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Lacombe v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

May 17, 2017

CLAUDE LACOMBE, Defendant Below, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: May 3, 2017

         Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware Cr. I.D. No. 1201018188 (N).

          Before VALIHURA, VAUGHN, and SEITZ, Justices.

          ORDER

          Karen L. Valihura Justice

         This 17th day of May 2017, upon consideration of the briefs and record on appeal, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) Claude Lacombe ("Lacombe") appeals from the Superior Court's October 25, 2016 decision summarily dismissing his Amended Motion for Postconviction Relief (the "Motion").[1] In his Motion, Lacombe raised three ineffective assistance of counsel claims. He argued that his lawyers in the Superior Court ("Trial Counsel") failed to present mitigating evidence during sentencing and failed to demand specific performance of his plea agreement. As to his plea agreement, Lacombe claims that the State breached its implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing at the sentencing hearing by tacitly arguing for a lengthier sentence than the twenty-two years which the State had agreed to recommend. He also contended that his lawyer on direct appeal ("Appellate Counsel") ineffectively argued that his life sentence was disproportionate.[2] In dismissing the Motion, the Superior Court held that Lacombe's claim that his Appellate Counsel was ineffective was procedurally barred, and that his other claims were without merit. [3] We have considered all three claims on the merits and AFFIRM the dismissal of Lacombe's Motion.

         (2) On December 26, 2011, Lacombe, his brother, Paul, Elijah Pressley, and Christie Emmons participated in what they planned to be a robbery of two drug dealers. Lacombe and Emmons waited in Emmons' car while Paul and Pressley got into the victims' car. While in the car, Paul shot and killed both of the victims.[4]

         (3) Lacombe agreed to plead guilty to Murder in the Second Degree, Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Felony ("PFDCF"), Attempted Robbery in the First Degree, and Conspiracy in the Second Degree, and the State agreed to recommend a sentence of twenty-two years at Level V incarceration, followed by decreasing levels of supervision. The total mandatory minimum sentence was 21 years. During Lacombe's guilty plea colloquy, Lacombe indicated that he understood that the Superior Court would not be bound by the State's recommendation and could lawfully impose a penalty of life imprisonment for second degree murder, plus additional time on the related charges.

         (4) The Superior Court sentenced Lacombe and Paul together. At sentencing, the State presented argument on the two brothers' relative culpability. Although Paul actually shot the two victims, the State highlighted his cooperation with the police, his acceptance of responsibility, and his mental illness as reasons to seek a life sentence rather than the death penalty. The State portrayed Lacombe as the "mastermind" behind the incident. According to the State, Lacombe remained out of sight during the robbery "because it was his intent to rob [the victims] again later, and he didn't want them to know who he was."[5]

         (5) The State recommended a sentence of 22 years for Lacombe as required by the plea agreement:

So even after two people are dead, four people are arrested, the person most responsible is trying to take responsibility for what he did, we have the older brother, the mastermind, the puppet master, still trying to control the outcome of this.
So don't be fooled when you consider what sentence to give Claude by the fact that he stayed in the car when this robbery and double homicide occurred. He didn't pull the trigger, but he may as well have, because he set the whole thing in play.
Now, he has pled to a series of charges before this Court, and the State is recommending that he receive 22 years Level V time followed by a lengthy period of probation when he is released.[6]

         (6) Paul pled guilty, but mentally ill, to one count of first degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. The Superior Court also sentenced Lacombe to life in prison for second degree murder plus ten unsuspended years of imprisonment on the three remaining charges, despite the State's recommendation and the fact that Lacombe pled to a lesser degree of murder.[7] The court rejected the State's "mastermind" theory, but noted that Lacombe was "a significant factor in the planning and determination of the events that transpired"[8] and viewed his role "as being fairly equal in different respects to that of [his] brother . . . ."[9] This Court affirmed the judgment of sentence on direct appeal on May 30, 2014.[10]

         (7) In his Motion, Lacombe argued that Trial Counsel was ineffective at sentencing by failing to present mitigating evidence and failing to demand specific performance of his plea agreement. Lacombe also contended that Appellate Counsel was ineffective for failing to cite comparable cases illustrating the disproportionality of his sentence. In dismissing the Motion, the Superior Court held that Lacombe's Appellate Counsel claim was procedurally barred as previously litigated pursuant to Superior Court Criminal Rule 61(i)(4). The Superior Court further held that Trial Counsel's performance was objectively reasonable and that Lacombe failed to demonstrate prejudice from any alleged deficiency.

