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State v. Culp

Superior Court of Delaware, Kent

March 22, 2018


          Submitted: March 1, 2018

          Dennis Kelleher, Esquire, DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Dover, Delaware, /or the State.

          William T. Deely, Esquire, OFFICE OF DEFENSE SERVICES, Dover, Delaware, for the Defendant.



         This case presents an issue which is easily stated but difficult to resolve: whether the Court should grant a plea of leniency.[1] The State of Delaware Board of Parole (hereinafter the "Board"), upon application of the Department of Correction (hereinafter the "Department"), has recommended to this Court that it reduce the sentence of Catherine W. Culp (hereinafter "Ms. Culp"), who was convicted of the murder of Lee Hicks (hereinafter "Mr. Hicks"). In reaching its decision, the Court must contemplate a variety of considerations, both practical-the extent of Ms. Culp's rehabilitative efforts and whether she poses a danger to the community; and esoteric-when does leniency serve the ends of justice?


         At approximately one o' clock in the morning on July 29, 1998, Ms. Culp frantically banged on the door of Corinthian and Kimberly Cuffee. When Mr. Cuffee opened the door, Ms. Culp told him "I need help ... he is hurt, I need somebody to come call 911." They called the police, and Ms. Culp described her involvement in Mr. Hicks's death: "He told me to give him his gun, and I gave it to him. And the gun went off and it shot him in the back." Police arrived at the Cuffee residence and Ms. Culp directed the officers to Mr. Hicks's home, just a few houses down the street. Inside, police discovered Mr. Hicks lying dead in his bed. Investigators later discovered that Mr. Hicks had died from a single, close range, gunshot wound.

         In December of 1999, this Court convicted Ms. Culp of murder in the first degree and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Ms. Culp appealed. The Supreme Court of Delaware reversed the convictions on the basis of a breach of the Delaware Rules of Evidence, and a new trial was held. In July of 2001, Ms. Culp was again convicted, this time of murder in the second degree and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. She was sentenced effective July 29, 1998, to 25 years in prison. For almost eighteen years, beginning with her initial incarceration in July 1998, Ms. Culp remained continuously incarcerated at Delores J. Baylor Women's Correctional Institution (hereinafter "WCI").

         During these years, Ms. Culp exhibited exemplary behavior and commitment to rehabilitation. She achieved an Associates of Applied Science Degree in Marketing, graduating with honors, and completed courses qualifying herself to teach other inmates on a variety of subjects, including G.E.D. classes, Thresholds, and drug education classes. She served as an educational tutor at WCI, completed numerous computer courses, achieved a State of Delaware computer operator certificate, and attained abilities in Spanish, culinary arts, women's health, public speaking, dancing, and floral design.

         On April 18, 2016, this Court modified Ms. Culp's sentence, citing her extraordinary rehabilitation. Ms. Culp was released for time served and moved to Florida to reside with her brother and sister, Douglas Wiggins and Angela Wiggins. During this time, she complied with the requirements of her probation in all respects. She obtained and held employment, received a driver's license, saved enough money to purchase her own car, and joined a church.

         Ms. Culp's freedom was, however, short-lived. On December 8, 2016, the Supreme Court reversed this Court's decision to modify her sentence, holding that the Superior Court is not empowered to grant pleas for leniency sua sponte based upon rehabilitative efforts, if they are filed more than 90 days after sentencing.[2] The Supreme Court indicated that the Superior Court may only grant such a plea upon the application of the Department, filed with the Board pursuant to 11 Del. C. § 4217-as the Court has received here.[3] In so holding, the Supreme Court emphasized the "important role" that Section 4217 assigns the Department and the Board in assuring "community safety and public welfare in the evaluation of claims of successful rehabilitation."[4]

         Upon receiving this news, Ms. Culp voluntarily paid her way back to Delaware and submitted herself to the custody of the Department on January 5, 2017. Since returning to WCI, Ms. Culp has continued to exhibit the indicia of substantial rehabilitation.

         On July 18, 2017, the Department applied with the Board, pursuant to Section 4217, to reduce Ms. Culp's sentence, stating that "[w]e feel that [she] is not a danger to herself or the community at this time. Ms. Culp demonstrated during her reprieve that she is willing to be a productive part of her community." On December 4, 2017, the Board submitted its recommendation for sentence reduction to this Court, reporting that the Department had shown good cause for sentence reduction in that Ms. Culp was fully rehabilitated, and that she would not pose a risk to anyone if released. The Board voted four to one to modify Ms. Culp's sentence by suspending the remainder of her Level V incarceration for two years of Level III probation.

         Due to reduction of her sentence for "good time, " Ms. Culp is set to be released on March 15, 2019.


         As previously indicated, the Department asserts that Ms. Culp's release "into the community would not constitute a substantial risk to the community or [her]self." Further, Ms. Culp has "demonstrated rehabilitation through appropriate program participation."

         The Department interviewed Ms. Culp in connection with this application. When asked about the cause of Mr. Hicks's death, Ms. Culp said, "Mr. Hicks asked her to get his gun from the dresser.... Ms. Culp stated that she never handled a gun before. Her judgment was blurred due to the amount of alcohol she consumed and she was playing with the gun when it accidentally went off shooting Mr. Hicks." The Department further probed Ms. Culp on the issue of remorse, and she responded that "she knows that what happened that night was entirely her fault" and that she "feels for the loss Mr. Hicks's family had to endure because of her actions." In the Department's view, "Ms. Culp appears to be truly remorseful for what happened to Mr. Hicks and his family."

         At the hearing held with regard to this matter on February 13, 2018, counsel for Ms. Culp emphasized her accomplishments and good behavior, which have been recounted supra, and argued that she was genuinely remorseful. Counsel attributed Ms. Culp's continued insistence that the killing was accidental to the fact that the traumatic experience and her intoxication may impede her ability to recall precisely what happened. Counsel conceded ...

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