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State v. Taylor

Superior Court of Delaware

June 28, 2018

STATE OF DELAWARE
v.
MILTON TAYLOR, Defendant.

          Submitted: March 23, 2018

         Upon Taylor's Second Motion for Postconviction Relief: DENIED

          Herbert Mondros, Esquire, of MARGOLIS EDELSTEIN, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Milton Taylor.

          Elizabeth R. McFarlan, Esquire, and Maria T. Knoll, Esquire, of the STATE OF DELAWARE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for the State.

          OPINION

          LeGrow, J.

          In his amended second motion for postconviction relief (the "Motion") under Superior Court Criminal Rule 61, Defendant raises myriad claims that (1) already were raised in his earlier proceedings before this Court and the Delaware Supreme Court, and/or (2) could have been raised in earlier proceedings, but were not. Defendant acknowledges most of those claims procedurally are barred under the version of Rule 61 that was in effect at the time he first filed his second postconviction motion, but he argues-against binding Delaware Supreme Court authority-that that version of the rule does not apply in this case. Defendant alternatively argues he overcomes the procedural bars in the amended rule by presenting claims of actual innocence.

         Defendant's motion procedurally is barred by Rule 61 and established Delaware Supreme Court precedent. His Motion, however, requires this Court to consider, in an apparent issue of first impression in this state, whether a claim of actual innocence under Rule 61 may include a claim that new evidence negates the state of mind required to convict a defendant of the crime at issue. I conclude actual innocence does not include evidence negating a defendant's intent to commit a crime, and that Taylor's "new evidence" therefore does not satisfy the actual innocence exception to Rule 61's procedural bars. Accordingly, Taylor's Motion is denied.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On the morning of March 23, 2000, a maintenance worker at the Compton Townhouse complex in Wilmington discovered Theresa Williams' body bloody, badly beaten, and concealed in a blanket with a cord wrapped around her neck. The police identified Milton Taylor as a suspect upon learning Taylor previously had a relationship with Williams and had been seen in the vicinity of Williams' apartment on the morning Williams' body was discovered.

         On March 25, 2000, the police arrested Taylor at a payphone in downtown Wilmington. During the routine inventory procedure at the police station, Officer Ronald Muniz discovered a folded piece of paper in Taylor's clothes that later was revealed to be Taylor's written confession to murdering Williams (the "confession letter"). An investigation revealed Taylor previously had a relationship with Williams, but had become involved with a new girlfriend. Taylor's new girlfriend threatened to leave him unless he ended contact with Williams. When Taylor visited Williams to end contact with her, he strangled her to death.

         On March 31, 2001, the jury convicted Taylor of first degree murder. At the penalty phase, the jury recommended the death penalty by a vote of 10 to 2, and the judge sentenced Taylor to death. In 2003, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed Taylor's conviction, and the United States Supreme Court denied his petition for writ of certiorari.

          In March 2006, Taylor filed his first motion for postconviction relief. In September 2009, Taylor filed his amended first motion for postconviction relief. In August 2010, the Court denied his motion after multiple depositions and filings. In November 2014, Taylor filed his second motion for postconviction relief, but the trial judge refused the filing on the basis that Taylor's habeas corpus petition, which then was pending in federal district court, left this Court without jurisdiction to consider postconviction relief. Taylor ultimately filed a writ of mandamus petition with the Delaware Supreme Court, and that Court directed this Court to vacate its order and accept a postconviction motion from Taylor. This Court then vacated its order refusing to docket Taylor's second postconviction motion.[1]

         On September 9, 2016, at Taylor's request, the Court stayed Taylor's motion pending the Delaware Supreme Court's decision in Powell v. State.[2] The decision in Powell, issued December 15, 2016, retroactively declared Delaware's capital sentencing structure unconstitutional. In April 2017, the Court vacated Taylor's death sentence and resentenced him to life-imprisonment without probation or parole. On August 25, 2017, Taylor filed his amended second motion for postconviction relief (the "Motion").

         In support of his Motion, Taylor argues the Court should apply the pre-2014 version of Rule 61 because Taylor's first postconviction petition was filed before the June 4, 2014, amendments to Rule 61. Taylor then raises multiple claims for relief from his conviction. First, Taylor argues his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to: (i) retain a forensic pathologist to rebut the state medical examiner's trial testimony; (ii) present a defense of extreme emotional distress; (iii) object to admission into evidence of the fact of Williams' pregnancy at the time of her death; (iv) correctly litigate the suppression of Taylor's confession letter; (v) object to the death qualification of the jury; and (vi) object to prosecutorial misconduct during Taylor's trial.

         Second, Taylor argues the death qualification process and alleged jury tainting violated his right to a fair and impartial jury. Third, Taylor contends prosecutorial misconduct rendered his trial fundamentally unfair because the prosecution called Williams' sister to testify. Fourth, Taylor argues the above claims violated his due process rights. Fifth, Taylor argues appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to make the above arguments during Taylor's various appeals. Finally, Taylor argues he is entitled to a new trial based on the prejudicial effects of the alleged cumulative errors mentioned above.

