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Harrison v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

September 1, 2017

JEREL HARRISON, Defendant Below, Appellant,
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: August 16, 2017

         Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware ID. No. 1508020051 (N)

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


         On this 1st day of September 2017, upon consideration of the parties' briefs and the record on appeal, it appears that:

         (1) Appellant, Jerel Harrison, appeals from a Superior Court bench ruling finding him guilty of Assault in the Second Degree. A defense which he asserted at trial was the defense of justification, i.e. self-defense. He makes one claim on appeal. He contends that the Superior Court erred in denying his Motion for Reargument because the Court made an erroneous assumption that Harrison had the burden to prove his justification defense by a preponderance of the evidence.

         (2) On August 13, 2015, Jerel Harrison and Malcolm Brown, both members of the University of Delaware football team, attended a preseason practice. At the time, Harrison was a fifth-year senior and played offense, while Brown was a sophomore and played defense. Both men had full athletic scholarships to the University of Delaware. Because Harrison was a wide receiver and Brown was a corner back, they regularly competed head to head in practice, with Brown's job being to keep Harrison from catching the ball. Harrison testified that during one play at practice that day, Brown grabbed Harrison's face mask, which is an illegal move. Harrison told Brown that since he would not do that in a game, he should not do it at practice. Brown and several other witnesses testified that nothing out of the ordinary happened during practice. Brown did note, however, that he prevented Harrison from catching the ball during one of the plays, and Harrison said something along the lines of, "don't put your hands on me like that."[1] Brown also denied grabbing Harrison's face mask during practice.

         (3) At the end of practice, the offense and defense separated - the defensive players went to soak in the ice tubs, which were located underneath the bleachers, while the offensive players remained on the field. After the defensive players were in the ice tubs for approximately ten minutes, those players went to the locker rooms to change, and the offensive players got into the ice tubs.

         (4) While the players on defense were in the locker rooms changing their clothes, and the players on offense were supposed to be in the ice tubs, Harrison, an offensive player, entered the locker room. Harrison testified that he went into the locker room to put down his equipment before he went to the indoor cold tubs located in the training room. He stated that he preferred to use these tubs instead of the tubs under the bleachers because they were single-person tubs.

         (5) At this point, the State's version of events and Harrison's version of events differ. Brown testified that he was at his locker changing his clothes when Harrison came into the locker room through a door located near Brown's locker. Harrison then came over to Brown, said something to him, and then struck Brown in the head with his helmet, which he was holding in his hand. Brown did not recall being hit, and said the only thing he remembered after Harrison saying something to him is being picked up off of the floor and walking to the ambulance.

         (6) Harrison testified that as he attempted to walk to his locker, which was beyond Brown's locker, Brown stood in the middle of the aisle and stepped in front of him. As Harrison attempted to walk around Brown, the two brushed shoulders. Harrison testified that Brown then said something along the lines of, "I told you never to touch me, " and then struck Harrison in the head.[2] Harrison testified that he "responded in a physical way" and that he did not recall how he specifically responded.[3] He then said he retreated out of the locker room because he was "terrified, " and that he was confused and disoriented as a result of being hit in the head.[4] After Harrison was arrested, he was evaluated by Department of Correction medical staff Harrison's medical records reflect that he told the DOC staff that "he fell while fighting" and was "unable to remember when and how."[5] At a later time, he told the medical staff that "he fell and hi[t] his head on the ground while playing sports."[6] His DOC medical records also stated, "no lacerations or bumps noted to his head."[7]

         (7) Several of Harrison's and Brown's teammates also testified at trial. Khaliq Gatson, who played defense with Brown, testified that he saw Harrison and Brown exchange words near Brown's locker, but could not hear exactly what they were saying. He then saw Harrison swing his helmet and strike Brown in the head, and Brown fell to the ground. Gatson testified that he did not see Brown strike Harrison first Simbarshe Gwashawvanhu, also a defensive player, testified that he saw Harrison and Brown arguing near Brown's locker, and then saw Harrison swing and strike Brown. Brown dropped to the floor. Gwashawvanhu could not recall whether Harrison had anything in his hand, but testified that he did not see Brown strike Harrison first.

         (8) Brown sustained a concussion with a brief loss of consciousness, a fractured jaw, and a laceration on his lip which required stitches. His jaw fracture required surgery, where doctors inserted two titanium plates and eight screws into his jaw. He was unable to eat solid foods for eight weeks and lost twenty-five pounds. Brown was unable to play football for the entire season.

         (9) Harrison was indicted on one count of Assault in the First Degree and one count of Possession of a Deadly Weapon During the Commission of a Felony ("PDWDCF"). Following a four-day bench trial, Harrison was found guilty of Assault in the Second Degree, a lesser-included offense of Assault in the First Degree. He was found not guilty of PDWDCF. On April 4, 2016, Harrison filed a Motion for Reargument, which was denied by the Superior Court on October 6, 2016. Harrison was sentenced to eight years at Level 5 incarceration, suspended after six months, followed by eighteen months at Level 3. This appeal followed.

         (10) As mentioned, Harrison asserted a justification defense. He claims that the Superior Court made an erroneous assumption that he had the burden to prove his justification defense by a preponderance of the evidence. "To the extent that we examine the trial judge's legal conclusions, we review the trial judge's determinations de novo for errors in formulating or applying legal precepts."[8] "In any appeal, the factual findings of a trial judge will not be set aside by a reviewing court unless those factual determinations are clearly erroneous."[9] "When factual findings are based on determinations regarding the credibility of witnesses, however, the deference already required by the clearly erroneous standard of appellate review is enhanced."[10]

         (11) Under 11 Del. C. § 464, "[t]he use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when the defendant believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting the defendant against the use of unlawful force by the other person on the present occasion.''[11]Because justification is not an affirmative defense, a defendant need not prove the defense by a preponderance of the evidence, [12] but is required present "some credible evidence supporting the defense."[13] "Evidence supports a defense when it tends to establish the existence of each element of the defense."[14] If a defendant presents some credible evidence supporting a defense, "the defendant is entitled to a jury instruction that the jury must acquit the defendant if they ...

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