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State v. Clark

Superior Court of Delaware

October 1, 2018

JEFFREY R. CLARK, Defendant.

          Submitted: August 31, 2018

          Written Decision Issued: January 30, 2019






         This 30th day of January, 2019, having considered Defendant Jeffrey R. Clark's Amended Motion for Judgment of Acquittal (D.I. 240); the State's Response thereto (D.I. 241); Defendant Clark's Reply (D.I. 242); and the record in this matter; it appears to the Court that:

         (1) On April 3, 2015, Defendant Jeffrey R. Clark was arrested for multiple charges stemming from the shooting death of Teddy Jackson that had occurred exactly one year earlier.

         (2) After a nine-day trial on the indicted charges of Murder in the First Degree, Conspiracy in the First Degree, Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Felony, and Possession of a Deadly Weapon by a Person Prohibited, [1] a unanimous jury found Clark guilty of Attempted Assault in the Second Degree and Conspiracy in the Second Degree.[2] After a long series of intervening post-trial filings and proceedings, Clark filed the present Amended Motion for Judgment of Acquittal under Superior Court Criminal Rule 29(c) alleging insufficiency of the evidence.[3]

         (3) Clark questions just one element essential to his two convictions: "At issue in this motion is the sufficiency of evidence in relation to what kind of harm or injury [ ] Clark attempted to inflict upon Kyle."[4]Specifically, Clark argues that the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to cause "serious physical injury" to his target, "Kyle."[5]He contends that the trial evidence of his actions on April 3, 2014, "at best, demonstrated an attempt to cause physical injury, not serious physical injury."[6] Thus, Clark suggests, the Court should reduce his attempted felony assault and concomitant felony conspiracy verdicts to convictions for attempted assault third degree and conspiracy third degree and then sentence him accordingly.[7]

         (4) The State counters that the evidence, both direct and circumstantial, when viewed in the light most favorable to its case, was sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to convict Clark of the felonies.[8]

         (5) The Court here briefly recounts some of the evidence directly relevant to this motion. In the early evening of April 3, 2014, Doris Reyes, the mother of one of Clark's daughters, was confronted by a young man on South Harrison Street in Wilmington.[9] Ms. Reyes had just picked up her children from daycare and was within a block or so of her home. The young man mentioned "a situation he had with [Clark] years ago and told [Ms. Reyes] and [their] daughter . . . 'When you see Jeff, say good-bye to him because that will be the last time that you see him."'[10] This exchange "scared" Ms. Reyes so much that she immediately tried to stop Clark from coming into the city to pick up their daughter. Ms. Reyes spoke to Clark on the phone and described what had happened. On the phone, Clark was "upset" and "aggravated that someone made a threat to [Ms. Reyes] and his daughter."[11] And when he saw her in person shortly thereafter, Clark assured Ms. Reyes she "had nothing to worry about," he would "take care of it... If he had to take him in the middle of the street, fight him, then he would. But he would never let any harm come to [Ms. Reyes] and his daughter or him."[12]

         (6) That "someone" to be found, fought with, and taken care of was identified by Clark as "a young man by the name of Kyle."[13] As Clark explained it, he was made aware of Kyle's "challenge": that Kyle "wanted to fight and, um, if ~ in so many words, basically, he had to come looking for me, that it would be more than just that."[14] And so, Clark admits, he "took off running, looking for Kyle."[15]

         (7) As Clark himself said, he was then running through the streets and asking any number of random people if they had seen Kyle.[16] To ready for the fight, Clark had stripped to his bare chest, removed his earrings, and taken out his nose ring.[17] By his own account, he was "angry" and "aggressive" and "wanted to fight Kyle."[18] And a reasonable view of the evidence is that Clark had enlisted the help of no less than three of his friends to, at very least, track down Kyle for that purpose.[19]

         (8) Clark's actions and demeanor during his quest for Kyle were described by several other witnesses. For instance, one teenager described shirtless Clark in the company of another man hunting for "Kyle" in the area just before Teddy Jackson was shot.[20]

         (9) Another witness told of Clark doing the same.[21] This latter witness described Clark as "real aggressive. He was, like, angry, real angry at something."[22] And this latter witness explained that Clark said he wanted to find "Kyle" because "Kyle" had "disrespected his baby mom or his mom, one or the other. [Kyle] disrespected someone in his family, mom or baby mom."[23]

         (10) Yet another witness explained that Clark was "upset" about an interaction between "some bull"[24] and Clark's "baby mom."[25] Clark "wanted to go find the guy."[26] And Clark said "they were going to do something to [the guy], hurt him or take him out, or something like that."[27] When asked to describe Clark's demeanor as he set off to find "Kyle," the witness said simply: "He's irate, he's upset."[28]

         (11) During the prayer conference conducted after all of the trial evidence was presented, Clark moved that the jury be instructed on the lesser offenses of attempted assault third degree and conspiracy third degree.[29] He also agreed that there was a rational basis in the evidence for instructions on attempted assault second degree and conspiracy second degree.[30]

