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State v. Miller

Superior Court of Delaware

May 11, 2017

STATE OF DELAWARE,
v.
RASHAUN MILLER, OMAR BROWN, KAHLIL LEWIS, EUGENIA WATSON, SAMUEL TURNER, KALIEF RINGGOLD, JANARD BROWN, CURTIS FINNEY, Defendants.

          Submitted: March 20, 2017

         On Defendants' Motions for Postconviction Relief- DENIED.

          Elizabeth McFarlan, Esquire, Department of Justice, Attorney for State of Delaware.

          J. Brendan O'Neill, Esquire, Nicole Walker, Esquire, Attorneys for Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          William C. Carpenter, Jr., Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This decision concerns motions filed pursuant to Superior Court Criminal Rule 61 by the Office of Defense Services ("ODS") on behalf of eight defendants seeking postconviction relief based on conduct at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ("OCME") involving the mishandling of narcotics evidence. In 2014, the Delaware State Police and the Department of Justice ("DOJ") began investigating reports of criminal misconduct in the OCME's Controlled Substances Unit. The investigation has since been addressed in publicly available reports and a series of judicial opinions by the Delaware Supreme Court and the Superior Court.[1]

         All eight defendants were convicted of drug-related offenses between 2010 and 2013. Five of these convictions resulted from guilty pleas, two defendants were convicted following stipulated bench trials, and one defendant was convicted after a jury trial. Their postconviction claims are all essentially premised upon the State's non-disclosure of potential impeachment or Brady v. Maryland[2] material concerning the misconduct at the OCME. The motions of the defendants who pleaded guilty additionally assert that their pleas must be deemed "involuntary" under Brady v. United States and that the State must be estopped from arguing otherwise because of its position in other criminal proceedings, involving other criminal defendants.

         The instant motions are just a small sample of the influx of filings made by and on behalf of over 700 criminal defendants following what has come to be known as "the OCME scandal." The ODS hand-selected the motions in these eight cases for the Court to decide and, because motions filed by the ODS in other cases are identical to those involved here, its decision in these matters should resolve many of the pending Rule 61 motions before the Court. Before addressing the procedural and legal issues raised in the motions, the Court will review the relevant facts of each defendant's case.

         II. FACTS

         A. Rashaun Miller

         Rashaun Miller was arrested on January 14, 2010, after the Delaware State Police received specific information from a cooperating individual regarding a drug delivery. A large quantity of heroin and a firearm were recovered in connection with Miller's arrest and subsequently sent to the OCME for testing.[3] On March 1, 2010, a New Castle County grand jury indicted Miller on a number of drug and weapons offenses. A superseding indictment was entered on April 26, 2010, charging Miller with Trafficking in Heroin, Possession With Intent to Deliver, Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Felony ("PFDCF"), Maintaining a Vehicle, Possession of a Deadly Weapon by a Person Prohibited ("PDWPP"), Possession of a Firearm by a Person Prohibited ("PFPP"), Conspiracy Second Degree, and Resisting Arrest.

         Miller filed a motion to suppress evidence, which the Court denied on June 2, 2010 following an evidentiary hearing. During the hearing, Miller's counsel stipulated to the heroin and the handgun located during the search incident to arrest. In exchange for Miller's willingness to proceed with a stipulated bench trial, the State entered a nolle prosequi as to the Trafficking, Maintaining a Vehicle, Conspiracy, PDWPP, PFPP, and Resisting Arrest charges. At the September 7, 2010 trial, the facts educed at the suppression hearing and the OCME report were admitted into evidence without objection. The Court found Miller guilty of Possession With Intent to Deliver and PFDCF and sentenced him to ten years at Level V, followed by eight months Level IV Halfway House and two years Level III probation*

         Miller challenged the Superior Court's denial of this suppression motion on appeal, arguing that the police lacked reasonable articulable suspicion and probable cause to arrest and detain him. The Delaware Supreme Court rejected Miller's contentions and affirmed the trial court's decision on August 11, 2011.[4] He filed his first pro se Motion for Postconviction Relief on October 12, 2011, which was denied on April 24, 2013 and affirmed on January 14, 2014.[5] On April 30, 2014, counsel filed the instant postconviction motion on Miller's behalf, along with eleven supplements thereafter.