         (8) This Court "review[s] the Superior Court's denial of a motion for post-conviction relief for abuse of discretion."[11] "Constitutional questions and other questions of law are reviewed de novo."[12]

         (9) "To demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must satisfy two requirements" as set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington.[13] "First, the defendant must establish that his or her 'counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.'"[14] "Doing so requires overcoming a 'strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy.'"[15]"Second, the defendant must demonstrate a 'reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.'"[16] "A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome."[17] A reasonable probability "requires more than a showing 'merely that the conduct could have or might have or it is possible that it would have led to a different result.'"[18]

         (10) Before reaching the merits of the Motion, this Court must determine whether the claims are procedurally barred, applying the version of Superior Court Criminal Rule 61 that was in effect at the time Lacombe filed his pro se motion.[19] The only claim alleged to be procedurally barred is the one concerning Appellate Counsel's performance. The Superior Court held that Lacombe's Appellate Counsel claim was procedurally barred as previously litigated under Rule 61(i)(4), reasoning that, "[a]lthough Defendant now challenges the intensity with which [A]ppellate [C]ounsel presented this issue, the challenge presented was identical to the one Defendant claims should have been raised."[20]Alternatively, the Superior Court stated that Lacombe could not show prejudice, stating that the issue "was fully litigated on Defendant's direct appeal . . . ."[21]

         (11) Although we do not agree that Lacombe's Appellate Counsel argument was previously adjudicated, we reject Lacombe's contentions on appeal. On direct appeal, Appellate Counsel argued that Lacombe's life sentence was grossly disproportionate in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This argument invoked the two-part test established by this Court in Crosby v. State, [22] which provides:

[T]his Court must undertake a threshold comparison of the crime committed and the sentence imposed. If such a comparison leads to an inference of gross disproportionality, then this Court must compare [the defendant's] sentence with other similar cases to determine whether the trial court acted out of step with sentencing norms.[23]

         In his Motion, Lacombe contended that Appellate Counsel failed to provide a meaningful case comparison demonstrating the disproportionality of his sentence under Crosby. Although assessing whether prejudice resulted from this alleged deficiency invokes the Crosby analysis, the argument itself is not that the sentence is disproportionate. Rather, the claim here is that Appellate Counsel was ineffective for citing only one case from another jurisdiction. Lacombe has alleged a specific deficiency in Appellate Counsel's performance that was not raised on direct appeal.[24] Accordingly, we view this argument as not previously litigated and will address it on the merits under Strickland.

         (12) We need not determine whether failing to provide comparable cases was objectively reasonable, because no prejudice resulted.[25] The comparable case analysis relates to the second step of Crosby, which this Court on direct appeal expressly did not reach:

The first part of the disproportionality test requires the Court to compare the crime Lacombe committed with the sentence imposed. Lacombe pled guilty to murder-the most heinous violent crime. Although Lacombe did not pull the trigger, he gave the gun to his mentally ill brother, who was attempting to commit armed robbery. Two people were killed in an incident that Lacombe planned and set in motion. There is nothing extreme, or grossly disproportionate, about sentencing a murderer to life in prison. Because the sentence does not raise an inference of gross disproportionality, the Court does not undertake the second step of the Crosby analysis, where the fact that Lacombe received the same sentence as his brother would be considered. [26]

         Accordingly, Appellate Counsel's failure to provide a survey of comparable cases had no impact on the direct appeal, and Lacombe's Appellate Counsel claim fails the second prong of the Strickland test. We affirm the dismissal of Lacombe's Appellate Counsel claim on the Superior Court's alternative basis that Lacombe has not demonstrated prejudice given this Court's continuing view that there was nothing ...


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