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State v. Williams

Superior Court of Delaware

June 29, 2018


          Submitted: March 26, 2018

         Upon Consideration of the Commissioner's Report and Recommendation on Defendant's Motion for Postconviction Relief, ADOPTED.

         Upon Consideration of Defendant's Appeal from the Commissioner's Report and Recommendation on Defendant's Motion for Postconviction Relief, DENIED.

          Eric H. Zubrow, Esquire, Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware. Attorney for the State.

          Natalie S. Woloshin, Esquire, Woloshin, Lynch & Associates, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware. Attorney for the Defendant.


          Vivian L. Medinilla Judge.


         Defendant Kevin L. Williams ("Defendant") filed an Amended Motion for Postconviction Relief under Delaware Superior Court Criminal Rule 61. He argues that his trial counsel was ineffective because he failed to file a Bill of Particulars and failed to object to the State's Motion to Amend the Re-Indictment. As to both contentions, Defendant maintains that counsel's alleged deficiencies resulted in violations of Defendant's Sixth Amendment and Due Process rights. After considering the multiple submissions associated with Defendant's Amended Motion, Defendant's Appeal of the Commissioner's Report, and the record in this case, the Court ADOPTS the Commissioner's Report and DENIES Defendant's Appeal.


         Factual Background[1]

         On November 10, 2011, Michelle Smith[2] brought her two daughters, Jean and Ava Smith, to speak to the Delaware State Police to report that Defendant had repeatedly sexually assaulted her daughters over the span of many years, throughout their childhood. The alleged victims are also Defendant's biological daughters. Both girls were interviewed by the police, who documented the interviews in police reports. On December 12, 2011, both girls were additionally interviewed at the Child Advocacy Center ("CAC").

         The eldest-then aged seventeen-is Jean, who reported that her first memory of a sexual assault took place when she was approximately eight years of age, in third grade. She recalled being on the couch at her Aunt's house on Fourth Street in Wilmington and fell asleep on Defendant's stomach/chest, as she would often do as a young child. On this occasion, she woke up to Defendant rubbing his private part (penis) against her private part (vagina).[3] Jean reported that Defendant had unzipped his pants and had pulled her underwear off to the side.[4] She explained that Defendant told her on their walk back home, "that's how everybody learns how to have sex."[5]

         Although Jean reported this specific sexual incident, she disclosed that similar sexual assaults or encounters "happened all the time."[6] Defendant would regularly enter her bedroom during the night, kiss her neck, and rub his private part on her private part.[7] Jean reported that once she became older, it became "out of control."[8] Jean described how Defendant would take off his clothes, touch her chest and buttocks with his hands, and ejaculate on her stomach.[9] Jean further recalled an incident in the kitchen of her home where Defendant forced her to touch his penis. She reported that this incident made her sick and that she had to run to the bathroom to throw up.[10]

         The younger child, Ava, spoke to law enforcement when she was sixteen years old and divulged that Defendant began engaging in sexual acts with her when she was in seventh grade. She reported that one evening, after Defendant had chastised her for spending time with a girlfriend, he went in to her bedroom, locked the door, climbed on top of her, and tried to kiss her neck. However, Defendant heard Ava's mother coming down the stairs and jumped away before Ava's mother entered the room.[11]

         Ava reported that she then had minimal contact with Defendant for approximately one year. However, Defendant repeatedly called her and requested that she go to the mall and have dinner with him. She complied. On one occasion, after they went shopping, Ava recalled an incident when they were walking home through Brandywine Park. She described in detail how Defendant pushed her on to a picnic table, pulled his pants down, and attempted to sexually assault her. In the police reports and during the trial, this event became known as the "Monkey Hill" incident due to the location of the alleged assault.[12] Ava also described a separate incident when she was showering and Defendant made her touch his erect penis, while he stood outside the shower.[13]

         On November 19, 2012, Defendant was indicted by a Grand Jury on nineteen counts of Unlawful Sexual Contact in the First Degree ("USC") and one count of Continuous Sexual Abuse of a Child.[14] As noted by the Commissioner, each of the nineteen counts of USC was worded identically and used the same date range: August 1, 2002 to June 30, 2003. All of the indicted counts concerned the same alleged child victim, Jean Smith.

         Defendant was then re-indicted on March 4, 2013.[15] The re-indictment included the identical language for each count, but two of the counts of USC were changed to denote the second victim, Ava Smith. The date range for all charges, with the exception of the count for Continuous Sexual Abuse of a Child, were modified to cover different periods of time between August 1, 2002 and June 30, 2008.[16] On May 31, 2013, the State again sought to make changes and filed a Motion to Amend the re-indictment.[17] The motion sought to amend the dates of counts 18 and 19.[18] The Motion to Amend was granted on June 10, 2013, without objection by trial counsel.[19]

         Prior to trial, the State produced discovery to include the Affidavit of Probable Cause, redacted police reports, redacted Division of Family Services ("DFS") records, and the recorded CAC interviews.[20] Although the names throughout the reports were also redacted, trial counsel testified that he was able to identify the alleged victims with the assistance of Defendant.[21] On June 11, 2013, prior to the start of trial, the State entered a nolle prosequi on all but six counts of the amended re-indictment. The State therefore proceeded to trial on five counts of USC, three as to Jean Smith and two as to Ava Smith, and one count of Continuous Sexual Abuse of a Child relating solely to Jean Smith.