         B. Omar Brown [6]

         Omar Brown was arrested on September 16, 2010. A search incident to arrest uncovered $1, 241 and what appeared to be crack cocaine in Brown's possession. On October 25, 2010, a New Castle County grand jury indicted Brown on charges of Possession with Intent to Deliver a Narcotic Schedule I Controlled Substance, Possession of a Controlled Substance within 300 Feet of a Park, Possession of a Controlled Substance within 1000 Feet of a School, and Criminal Impersonation. Brown filed a Motion to Suppress Evidence on December 29, 2010, which the Court denied following an evidentiary hearing. Brown elected to proceed with a stipulated trial, thereby preserving the right to appeal the Court's ruling on his suppression motion.

         The drugs recovered in Brown's case were sent to the OCME for testing. The lab report, completed by forensic chemist Theresa Moore on February 9, 2011, reflects that the substance tested positive for cocaine with a net weight of 2.28 grams.[7] At trial, Brown's counsel advised the Court that Brown would stipulate to the accuracy of the OCME lab report and that "there were drugs and they did weigh 2.2 grams."[8] On May 26, 2011, the trial judge found Brown guilty on all charges. He was sentenced as a habitual offender to a mandatory three-year term of incarceration followed by descending levels of supervision. The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed Brown's convictions on October 31, 2011.[9]

         Brown filed his first pro se motion for postconviction relief on August 27, 2013. Conflict counsel was appointed and subsequently withdrew from representation. The ODS filed the instant motion on May 7, 2014 based on the misconduct at the OCME, in addition to two supplements filed December 21, 2015 and April 11, 2016.

         C. Kahlil Lewis

         On November 28, 2011, Kahlil Lewis was arrested and subsequently indicted for Drug Dealing and PFDCF, following a search of the home he shared with two of his relatives, Idaes Lewis and Shaqille Lewis. Police suspected Idaes and Shaqille in connection with two recent burglaries. While searching the Lewis' home for the stolen items, officers uncovered a box containing eight small bags filled with a white substance, which field-tested positive for heroin, and a wallet with Kahlil Lewis's ID.

         While the probable cause affidavit for the arrest warrant and indictment both charge Lewis with possessing "heroin, "[10] the lab report completed by Irshad Bajwa of the OCME on April 10, 2012 identified the substances as "oxycodone tablets."[11] The State sent the report to Lewis's defense counsel on April 26, 2012. Despite the discrepancy between the drugs identified in the OCME report and the drugs he was charged with possessing, Lewis pleaded guilty to Drug Dealing on June 8, 2012.[12] During the plea colloquy, Lewis acknowledged that the drugs were heroin, which he claimed he received in exchange for Percocet.[13]

         The Court sentenced Lewis to eight years Level V incarceration, suspended for one year of Level III probation. While on probation, Lewis was convicted of PFBPP and sentenced to seven years of total unsuspended time. He was sentenced to eight years at Level V for violating probation, served consecutive with the PFBPP sentence. Lewis's counsel filed this Motion for Postconviction Relief in light of the OCME investigation on May 9, 2014. Thirteen supplements were filed thereafter.

         D. Eugenia Watson

         Eugenia Watson was arrested on April 5, 2012. She was indicted thereafter on charges of Drug Dealing Heroin, Aggravated Possession of Heroin, and Maintaining a Drug Property. Police seized a significant quantity of drugs in connection with Watson's arrest which field-tested positive for heroin and were sent to the OCME for further testing. According to the lab report, completed by forensic chemist Bipin Mody, a representative sample of the drugs tested positive for heroin.[14] The State faxed the report to Watson's counsel on October 12, 2012.

         On October 23, 2012, Watson pleaded guilty to Aggravated Possession of Heroin in a Tier 5 quantity. Watson was declared a habitual offender and sentenced on January 11, 2013 to eight years Level V incarceration, followed by six months Level III probation. Watson filed her first postconviction motion on May 8, 2014 and has since filed thirteen supplements to that motion.