         (12) Clark argued to the jury for misdemeanor attempted assault and conspiracy.[31] The jury was instructed on charges of Murder First Degree, and-as lesser-included offenses thereof-Murder Second Degree, Attempted Assault Second Degree and Attempted Assault Third Degree;[32] the jury also received instructions also on Conspiracy First Degree and-as lesser-included offenses thereof-Conspiracy Second Degree and Conspiracy Third Degree.[33] Clark was convicted of Attempted Assault in the Second Degree and Conspiracy in the Second Degree.[34] Clark now seeks acquittal on those charges and reduction of his convictions to misdemeanors.[35]

         (13) A criminal defendant must meet a high bar to prevail on a Motion for Judgment of Acquittal under Superior Court Criminal Rule 29.[36] The Court may enter a judgment of acquittal on a specific count only if "the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction of such offense."[37] When evaluating the motion, the Court considers the evidence, "together with all legitimate inferences therefrom . . . from the point of view most favorable to the State."[38] The Court must be mindful that the jury, not the judge, is the factfinder, and it is "[t]he jury's function is to decide whether the evidence presented at trial proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the charged crimes."[39] And so, the standard of review a trial judge employs on a motion for judgment of acquittal is '"whether any rational trier of fact, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, could find [the defendant] guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of all the elements of the crime.'"[40] "For the purpose of reviewing a claim of insufficient evidence there is no distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence."[41]

         (14) To prove Clark's guilt of Attempted Assault in the Second Degree, the State had to demonstrate that he had "[i]ntentionally do[n]e[] . . . anything which, under the circumstances as [Clark] believe[d] them to be, [wa]s a substantial step in a course of conduct planned to culminate in [his] commission of [Assault in the Second Degree]."[42]

         (15) Because Clark was convicted of an attempt to commit the crime of second-degree assault, the jury had to find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he had taken a substantial step with an intent to cause another person "serious physical injury."[43] And as he was convicted of this attempted assault because "Kyle" was never actually located and injured, the jury had to determine just how much harm it believed Clark had intended. As properly instructed under Delaware law, the jury was "permitted to draw an inference . . . about [Clark's] state of mind from the facts and circumstances surrounding the act that [Clark] is alleged to have done."[44] And the jury could "consider whether a reasonable person acting in [Clark's] circumstances would have had or would have lacked the requisite . . . intention" to inflict serious physical injury.[45]

         (16) Serious physical injury is that "which creates a substantial risk of death, or which causes serious and prolonged disfigurement, prolonged impairment of health or prolonged loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ."[46] In finding that necessary element, the jury could properly infer the type of damage Clark intended from all evidence presented-direct and circumstantial.[47] The main thrust of Clark's argument is that the jury could not properly base its view of his actions or intent on any other witnesses' testimony. According to him, the jury could rely only on Clark's own testimony that he wanted to engage in a "fight" and had to eschew any finding of the injury intended because he expressed no quantification of the damage he sought to inflict.[48]

         (17) But, as factfinder, it was the jury's function to decide whether the evidence presented at trial proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Clark committed the charged crimes. "[I]t [wa]s the sole province of the [jury as] fact finder to determine witness credibility, resolve conflicts in testimony and draw any inferences from the proven facts."[49] The jury had the sole "discretion to accept one portion of a witness' testimony and reject another part."[50] The jury "need not [have] believe[d] even uncontroverted testimony."[51] And while Clark seems to urge otherwise, [52] this Court when reviewing his sufficiency-of-evidence claim is not free to substitute the Court's own judgment for the jury's assessments in these areas.[53]

         (18) No doubt, "serious physical injury" has been the resultant harm from "fights," "altercations," and bodily assaults with or without weapons.[54]

         (19) When viewing the totality of the evidence and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the State, it is clear that a reasonable trier of fact could find Clark intended to cause serious physical injury to another on the evening of April 3, 2014. The jury was presented evidence of: (a) "Kyle'"s threat; (b) Clark's vow to "take care of it;" (c) Clark's desire to find "Kyle" "to do something to [Kyle], hurt him or take him out, or something like that;" (d) Clark's admitted goal to "fight Kyle;" (e) Clark's frenzied search for "Kyle" in and around the area of Teddy Jackson's slaying; (f) Clark's friends' assistance in his quest for "Kyle;" (g) Clark's preparation for battle with "Kyle;" and (h) Clark's deportment- "upset," "aggravated," "aggressive," "real aggressive," "irate," "angry, real angry"-throughout his hunt. The jury heard the bulk of this evidence firsthand from those who saw Clark that night and recounted his actions and demeanor.

         (20) The jury derived these facts and circumstances from the trial evidence, drew reasonable inferences therefrom, and found Clark was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of attempted felony assault ...

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