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Justiniano v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

May 2, 2018

LEONARDO JUSTINIANO, Defendant-Below, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff-Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: April 18, 2018

          Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware Cr. ID No. 1606021176B (N)

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

          ORDER

          Collins J. Seitz, Jr. Justice

         This 2nd day of May, 2018, having considered the briefs and the record below, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) Leonardo Justiniano appeals from a Superior Court conviction of possession of a firearm by a person prohibited. Justiniano claims that the Superior Court abused its discretion when it severed his person prohibited charge from his other charges but allowed them to be heard consecutively by the same jury. After careful review, we find that the Superior Court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the same jury to hear the person prohibited charge after the trial for his other charges. We affirm the Superior Court's decision.

         (2) On the evening of June 25, 2016, three men challenged Walter Torres-Santiago to a fight in front of his apartment in the Maryland Park apartment complex. During the fight, Torres-Santiago was knocked to the ground, and, as he tried to get up, a fourth man allegedly pointed a gun at Torres-Santiago and asked him, "are you ready?"[1] A bystander interrupted the fight and the four assailants fled. Torres-Santiago told police that he recognized Justiniano as the one who pointed the gun at him and later identified Justiniano in a photo line-up.

         (3) On June 29, 2016, the police arrested Justiniano as he was leaving an apartment in the Towne Estates apartment complex. Inside the apartment, the police found little furniture or personal belongings, but found a nine-millimeter handgun and ammunition. A grand jury indicted Justiniano for aggravated menacing, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, possession of a firearm by a person prohibited, and second and third degree conspiracy.

         (4) Before trial, Justiniano moved to sever the person prohibited charge from the aggravated menacing, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and third degree conspiracy charges. He argued that trying the charges together would allow a jury to "infer a general criminal disposition of the defendant which may affect its judgment regarding the other indicted counts."[2] On February 9, 2017, the court granted Justiniano's motion but, over defense counsel's objection, ordered that the same jury would hear both trials, first for the aggravated menacing, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and third degree conspiracy charges, and second for the possession of a firearm by a person prohibited charge.

         (5) In the first trial, the jury heard evidence about the incident outside the Maryland Park apartments and the gun found at the Towne Estates apartment, but did not hear evidence about Justiniano's person prohibited status. The bystander testified that one of the men had a gun. Torres-Santiago testified that the gun pointed at him resembled the gun found at the apartment. The jury could not reach a verdict, and the court declared a mistrial.

         (6) In the second trial, the court instructed the jury, "there is an additional count that must be heard separately from the counts you just considered. I will provide you an additional instruction on this count, but also understand that all of the testimony and evidence that was previously admitted may be considered."[3] The court then read a stipulation to the jury stating that Justiniano was a person prohibited. In its closing argument, the State told the jury that the person prohibited charge concerned whether "the defendant possessed or controlled the physical weapon that was found [at the Towne Estates apartment] independently of whether or not you believe this was the weapon that was used in that initial incident [outside the Maryland Park apartments]."[4] The State explained that the evidence from the first trial "now becomes circumstantial evidence"[5] that "linked [Justiniano] a couple days prior to having a firearm in his hands."[6] The jury found Justiniano guilty of possession of a firearm by a person prohibited and the court sentenced him to eight years at Level V suspended after five years, followed by six months Level IV, and eighteen months at Level III. Justiniano appealed.

         (7) "This Court reviews the trial court's decision on a motion to sever for abuse of discretion."[7] The Superior Court's decision will not be overturned unless there is a "reasonable probability" that the decision resulted in "substantial prejudice."[8] "The defendant has the burden of demonstrating such prejudice and mere hypothetical prejudice is not sufficient."[9]

         (8) Charges are joined to "promote judicial economy and efficiency, provided that the realization of those objectives is consistent with the rights of the accused."[10] Under Superior Court Criminal Rule 8(a), charges may be joined if they "are of the same or similar character or are based on the same act or transaction or on two or more acts or transactions connected together." The trial court has discretion to order "separate trials of counts, grant a severance of defendants or provide whatever other relief justice requires."[11]

         (9) Joinder can prejudice a defendant when: (1) the jury "cumulate[s] the evidence of the various crimes charged and find[s] guilt when, if considered separately, it would not so find"; (2) the jury "use[s] the evidence of one of the crimes to infer a general criminal disposition of the defendant in order to find guilt of the other crime or crimes"; or (3) the defendant is "subject to embarrassment or confusion in presenting different and separate defenses to different charges."[12] The purpose of severance in person ...


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