         E. Samuel Turner

         Samuel Turner was arrested on July 12, 2012 and subsequently indicted on Drug Dealing and Possession of a Controlled Substance (tier five quantity) charges. Officers recovered approximately 53.4 grams of a substance which field-tested positive for cocaine in connection with Turner's arrest. The OCME lab report of Bipin Mody, dated December 5, 2012, indicated that the drugs tested positive for cocaine.[15] The State sent the OCME report to defense counsel on December 19, 2012.

         On December 21, 2012, Turner pleaded guilty to two counts of Aggravated Possession of cocaine. Turner was sentenced as a habitual offender on March 8, 2013 to ten years of Level V incarceration, followed by six months of Level IV work release. His motion for postconviction relief was filed on June 19, 2014 and amended on December 12, 2014. Eleven supplements to the motion have also been filed.

         F. Kalief Ringgold

         Kalief Ringgold was arrested on September 6, 2012. He was indicted on charges of Drug Dealing, Tampering with Physical Evidence, and Possession of a Controlled or Counterfeit Substance. A number of small blue bags filled with white powdery substance, $165 in cash, and four cell phones were recovered in Ringgold's possession at the time of his arrest. The white power field-tested positive for heroin.

         Ringgold filed a Motion to Suppress on January 2, 2013. On January 7, 2013, Theresa Moore of the OCME tested the drugs in Ringgold's case and her report reflects that the substance tested positive for heroin.[16] Following a hearing on January 30, 2013, the trial court denied Ringgold's suppression motion. On February 7, 2013, Ringgold entered a plea agreement resolving his drug offenses in addition to other unrelated charges. He pleaded guilty to Drug Dealing and PFBPP, and was sentenced on the drug charge to thirteen years of Level V incarceration, suspended after three years for two years of Level III probation. Ringgold's postconviction motion was filed on June 19, 2014 and later amended on December 11, 2014. Eleven supplements to his amended motion have been filed.

         G. Janard Brown

         Janard Brown was arrested on September 10, 2012. While conducting a search incident to arrest, police located $483 and what appeared to be crack cocaine on Brown's person. A New Castle County grand jury indicted Brown on charges of Drug Dealing and Driving While Suspended on November 5, 2012. He was reindicted on July 8, 2013 on Drug Dealing and Driving After Judgment Prohibited charges.

         On April 23, 2013, Brown filed a motion to suppress, which the trial court denied following a hearing. At trial, Brown stipulated to the admission of an OCME lab report completed on December 26, 2012 by forensic chemist Patricia A. Phillips. Phillips's report identifies the drugs in Brown's case as 0.85 grams of cocaine.[17] The jury ultimately found Brown guilty of all charges and he was sentenced on October 11, 2013 to an aggregate nine years, followed by descending levels of supervision. The Supreme Court of Delaware affirmed Brown's convictions on October 9, 2014.[18]

         On January 30, 2015, Brown filed a pro se motion for postconviction relief. Postconviction counsel then filed the instant motion on August 20, 2015 and two supplements to the motion were filed thereafter.

         H. Curtis Finney

         Curtis Finney was arrested on February 7, 2013. The police recovered a number of drugs which field-tested positive for heroin and crack cocaine in connection with Finney's arrest. On April 15, 2013, a New Castle County grand jury issued an indictment charging Finney with Aggravated Drug Dealing, Conspiracy Second Degree, and Resisting Arrest.

         On June 4, 2013, one day prior to his scheduled "Fast Track" hearing, Finney pleaded guilty to one count of Drug Dealing. The plea agreement also resolved a violation of probation in connection with a 2012 conviction for Escape Second Degree. The same day, the Court sentenced Finney to eight years at Level V, suspended for 18 months of probation for the Drug Dealing offense and six months Level V for the Escape VOP.

