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Gonzalez v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

March 31, 2017

NATHANIEL GONZALEZ, Defendant Below-Appellant,
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below-Appellee.

          Submitted: February 22, 2017

         Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware ID No. 1506000814

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA and VAUGHN, Justices.


         On this 31st day of March 2017, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) Appellant, Nathaniel Gonzalez, appeals from a Superior Court jury verdict finding him guilty of two counts of Assault First Degree, one count of Assault Second Degree, three counts of Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Felony ("PFDCF"), and three counts of Conspiracy Second Degree. Gonzalez frames his appeal as making one claim, but it contains parts. He contends that the trial court abused its discretion by providing the jury with a supplemental instruction on accomplice liability after the jury had begun deliberations, and he also contends that once a decision was made to give the instruction, the instruction should have included an instruction on individualized culpability under 11 Del C. § 274. Gonzalez contends that these errors deprived him of a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.

         (2) On May 31, 2015, the New Castle County Police were dispatched to Christiana Hospital to speak with victims of a shooting that had occurred at Lancaster Court Apartments. Upon arrival at the hospital, Officer Jonathan Feliciano was able to speak to one of the victims, Gabriel Juarez, Jr. ("Juarez, Jr."). The other two victims of the shooting were already in the operating room at that time. Officer Feliciano took Juarez, Jr. back to the Lancaster Court Apartments, the scene of the crime. Upon their arrival at the apartment complex, the scene was taped off, and other officers had secured the area. Juarez, Jr. confirmed that the scene was the location of the shooting and Officer Feliciano transported him back to the hospital.

         (3) Following the shooting, Nathanial Gonzalez ("Gonzalez") and his brother, Isaiah Gonzalez ("Isaiah"), were identified as suspects. While at the scene of the shooting, the police discovered what appeared to be a bloody shoeprint that crossed the threshold of the door to apartment A. Based on that information, the New Castle police obtained and executed a search warrant on apartment A. During the search of the apartment, the police recovered a blood-stained hat, a long gun case for either a rifle or a shotgun, and ammunition for .20 gauge and . 12 gauge shotguns. The detectives also found evidence that Gonzalez and Isaiah were occupants of the apartment.

         (4) During the investigation, the three victims were each shown two photo line-ups, one containing a photo of Gonzalez and one containing a photo of Isaiah. One of the victims was able to make identifications of Gonzalez and Isaiah. Following the identifications via the photo line-ups, arrest warrants were issued for Gonzalez and Isaiah. Three days after the shooting, both were taken into custody. After Gonzalez was arrested, he was interviewed by the New Castle County Police. His taped interview was played during the trial.

         (5) Prior to Gonzalez's trial, Isaiah resolved the charges against him by pleading guilty to Conspiracy and PFDCF. During Gonzalez's trial, Isaiah testified on behalf of the defense. He stated that on May 31, 2015, he and Gonzalez went to a family barbeque. Isaiah stated that he and his brother separated and Isaiah returned to his apartment. Gonzalez returned to the apartment later and seemed scared. Isaiah heard a commotion outside the apartment, and when he opened the door, he saw about five men approaching in the vestibule, shouting and "throwing up gang signs."[1] One pointed at a gang tattoo. The men did not have any weapons. Isaiah, however, loaded a shotgun. He said the men were trying to come into the apartment and were attacking the two of them. Isaiah pointed the .12 gauge, double-barrel shot gun, which he held at them, and told them to leave, but they began pulling on the weapon, and because his finger was on both triggers, he testified, the weapon went off during the struggle, firing two shots simultaneously. He testified that one person was struck by the shotgun blasts. Then the men took the gun from Isaiah, and pointed it at Gonzalez and Isaiah, but the gun was out of ammunition. The men then began to leave and Isaiah left the apartment and ran in the opposite direction from them.

         (6) Gonzalez testified on his own behalf. He testified that on the evening of the incident, he was walking home with three friends from a barbeque when he passed a group of men. He stated that the when he and his friends arrived at his apartment, they all stayed outside of his apartment while he smoked a cigarette. At that point, Juarez, Jr. approached and began to say "South 13 Surenos, " the name of a gang, in Spanish and was displaying gang signs with his hands.[2] As the group of men approached Gonzalez, Gonzalez told the group that he was not gang affiliated. His friends left.

         (7) Gonzalez testified that he was threatened and that he had heard the word "pistol" in Spanish.[3] Gonzalez then retreated to his apartment. He testified that Isaiah was the only one home and that they were able to hear a commotion coming from outside the apartment complex. Gonzalez testified that he retrieved two shotguns from underneath the mattress of his back room. He stated that he returned to the apartment door just as the group was entering the apartment complex. He had one shotgun and Isaiah had possession of the other. Gonzalez testified that he told Juarez, Jr., one of the men that entered the vestibule of his apartment, to leave the building. He stated that the gun was pointed downward and that he and Juarez, Jr. began to struggle for the gun. At that point, the gun discharged. After the weapon was discharged, the struggle for the weapon continued. He stated that his brother's weapon discharged after his weapon. He then let go of the weapon in his hands to help his brother. He testified that after his brother's weapon discharged twice, the group of men began to retreat. Gonzalez retrieved both of the shotguns and then left the complex alone. Gonzalez stated that his girlfriend then picked him up and dropped him off at 5th and Rodney. In response to a question about why he used the shotgun, Gonzalez stated "I brought the shotguns out to more or less scare them away to get them to back off, my intentions were never to, for any of that to happen the way it did."[4]

         (8) When Gonzalez was arrested, he was in possession of a cell phone, which the police identified as being his. A photo of two shotguns was saved on Gonzalez's cell phone. Detectives also found numerous text messages on Gonzalez's cell phone discussing the shooting.

         (9) The State called a fingerprint expert. The expert was able to determine that the fingerprints lifted from a Winchester shots shell box found in the apartment belonged to Gonzalez. The expert noted on cross-examination that additional prints from a vitamin water bottle recovered at the scene matched Gonzalez as well.

         (10) During the trial, Gabriel Juarez-Diaz ("Juarez-Diaz") testified about the events of May 31, 2015. He testified that he went to the liquor store to purchase beer and then joined a group of men that included his son, Juarez, Jr., two nephews, and Felipe. The group decided to hang out outside of the Lancaster Court Apartments. He further stated that while they were at the apartments, a group of four men passed them. Juarez-Diaz testified that the men turned around, came back, and that is when the argument began. He stated that the group of unknown men began verbally arguing with his nephews and then the argument became physical. Juarez-Diaz testified that he attempted to separate the groups. He stated that during the altercation he was struck. Then, at some point after the fight outside, the other group of unknown males went into the apartment building and returned with guns. He stated that after the guns were brought out, his son and nephews attempted to take them away from the unknown males. He stated that during this struggle for the guns, one of the guns was fired and he was struck. He indicated that he was struck in the upper right shoulder and injured on his left ring finger. On cross-examination, Juarez-Diaz could not describe or remember who had shot him. Juarez-Diaz's injuries and the injuries of the other two victims were verified through the testimony of other witnesses.

         (11) At the close of trial, the Court held a prayer conference during which the parties discussed the jury instructions. During this conference, there was no discussion of accomplice liability. During closings, defense counsel discussed Gonzalez's claim of self-defense. In addition, he argued that there was no intent to cause serious physical injury. Defense counsel stated, "It's a shot to the foot. He has the gun down, he's shooting down. Where is the intent there to cause serious physical injury to somebody?"[5] In regard to the conspiracy charges, ...

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