         A jury trial was held from June 11 through June 14, 2013. Jean and Ava testified accordingly, and the Smith girls' allegations constituted the entirety of evidence presented at trial. Since both daughters were close in age and name, the evidence introduced to support the five charges were compartmentalized into named "incidents" in order to give the jury both the proper timeframes of when the alleged offenses were said to occur, but also to properly apply the named incident to the respective alleged victim/daughter. Defendant testified in his defense. He did not dispute that the events described by the girls were accurate, but rather flatly denied that any sexual contact occurred when he was with his daughters. The jury returned verdicts of guilty against Defendant on all counts.

         On September 20, 2013, this Court sentenced Defendant to twenty-three years of unsuspended Level V supervision, followed by various levels of probation. Defendant's conviction was subsequently affirmed by the Delaware Supreme Court on August 21, 2014.[22]

         Procedural Background

         Defendant filed his pro se Motion for Postconviction Relief on January 12, 2015.[23] On February 2, 2015, the Court sent a request for the Office of Conflicts Counsel to appoint counsel to represent Defendant on his pending motion.[24] The Court then referred the Motion for Postconviction Relief to a Superior Court Commissioner.

         After Defendant obtained appointed counsel for his Motion, he filed an Amended Motion for Postconviction Relief on April 18, 2016.[25] Defendant's trial counsel submitted an affidavit responding to the allegations.[26] The State responded to the Amended Motion on June 28, 2016.[27] Defendant filed a reply to the State's Response on August 1, 2016.[28] An evidentiary hearing was held on May 31, 2017, after which both parties also filed supplemental briefing at the Commissioner's request.[29]

         On October 30, 2017, the Commissioner filed his Report recommending Defendant's Amended Motion be denied, [30] after conducting the appropriate analysis of Defendant's two claims under Strickland v. Washington.[31] The Commissioner determined that counsel's actions "did not prejudice [Defendant] in the end, "[32] and that he was "not convinced that there is a reasonable probability that the outcome might have changed had trial counsel done anything differently."[33]

         On November 9, 2017, Defendant filed his Appeal from the Commissioner's Findings of Fact and Recommendations.[34] The State responded to Defendant's Appeal on March 12, 2018.[35] On March 26, 2018, Defendant filed a reply.[36] After considering all of the filings in Defendant's Motion and the record in this case, the Motion and Defendant's Appeal from the Commissioner's Report is ripe for decision.


         Rule 62 of the Delaware Superior Court Criminal Rules outlines the procedure for the Commissioner's review of motions.[37] Under Rule 62(a)(5), the Commissioner is permitted to conduct hearings into the motion and "submit to a judge of the Court proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition, by a judge," of any such motion.[38] Upon receiving timely objections to the Commissioner's recommendations, the Court must make a de novo review of "those portions of the report" to which an objection is made.[39] The judge "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings of fact or recommendations made by the Commissioner. Having received timely objections to the Commissioner's Report, this Court now conducts its de novo review.


         The right to counsel, enshrined in the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 7 of the Delaware Constitution, contains a correlative right to effective assistance of counsel.[40] This right extends to all "critical stages" of the criminal case.[41] In the postconviction setting, this right has been molded through generations of litigation involving a defendant's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The seminal case on such claims is Strickland v. Washington.[42] This case and its progeny established a two-part test: a defendant must show that, (1) "counsel's performance was objectively unreasonable," and (2) "the defendant was prejudiced as a result."[43] The nuances of this test have been exhaustively distilled since Strickland was decided:

Under the first prong [of Strickland], judicial scrutiny is 'highly differential.' Courts must ignore the 'distorting effects of hindsight' and proceed with a 'strong presumption' that counsel's conduct was reasonable. The Strickland court explained that 'a court deciding an actual ineffectiveness claim must judge the reasonableness of counsel's challenged conduct on the facts of the particular case, viewed as of the time of counsel's conduct.'
Under the second prong,' [i]t is not enough for the defendant to show that the errors had some conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceeding.' In other words, 'not every error that conceivably could have influenced the outcome undermines the reliability of the result of the proceeding.' 'Some errors will have a pervasive effect . . ., and some will have had an isolated, trivial effect.' The movant must show 'that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.' 'A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.' The court must consider the 'totality of the circumstances,' and 'must ask if the [movant] has met the burden of showing that the decision reached would reasonably likely have been different absent the errors.'[44]