         Finney did not have an OCME lab report prior to entering his guilty plea. Nevertheless, he, through counsel from the ODS, moved for postconviction relief on May 9, 2014 based on the OCME misconduct. Fourteen supplemental pleadings have also since been filed.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Prior to addressing the merits of a motion for postconviction relief, the Court would normally apply the procedural requirements set forth in Superior Court Criminal Rule 6l.[19] Under Rule 6l(i), the Court cannot consider postconviction motions that: (1) are filed more than one year after the final judgment of conviction;[20] (2) are repetitive or successive;[21] (3) contain claims not asserted in the proceedings leading to the judgment of conviction, unless both "cause for relief from procedural default and "prejudice from violation of the movant's rights" can be shown;[22] or (4) that raise grounds for relief that were formerly adjudicated.[23] Rule 6l(i)(5) sets forth certain exceptions, which, where applicable, allow the Court to consider an otherwise procedurally-barred postconviction claim.[24] Because Rule 61 was significantly amended on June 4, 2014, the Court will consider later in the Opinion when each defendant filed his or her respective motion and apply the version of the Rule in effect at that time.[25]

         As will be outlined in Part D of this Opinion, most of the postconviction motions here are procedurally barred. That said, the Court believes it is only fair and appropriate to address the merits of the claims made in the various petitions filed in these cases given the impact this decision is expected to have on hundreds of other pending motions seeking Rule 61 relief on identical grounds. In general, all of the motions argue that the State violated Brady v. Maryland by failing to disclose material impeachment evidence pertaining to the misconduct of OCME employees prior to the defendants' trials or the entry of his or her guilty plea. The motions of the defendants who pleaded guilty also assert that their pleas must be deemed "involuntary, " in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because they were influenced by egregious governmental misconduct and misrepresentations made by the State during discovery. Finally, these defendants contend that the State must be estopped from arguing their pleas were "knowing and voluntary" because it took an inconsistent position in "separate proceedings against separate criminal defendants."[26] As set forth below, all of these positions are without merit.

         A. Brady v. Maryland

         The primary argument presented in these motions is that the State failed to disclose the ongoing misconduct at the OCME to the defendants at the time their cases were pending and such failure violated their rights under Brady v. Maryland. In Brady v. Maryland, the United States Supreme Court held that the State's failure to disclose evidence favorable to an accused violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[27] To comply with the State's obligations under Brady, a prosecutor must "disclose all relevant information obtained by the police or others in the Attorney General's Office to the defense" and uphold its duty "to learn of any favorable evidence known to the others acting on the government's behalf in the case...."[28] There are three components of a Brady violation: "(1) evidence exists that is favorable to the accused, because it is either exculpatory or impeaching; (2) that evidence is suppressed by the State; and (3) its suppression prejudices the defendant."[29] To satisfy the prejudice prong, a defendant is required to demonstrate that the suppressed evidence "creates a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different."[30]

         The defendants assert that the State suppressed valuable impeachment evidence when it failed to disclose that the drugs submitted to the OCME were being tampered with and/or stolen from the lab. This evidence was material, they maintain, because it would have frustrated the State's ability to authenticate and prove that the drugs in defendants' cases were, in fact, unlawful controlled substances. The motions of the defendants convicted at trial argue there is a reasonable probability the outcome of their trials would be different because information about ongoing misconduct at the OCME could have been used to cross examine forensic analysts and "seriously jeopardize[]" the State's ability to prove its case. The defendants who pleaded guilty maintain there is a reasonable probability they would have negotiated more favorable plea agreements or have gone to trial. Because the OCME-related evidence was not disclosed, the motions argue that the defendants' convictions must be vacated under Brady v. Maryland.

         With regard to impeachment evidence, there is an important distinction between what the constitution demands of the State in the trial context versus prior to entering a plea agreement. "[I]mpeachment information is special in relation to the fairness of a trial... ."[31] While the Constitution's "fair trial" guarantee entitles defendants to receive impeachment evidence from the State, "a defendant who pleads guilty forgoes a fair trial as well as various other accompanying constitutional guarantees."[32] Indeed, there is no constitutional requirement that the State "disclose material impeachment evidence prior to entering a plea agreement with a criminal defendant[.]"[33]

