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Baldwin v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

June 29, 2017

CLEVELAND A. BALDWIN, Defendant Below-Appellant,
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below-Appellee.

          Submitted: April 7, 2017

         Court Below-Superior Court of the State of Delaware Cr. ID 1308009488A (N)

         Upon appeal from the Superior Court. AFFIRMED in part and REVERSED and REMANDED in part.

          Cleveland A. Baldwin, pro se, Smyrna, Delaware.

          Gregory E. Smith, Esquire, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellee State of Delaware.

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

          STRINE, Chief Justice.

         The Superior Court Rule of Criminal Procedure that governs postconviction relief, Rule 61, has the difficult job of striking the balance between fair consideration of postconviction claims and the preservation of scarce defense resources. It does so by granting access to counsel for certain first petitions, [1] but also by allowing the Superior Court to weed out by summary dismissal claims that lack colorable merit.[2] Here, the Superior Court used that gating mechanism to summarily dismiss all the claims of a first petitioner without appointment of counsel for him, without adversarial briefing, and without any factual record beyond the form petition and trial record. On appeal, we conclude that the Superior Court was correct in most of its rulings, but that as to one claim, the Superior Court erred by not recognizing the potential merits of the claim and appointing counsel for the petitioner to present it in a more adequate way.


         The appellant, Cleveland Baldwin, filed this appeal from the Superior Court's summary dismissal of his first timely motion for postconviction relief. The charges against Baldwin that led to the convictions he seeks to overturn were based on the allegation that he, along with two other black men, assaulted a tenant who supposedly owed Baldwin's aunt back rent. To wit, the State alleged that Baldwin confronted the victim, complained that he had disrespected his aunt, and pulled a pipe out of his pants and beat him with it. Meanwhile, Baldwin's confreres joined in by punching and kicking the victim. At trial, the State relied exclusively on testimony by the victim, who said Baldwin committed the attack. The record is clear that there were inconsistencies between the victim's testimony and statements the victim had made to investigating officers. For his part, Baldwin's defense rested on the proposition that he was not present when the attack occurred, and he testified to that effect. Baldwin's aunt also testified that she witnessed the victim being beaten up by three unknown white men. She denied seeing a pipe.

         After the trial concluded, a Superior Court jury convicted Baldwin of one count each of Assault in the First Degree, Possession of a Deadly Weapon During the Commission of a Felony, Carrying a Concealed Deadly Weapon, and Conspiracy in the Second Degree. On February 13, 2015, the Superior Court sentenced Baldwin to a total period of eight years at Level V incarceration, to be suspended after serving a minimum mandatory term of four years for decreasing levels of supervision. This Court affirmed Baldwin's convictions on direct appeal.[3]

         On September 29, 2016, Baldwin, acting pro se, filed his first timely motion for postconviction relief asserting three claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and one claim that the trial court erred in failing to strike a portion of the victim's testimony. At the time he filed his motion, Superior Court Criminal Rule 61(e)(1) provided, in part, that the Superior Court "shall appoint counsel for an indigent movant's first timely postconviction motion and request for appointment of counsel if the motion seeks to set aside . . . a judgment of conviction after a trial that has been affirmed by final order upon direct appellate review and is for a crime designated as a class A, B, or C felony under 11 Del. C. § 4205(b) . . . ."[4] Although Baldwin was convicted of two class B felonies, among others, and his convictions had been imposed after a trial and affirmed on appeal to this Court, he did not file a motion for the appointment of counsel.

         Baldwin's motion was filed on the form that the Superior Court provides for litigants under Rule 61. The form consists of three pages. The accompanying instructions provide that all grounds for relief must be set forth in the proper space on the form. Petitioners are given three lines to set forth each claim and are informed that no additional pages are permitted, although they may use the reverse side of the sheet. If they wish to submit legal arguments, they are told they may file a separate memorandum, but are not required to do so.

         Upon preliminary consideration, the Superior Court summarily dismissed Baldwin's petition under Rule 61(d)(5). Rule 61(d)(5) provides, "[i]f it plainly appears from the motion for postconviction relief and the record of prior proceedings in the case that the movant is not entitled to relief, the judge may enter an order for its summary dismissal and cause the movant to be notified."[5] Although the petition was summarily dismissed, the Superior Court, in fact, issued a formal decision analyzing and addressing each of Baldwin's claims in some depth, considering both the procedural bars of Rule ...

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