         Defendant's Amended Motion focuses solely on his trial counsel's failure to file or object in relation to the indictment, re-indictment, and the amended re-indictment. Defendant's Amended Motion claims two bases for relief under Strickland:

Claim 1: Trial Counsel was ineffective in failing to file a bill of particulars in Mr. Williams' case, which resulted in a violation of Mr. Williams' Sixth Amendment and Due Process rights.[45]
Claim 2: Trial Counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the motion to amend the indictment in violation of Mr. Williams' Sixth Amendment and Due Process rights.[46]

         As stated above, the Commissioner rejected both of Defendant's claims under the second prong of Strickland-the "prejudice" prong. The Court does not deem it necessary to undergo a full first prong analysis under Strickland where the focus is Defendant asserting substantial prejudice. However, where trial counsel expressly testified that filing a Bill of Particulars would not have assisted him with the defense and he made a strategic decision not to do so, any failure to file was not objectively unreasonable, satisfying the first prong under Strickland. For the reasons stated below, this Court agrees with the Commissioner's findings of fact and recommendations.

         Claim 1 - Bill of Particulars

         A Bill of Particulars provides supplemental information when an indictment does not inform the defendant of the facts and charges against him to sufficiently enable the defendant to prepare for his defense.[47] It should "serve[] to protect a defendant against unfair surprise at trial and prevent subsequent prosecutions for an insufficiently described offense."[48] However, there are limitations. While a Bill of Particulars supplements or clarifies the allegations against the defendant, "it is not meant to compel the State to disclose the theory of the case or evidentiary information."[49] In other words, it does not serve as an alternative discovery device.

         In his appeal, Defendant objects to the Commissioner's determination that Dobson v. State[50] and Luttrell v. State[51] could be distinguished from Defendant's case. Defendant contends that these Delaware Supreme Court cases decided after Defendant's trial are factually similar on the issue of failing to file a Bill of Particulars, and that their holdings should have been binding authority requiring post-conviction relief in this case.

         The Court agrees with the Commissioner that Dobson and Luttrell are distinguishable from Defendant's case. Without repeating the Commissioner's extensive factual analysis, certain aspects of each case should be highlighted. In Dobson, the Supreme Court found that the defendant was substantially prejudiced by the defense counsel's failure to object to the State's presentation of testimony from the child victim concerning two additional, uncharged incidents of rape.[52]Compounding the problem was that defense counsel in Dobson did not know the specific factual allegations that formed the basis of each of the six identically worded counts of Rape in the Second degree, each covering a period of one year.[53]

         Unlike in Dobson, here there were no additional incidents revealed to the jury that had not been previously disclosed to Defendant and his trial counsel.[54]However, the Commissioner found-and this Court agrees-that these "incidents" were not new or separate, but rather consistent with what Jean Smith had previously described to the police or during the CAC interview, or both.[55] For example, the Commissioner determined that any details related to what was referenced at trial as the "Taron Hackett incident" were merely to provide additional details regarding the timeframe of one of the already known five charges. Any reference to Taron Hackett was only to provide a timeframe regarding the ongoing sexual abuse described at the CAC interview; Defendant began entering her room after Defendant met her boyfriend, Taron Hackett, for the first time. These details related to the charged incidents and were not new incidents that Jean testified to at trial.[56] Rather, additional facts came out through Jean's trial testimony that provided further context for acts which were previously disclosed.[57] The evidence presented at trial provided only more detailed background information or what the Commissioner described as "temporal reference points" for previously disclosed-and indicted-incidents.[58]Further, unlike in Dobson, trial counsel was aware of the five incidents and allegations made against Defendant.[59]

         Likewise, Luttrell is distinguishable from the facts of this case. There, the Supreme Court determined that reversal and a new trial were warranted where the trial court denied counsel's request for a Bill of Particulars and the defendant was not provided adequate notice of the charges against him.[60] Indeed, the Supreme Court found that neither defense counsel nor the jury were aware of what conduct constituted which charge on the indictment.[61] Although Defendant here takes issue with the timeframe of when discovery was turned over to trial counsel, it is undisputed on this record that trial counsel had substantially more information available to him than counsel in Luttrell.[62]

         Had the State elected to proceed to trial on all nineteen USC counts in the re-indictment, then arguably the facts could be considered more comparable to those of Luttrell, as trial counsel may not have been aware of underlying facts or evidence that supported each of those counts. However, here, it is clear that through communications with the State, trial counsel was aware that the State would only be going forward on five USC counts and well aware of the evidence expected to be introduced to support each of the five incidents.[63] As highlighted at the evidentiary hearing,

Commissioner: So, and I don't want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like what you're telling me is the DFS records you received the day before trial didn't help you figure out ultimately which specific incidents ...

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