         In addressing OCME-related claims similar to those asserted here, the Delaware Supreme Court has made clear that "[a] defendant has no constitutional right to receive material impeachment evidence before deciding to plead guilty, and [a] knowing, intelligent, and voluntary guilty plea waive[s] any right.. .to test the strength of the State's evidence.. .at trial, including.. .chain of custody of.. .drug evidence."[34] The Court recognized, however, that "materially different situations" may justify a contrary result:

For example, where a defendant entered a reluctant, but fully informed, no contest or guilty plea to lesser charges with no prison sentence to avoid the risk of a lengthy prison sentence on more serious charges, while proclaiming his factual innocence and expressing incredulity that the substance he claimed was legal had tested to be illegal narcotics, a later revelation that evidence planting had occurred in the relevant police department and that the defendant had been one of the victims of that misconduct, that situation could raise distinct considerations from those in this case, where the defendant freely admitted that he possessed illegal drugs.[35]

         This situation is not present here. Defendants Lewis, Watson, Ringgold, Turner, and Finney freely admitted to possessing and/or dealing the controlled substances involved in their respective cases and, in doing so, relinquished any right to learn of impeachment evidence.[36] None of these defendants assert their pleas were false or make claims of actual innocence. As such, "[n]othing about the regrettable problems at the OCME.. .caused any injustice to" these defendants under Brady v. Maryland.[37]

         With regard to the defendants who were convicted at trial, the motions ignore that the identity and weight of the drugs was undisputed in all three cases. Facts concerning the controlled substances and the OCME lab reports were stipulated to and admitted into evidence without objection. Our courts have recognized that, "[w]here a defendant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily agreed to stipulated facts at trial regarding the drug evidence in that matter, the defendant has waived his [or her] right to test the chain of custody of that drug evidence."[38] Because there was no testimony by OCME employees presented at these trials, defendants' assertion that they were denied the opportunity to use the impeachment evidence on cross-examination holds little weight.[39] Rather, Defendants Miller, Omar Brown, and Janard Brown effectively waived their rights to challenge the drug evidence at trial.[40]

         Further, there is no indication that evidence of misconduct by OCME employees would have altered the outcome of these defendants' trials. In all three cases, there was significant evidence of guilt, as discussed further infra.[41] Additionally, neither Mr. Miller nor Omar Brown provided any evidence to support that the events at the OCME affected their cases specifically.[42] While the drugs in Janard Brown's case were tested by Patricia Phillips, a former OCME chemist who was implicated in the investigation, the testing occurred in 2012 and the personnel documents supplied indicate that the three incidents of evidence mishandling leading to her suspension and resignation occurred in 2015. This evidence did not exist at the time of Janard Brown's trial and cannot, as a result, support a claim under Brady., [43] Ultimately, any potential impeachment evidence based on the OCME misconduct does not place the convictions of these defendants in such a light so as to "undermine confidence" in their guilty verdicts.[44]

         Importantly, in all of these cases, the defendants never contested that the substances seized from them upon arrest were not illegal drugs. While some cases involve lab reports completed by former OCME employees whose conduct was implicated following the investigation, that "does not mean that the State had any evidence or knowledge of the drylabbing at the time" these defendants were tried or entered pleas between 2010 and 2013.[45] Evidence of the unfortunate practices and events transpiring at the OCME did not exist until early 2014, and there can be "no retroactive Brady violation for failing to report what was not known."[46]

         B. Voluntariness of Pleas Under Brady v. United States

         The motions of defendants who pleaded guilty to drug offenses additionally argue that, regardless of whether the State was required to disclose general impeachment evidence prior to their plea agreements, their pleas must be deemed involuntary under Brady v. United States[47] due to: (1) egregious government misconduct, and (2) the State's representation, regardless of good faith, that it had produced all Brady v. Maryland material.[48] These arguments are likewise without merit, Because a defendant's decision to plead guilty to a criminal offense entails a simultaneous waiver of certain constitutional rights, due process demands that decision be knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily made.[49] Under Brady v. United States, a guilty plea is "involuntary" if "induced by threats (or promises to discontinue improper harassment), misrepresentation (including unfulfilled or unfulfillable promises), or perhaps by promises that are by their nature improper.. . (e.g. bribes)."[50] As long as a defendant can '"with the help of counsel, rationally weigh the advantages of going to trial against the advantages of pleading guilty, '... there is no constitutional cause for concern."[51]

