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Cephas v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

July 18, 2017

VERNON CEPHAS, Defendant Below, Appellant,
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: April 20, 2017

         Court Below-Superior Court of the State of Delaware Cr. ID No. 1503005476 (K)

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


          Leo E. Strine, Jr. Chief Justice

         This 18th day of July 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 2015, the appellant, Vernon Cephas, was arrested for having allegedly committed sexual offenses against his girlfriend's seven-year old niece, Theresa.[1] Following his arrest, Cephas was indicted on charges of Rape First Degree, Rape Second Degree, Sexual Solicitation of a Child, and Continuous Sexual Abuse of a Child. Following a four-day jury trial in September 2016, Cephas was convicted of four counts of Unlawful Sexual Contact First Degree (as lesser included offenses of the first degree rape charges) and the other counts in the indictment. After a presentence investigation, the Superior Court sentenced Cephas to a total of seventy-nine unsuspended years of Level V imprisonment. This is Cephas' direct appeal.

         (2) Cephas' Appellate Counsel 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 Cephas with a copy of the motion to withdraw and the no-merit brief in draft form and advised Cephas that he could submit written points for the Court's consideration. Cephas submitted written points and he opposes the motion to withdraw. The State has filed a response to Cephas' points and has moved to affirm the Superior Court's judgment.

         (3) When reviewing a motion to withdraw and 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.[2] The Court also 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."[3]

         (4) In this case, the record reflects that, near the end of February 2015, Theresa told her mother that Cephas had been molesting her. Theresa's mother reported the alleged abuse to the child's pediatrician on March 3, 2015. After talking to Theresa and conducting a physical examination, the pediatrician referred Theresa and her mother to the hospital, where Theresa was seen by a sexual assault nurse examiner. On the 11th of the same month, Theresa was interviewed by a forensic interviewer at the Child Advocacy Center. After the interview, Detective Mark Csapo of the Delaware State Police applied for, and was granted, a warrant for Cephas' arrest.

         (5) Later that day, the police arrested Cephas at his home. After knocking on the door and receiving no response, the police were approached by a juvenile male who allowed them into the home after telling the police that he lived there and that Cephas was inside. When entering the residence, the police announced their presence several times but received no response. The police found Cephas standing in a bedroom closet that was partially closed.

         (6) After Cephas was placed under arrest, he was taken to State Police Troop 3 where he was given Miranda warnings by Detective Csapo.[4] After the warnings were given, Cephas indicated that he wanted to answer the Detective's questions. During the interrogation that followed, Cephas denied some of the accusations, but admitted others.

         (7) In July 2016, Defense Counsel filed a motion to suppress Cephas' statement on the ground that Cephas' waiver of Miranda rights was involuntary. The Superior Court held an evidentiary hearing in early August and issued an order denying the motion to suppress.[5]

         (8) On the first day of trial in September 2016, Defense Counsel moved to reopen the suppression motion to present grounds for suppression that were not previously raised. The additional grounds for suppression were, first, that Cephas had invoked his right to remain silent during the interrogation, and second, that there were possible defects in the timing of the arrest warrant that could render his arrest illegal. The Superior Court denied the motion to reopen after finding "no extraordinary circumstances or good cause" to consider grounds for suppression that Defense Counsel could have raised in the motion to suppress or at the evidentiary hearing.[6]

         (9) On appeal, Cephas claims that the Superior Court erred when denying the motion to suppress and the motion to reopen the motion to suppress. Cephas also claims that: (1) evidence should have been suppressed because of a defect in the application for the arrest warrant; (2) there was insufficient evidence to support his convictions; (3) there were errors in the jury instructions; (4) the prosecutor engaged in improper vouching; (5) the Superior Court was biased; and (6) Defense Counsel was ineffective. Because this is Cephas' direct appeal, we will not consider the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.[7] To the extent the claims were not fairly presented in the Superior Court, our review is limited to plain error.[8]

         (10) In his first claim on appeal, Cephas argues that the Superior Court should have suppressed his statement to the police on the ground that his waiver of Miranda rights was involuntary. When determining the validity of a waiver of Miranda rights, the Superior Court first must consider whether, under the totality of the circumstances, the waiver was a free and deliberate choice, rather than one made under intimidation, coercion, or deception, and second, whether the waiver was made with a full understanding of the nature of Miranda rights and the consequences of abandoning them.[9] Because the Superior Court's determination of the voluntariness of a Miranda waiver is typically based on case-specific factual findings, this Court will not disturb the determination when there is sufficient evidence in the record to support it.[10] In this case, the Superior Court conducted a thorough inquiry into Cephas' waiver of Miranda rights-which was captured in a video recording-and specifically addressed each of the ...

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