the record, which reflects that the Superior Court ruled on the motion at a hearing on August 18, 2015, more than a month before trial.[11]

         (14) Joyner's motion to dismiss counsel and appoint new counsel stemmed from his belief that his trial counsel was not devoting enough time to the case. During the August 18 hearing, Joyner told the Superior Court that his trial counsel had spoken to him only once, and that was only because Joyner had filed the motion to dismiss counsel and appoint new counsel. Moreover, Joyner told the court that when they finally spoke a few days before the hearing, trial counsel did not discuss trial strategy with him, which suggested to Joyner that trial counsel had no strategy.

         (15) After hearing from Joyner, the Superior Court denied the motion to dismiss counsel, ruling that Joyner's dissatisfaction with his trial counsel a month and a half before trial was not sufficient cause to appoint new counsel. The court advised Joyner that, going forward, his options were to proceed with his trial counsel, retain private counsel, or seek permission to represent himself.

         (16) The Superior Court's denial of Joyner's motion to dismiss counsel and appoint new counsel was not an abuse of discretion. When affirming the Superior Court's decision on this issue, we rely on the broad discretion that a trial judge must be afforded to decide a motion to appoint new counsel.[12] In this case, the trial judge was familiar with Joyner's case and with trial counsel's reputation, experience, and ability to be ready to represent Joyner at a trial scheduled in six weeks. Furthermore, it does not appear that trial counsel was neglecting the case. The record and Superior Court docket reflect that trial counsel filed motions on Joyner's behalf in March and April 2015 and participated in an office conference and final case review in June 2015. Under these circumstances, the Superior Court's decision that Joyner's dissatisfaction with his trial counsel did not justify the appointment of new counsel was not an abuse of discretion.

         (17) Having said that, given that the record does not contradict Joyner's contention that trial counsel did not meet with him for the first time until a few days before the August 18 hearing, we would be remiss in not acknowledging Joyner's concern. By August 2015, Joyner had been in jail for six months and was facing very serious felony charges. This case turned in large measure on the comparative credibility of Brooks' story versus Joyner's story. Under these circumstances, assuming that trial counsel had, in fact, not yet met with Joyner, it is clear Joyner had a rational basis to wonder how his trial counsel could effectively defend him unless counsel spent time with him going over his version of events and sharing what counsel knew of the State's theory.

         (18) Given this potential reality, it is not surprising that the next issue on appeal concerns Joyner's request for a trial continuance to obtain private counsel. Joyner sought the continuance on the first day of trial, telling the court that he did not "feel comfortable" with his trial counsel, and that he needed time to arrange for the appearance of privately retained counsel or, in the alternative, to prepare for trial so that he could represent himself.[13] Joyner told the court that he had contacted a private attorney but had not heard back from him, and that he would "rather go pro se."[14]

         (19) The Superior Court denied Joyner's request for a continuance after finding that: the private attorney retained by Joyner to review the case had not entered an appearance; the jury and witnesses were ready to proceed; and trial counsel was ready to try the case. The court advised Joyner that his options were to continue with his trial counsel or to represent himself ...

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