         In Brewer v. State[52] and Aricidiacono v. State[53] among other decisions, [54] the Delaware Supreme Court rejected claims nearly identical to those raised in the instant motions. Like the defendants here, the defendants in those cases knowingly admitted to possessing and/or dealing illegal drugs and, in seeking postconviction relief, never once argued they were in fact innocent or that their pleas were false or coerced.[55] Nor did the defendants in Aricidiacono and Brewer contend that the State knew about the problems at the OCME at the time of their pleas and failed to disclose those problems. Instead the defendants claimed, like defendants do here, that they "would not have pled or would have gotten better deals if they had known of the problems at the OCME."[56] Under such circumstances, the Delaware Supreme Court has made clear that, absent allegations of factual innocence or improper coercion by the State, the problems at the OCME supply no basis for setting aside a defendant's knowing, valid guilty pleas as involuntary.[57]

         Further, in Aricidiacono, the Court noted that "even if there was conduct at the OCME that could be said to be egregious, we have determined, in accordance with our prior reasoning ..., that this conduct did not materially affect any of the pleas."[58] On this point, the Court emphasized that the defendants there either entered pleas before receiving OCME reports or failed to contend that their pleas were false because of some improper government misconduct; "rather in each case, the defendant knowingly admitted to his [or her] unlawful possession of illegal drugs."[59]

         The same is true of the defendants here.[60] There is nothing to indicate these defendants' pleas were anything less than knowing, voluntary, and entered following full and complete colloquies, during which they freely admitted to possessing illegal controlled substances.[61] Noticeably absent from the instant motions is any allegation of improper coercion or anything to suggest these defendants were "strong-armed by State agents" in a manner that compromised their abilities to rationally weigh the advantages and disadvantages of trial.[62] Defendants' argument that they were "affirmatively misled" by the State's representation in standard discovery forms that "at that time" the State was unaware of any Brady v. Maryland material other than the enclosed materials is unpersuasive.

         Ultimately, "it may be the case that knowing about the OCME problems would have given the defendants more bargaining leverage, " but clear Delaware precedent prevents the Court from finding "that possibility.. .a basis for concluding that the defendants were unfairly convicted after a voluntary plea."[63] Given the absence of any rational allegation that the guilty pleas here had been coerced or falsely made, the Court finds no basis to upset defendants' convictions.

         C. Estoppel

         Finally, defendants argue that the State should be "estopped" from arguing their pleas were voluntary based on the State's earlier request in an unrelated case that the guilty plea be vacated based on the OCME misconduct.

         In that case, Eric Young pleaded guilty to drug dealing and second degree conspiracy in September 2013. His co-defendant, Jermaine Dollard, was convicted in November 2013 following a week-long jury trial of drug dealing, aggravated possession of cocaine, and second degree conspiracy. Dollard maintained, throughout trial and on appeal, that the substance seized from him was not cocaine.[64] While Dollard's case was on direct appeal, the State learned of the conduct occurring at the OCME and the Delaware Supreme Court stayed the appeal and remanded the case to the Superior Court. The trial judge ordered the drugs in Dollard's case be retested, which revealed the substance in his case was not an illicit substance. In the meantime, Young filed a Rule 61 motion. Because Young's indictment was based upon the same drugs used to convict Dollard, the State agreed to allow Young to withdraw his guilty plea. There is no indication that the State, in agreeing to this course of action, ever took the position that Young's original plea was "involuntary." Nevertheless, a new deal was negotiated and Young pleaded guilty to second degree conspiracy.

         Under the doctrine of judicial estoppel, "a party may be precluded from asserting in a legal proceeding, a position inconsistent with a position previously taken by him [or her] in the same or in an earlier legal proceeding."[65] Application of the doctrine here would be limited to the State's previous positions in proceedings involving the same defendant[66] Importantly, the doctrine is ...


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