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State v. Zebroski

Superior Court of Delaware

September 4, 2018


          Submitted: June 12, 2018

         Upon Zebroski's Motion for Postconviction Relief: DENIED

          Stamatios Stamoulis, Esquire, of STAMOULIS & WEINBLATT, LLC, Wilmington, Delaware, and Tiffani D. Hurst, Esquire, of the FEDERAL DEFENDER DISTRICT OF DELAWARE, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Craig Zebroski.

          Elizabeth R. McFarlan, Esquire, of the STATE OF DELAWARE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for the State.


          LeGrow, J.

         Defendant filed his fifth motion for postconviction relief after the Superior Court vacated his capital sentence under the Delaware Supreme Court's decisions in Rauf v. State[1] and Powell v. State.[2] Before the Superior Court ruled on his motion, Defendant appealed his new sentence to the Supreme Court. In affirming Defendant's life sentence, the Supreme Court expressly rejected most of the arguments raised in Defendant's postconviction motion. The remaining issues require this Court to consider whether a defendant may establish a strong inference of actual innocence with evidence purportedly negating his intent to commit a crime. Because innocence of intent does not constitute actual innocence, Defendant's motion does not satisfy the actual innocence exception to Rule 61's procedural bars. Accordingly, the motion is denied.


         The events underlying this motion occurred on April 25, 1996, when Craig Zebroski and his friend, Michael Sarro, robbed a gas station in New Castle. During the robbery, Zebroski threatened the attendant and demanded the attendant open the cash register. When the attendant failed to respond, Zebroski shot him in the forehead, killing him. In the guilt phase of the trial, the jury found Zebroski guilty of intentional killing and felony murder. During the penalty phase, the jury voted nine to three to recommend a death sentence, and the Superior Court ultimately sentenced Zebroski to death. The Supreme Court affirmed Zebroski's conviction and sentence on direct appeal.

         In Rauf v. State, [3] the Delaware Supreme Court held Delaware's capital punishment scheme violated the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In Powell v. State, [4] Court held Rauf applied retroactively to previous convictions. In view of Rauf and Powell, this Court vacated Zebroski's death sentence on March 16, 2017. The next day, Zebroski filed a motion for postconviction relief (the "Motion").

         Zebroski raised three arguments in support of his Motion. First, Zebroski argued he was entitled to a new sentencing proceeding because the Supreme Court's decision in Rauf invalidated 11 Del. C. § 4209 in its entirety, including both the death penalty provision and the alternative mandatory life sentence. Section 4209(a) provides "[a]ny person who is convicted of first-degree murder . . . shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for the remainder of the person's natural life without benefit of probation or parole or any other reduction."[5] The rest of Section 4209 details the capital sentencing procedures. Zebroski argued the Supreme Court's decision in Rauf invalidated Section 4209(a) along with the capital sentencing procedures because the Court held the section provisions were not severable. Zebroski therefore argued his life imprisonment sentence is unconstitutional under Rauf.

         Second, Zebroski argued imposing a mandatory life sentence without considering a defendant's age violated the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution because he only was eighteen years old when he committed the acts underlying his conviction. Zebroski contended new neurological studies have proven eighteen-year-old brains have not fully developed and therefore he was unable to control his impulses at the time of the robbery. Failing to take his age into account, Zebroski argued, constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

         Finally, Zebroski contended he was entitled to a new trial because his sentence violated his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment as well as his right to effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment. Zebroski maintained his due process rights were violated because his trial counsel would have employed a different trial strategy had he known Delaware's capital punishment scheme would be held unconstitutional. Zebroski claimed his trial counsel was ineffective because counsel failed to raise a state of mind defense to his first-degree murder charge. Zebroski also argued his state of mind defense proves he actually is innocent of first-degree murder.

         Before the Court ruled on the Motion, Zebroski moved for resentencing so he could be reclassified. The Court sentenced Zebroski to life imprisonment without benefit of probation or parole. Zebroski then appealed the new sentence and the Superior Court stayed the Motion.

         On appeal, Zebroski largely repeated the arguments raised in his Motion, but asked the Supreme Court not to consider the substance of his actual innocence and ineffective assistance of counsel arguments. The Court rejected Zebroski's new trial request, upholding the validity of Section 4209(a)'s alternative life sentence.[6]The Court noted that, under Rauf, Section 4209(a)'s alternative punishment of life without parole remained valid as it was severable from the capital punishment scheme.[7] The Court clarified that the Rauf decision only held Section 4209's constitutionally-sound capital punishment provisions were not severable from the constitutionally-infirm capital punishment provisions.[8]

         The Court also rejected Zebroski's Eighth Amendment argument, holding it would not depart from the United States Supreme Court's decision in Roper v. Simmons, [9] which upheld eighteen as the constitutional age-of-majority.[10] The Court noted the rationale in Roper was based on "society's collective judgment about when the rights and responsibilities of adulthood should accrue."[11]Zebroski's neuroscience-based arguments therefore were irrelevant. Finally, the Court held Zebroski's due process argument had no legal basis.[12] The Court noted that Delaware never has ...

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