         ANALYSIS

         A. Amended Rule 61 applies to Taylor's Motion.

         The State argues Taylor's Motion procedurally is barred under the version of Rule 61 in effect at the time he filed his Motion ("amended Rule 61"). Taylor challenges on multiple grounds amended Rule 61's applicability to his Motion. First, Taylor argues the pre-2014 version of Rule 61 applies to his Motion because his first motion for postconviction relief was filed on September 30, 2009, before Rule 61's 2014 amendments. Taylor argues applying amended Rule 61 would violate the due process and fair notice requirements of the Delaware and United States Constitutions that prohibit a state from applying a rule that was announced after a petitioner's "alleged default."[3] Second, Taylor argues applying amended Rule 61 to his Motion would abridge his rights under the Delaware Supreme Court's decision in Guy v. State, [4] which, according to Taylor, entitles petitioners to raise an initial ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel claim.

         Third, Taylor argues amended Rule 61 limits his habeas corpus right under common law and the Suspension Clauses of the Delaware and United States Constitutions. Fourth, Taylor argues review of his Motion is required in the interest of justice and to prevent a miscarriage of justice under the pre-2014 version of Rule 61. Taylor contends review of his Motion is required to prevent a miscarriage of justice because it contains "colorable claims" that undermine the reliability of his conviction. Taylor also asserts a review of his Motion is required in the interest of justice because new evidence allegedly undermines his conviction. In the alternative, Taylor argues his Motion overcomes the procedural bars under amended Rule 61 because the Motion presents new evidence that Taylor actually is innocent of the charges that led to his conviction.

         The order amending Rule 61 provides "This amendment shall be effective on June 4, 2014 and shall apply to postconviction motions filed on or after that date."[5] The Delaware Supreme Court has upheld application of amended Rule 61 to motions filed even shortly after the rule's amendment.[6] Taylor argues applying amended Rule 61 would violate the notice requirements discussed in the Third Circuit's decision in Fahy v. Horn[7] because amended Rule 61 was not in place at the time of Taylor's alleged default. In Fahy, the Third Circuit held:

Procedural default occurs when a state court declined to address a prisoner's federal claims because the prisoner had failed to meet a state procedural requirement. For a federal habeas claim to be barred by procedural default, however, the state rule must have been announced prior to its application in the petitioner's case and must have been firmly established and regularly followed.[8]

         The federal requirement is designed to (1) ensure that a habeas petitioner is on notice of how to follow the state procedural rules when filing his petition; and (2) prevent discrimination by means of inconsistently-applied procedural rules through whim or prejudice against a claimant. "[W]hether the rule was firmly established and regularly followed is determined as of the date the default occurred, not the date the state court relied on [the rule], because a petitioner is entitled to notice of how to present a claim in state court."[9]

         Here, a procedural default claim is unripe because Taylor is not asking a federal court to review a state court's decision that Taylor's Motion was barred on procedural grounds. Further, Taylor cannot be said to have defaulted until this Court finds his Motion procedurally is barred. Because I find that Taylor's Motion is barred, however, I will address the procedural default claim for the sake of a complete record and efficient judicial review.

         Taylor's procedural default claim does not meet the federal requirements under Fahy. Amended Rule 61 was firmly established by the date Taylor submitted his Motion in August 2017, which is the date a federal court would use to determine whether a default occurred.[10] Although Taylor filed his first amended motion in September 2009, his current Motion was filed in August 2017, more than three years after Rule 61 was amended.[11] Taylor therefore was on notice for more than three years how to follow amended Rule 61's procedural rules. Additionally, Delaware courts consistently have applied amended Rule 61 in reviewing postconviction motions filed over the past four years. Accordingly, Taylor's notice requirements under Fahy were satisfied.

         Second, Taylor argues amended Rule 61 cannot abridge his right to raise an initial ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel claim under Guy. In Guy, the Delaware Supreme Court held a defendant may pursue a claim of ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel up to one year after the defendant's initial motion for postconviction relief is concluded.[12] Guy, however, was decided before Rule 61 was amended in 2014. Amended Rule 61 includes procedural requirements that all motions for postconviction relief must meet notwithstanding the decision in Guy. In Durham v. State, [13] the Delaware Supreme Court noted Rule 61's limitation of the Guy decision in view of the 2014 amendments.

In June 2014, Rule 61 was substantially amended with the adoption, among other things, of a new pleading standard for second or subsequent motions for postconviction relief. The new pleading standard-found in Rule 61(d)(2) and incorporated in Rule 61(i)(2) and (i)(5)-provides that any second or subsequent postconviction motion will be summarily dismissed unless the movant was convicted after a trial and the motion either: (i) pleads with particularity that new evidence exists to establish the movant's actual innocence in fact; or (ii) pleads with particularity that a new, retroactively applicable constitutional rule applies to the movant's case and renders a conviction or death sentence invalid. Rule 61(d)(2), and the other amendments to Rule 61 in June 2014, were made effective on June 4, 2014[, ] and apply to motions for postconviction relief filed on or after that date, including Durham's motion filed in February 2017.
Durham argues that, because the claims raised in his second postconviction motion consisted entirely of claims of ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel, the claims should have been considered on their merits under Guy v. State because Durham had no prior opportunity to raise the claims, and he raised the claims in a timely fashion. But Durham's argument disregards the pleading requirements now in effect under Rule 61(d)(2). The Superior Court was required to consider the procedural ...

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