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State v. Matthews

Superior Court of Delaware

December 10, 2018

STATE OF DELAWARE,
v.
LAMOTT MATTHEWS, Defendant.

          Submitted: September 14, 2018

         Upon Consideration of Defendant's Motion for New Trial, GRANTED.

          Eugene J. Maurer, Jr., Esquire, and Elise K. Wolpert, Esquire, of Eugene J. Maurer, Jr., P.A., of Wilmington, Delaware. Attorneys for Defendant.

          Joseph S. Grubb, Esquire, and Zachary D. Rosen, Esquire, Deputy Attorneys General, of Department of Justice, of Wilmington, Delaware. Attorneys for State.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          VIVIAN L. MEDINILLA, J.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On June 13, 2018, a jury returned guilty verdicts against Defendant Lamott Matthews on the charges of Murder First Degree and Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Felony ("PFDCF"). He timely moves this Court for a new trial under Superior Court Criminal Rule 33 and argues that the State's misrepresentations during closing arguments prejudiced and deprived him of his right to a fair trial.[1] For the reasons stated below, Defendant's Motion for New Trial is GRANTED.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[2]

         On June 5, 2018, this Court began a six-day jury trial in connection with the shooting death of William Brown that occurred on November 16, 2015 at the Gold Club ("Club") in Wilmington, Delaware. The State introduced evidence through seventeen (17) witnesses, including five (5) key individuals who were patrons and employees of the Club, present on the Sunday night-Monday morning in question. Mr. Brown, a regular at the Club, was fatally shot in a bathroom near the entrance of the Club following an altercation with the shooter.

         There was no dispute that Defendant had arrived at the Club earlier in the evening with two women. Both women testified that the three of them had traveled to a local bowling alley bar, consumed alcoholic beverages, and then went to the Club bar where they drank more into the early hours of November 16th. Also undisputed was that, during these early hours, a man was seen running into the Club shortly before a gun shot was heard, and out of the Club immediately after the shooting. The State argued that this man was the Defendant, who left the Club at some point before the shooting, and ran back in to shoot the victim.

         There was no evidence of any prior dealings between the victim and Defendant. The State's theory, argued succinctly during its closing argument, was that "one shot was fired by a man driven by inexplicable anger and unjustified paranoia that was created out of thin air that evening...[because the Defendant thought the victim was] 'looking at him funny, eyeing him up weird,' and he didn't want to be soft."[3] The evidence to support what led Defendant to shoot the victim was therefore presented through a handful of witnesses who were working at or near the Club, as well as from individuals who were patronizing the Club that night.

         The observations of the witnesses from that evening were critical to the State's case especially where there was no physical or forensic evidence connecting Defendant to the murder. No weapon was introduced. No surveillance was presented of the inside of the Club. And although surveillance of an adjacent motel parking lot was introduced to suggest that Defendant was seen running into a vehicle with one of the women who testified that they were the individuals seen in the video, an employee of the motel offered a different description of the person(s) she saw and heard depicted on the same surveillance footage. Further, another witness, mentioned in greater detail below, testified that the man she saw running out of the Club immediately after the shooting jumped into a vehicle located on the Club's property, not the motel property.

         The State's closing remarks at issue deserve a contextual framework. To prove identity-that the Defendant was the shooter or the same person who ran in and out of the Club-the State directed the jury to consider the collective vantage points of five witnesses in various locations of the Club.[4] In doing so, the State presented a diagram to the jury and outlined the location of the Club's three employees and two patrons at the time of the shooting, discussed their observations, and highlighted what they said at trial.[5]

         One patron was Jennifer Sanchez, one of the women who was at the Club with the Defendant. Ms. Sanchez testified that Defendant made some form of a confession to the shooting. Yet, her recall was questionable. The State conceded that there were inconsistencies in her testimony due to either an unwillingness to get involved with the investigation or a lack of recall due to great amounts of alcohol consumption. The second patron was Hector Ocampo, the man in the bathroom and the only eyewitness to the shooting. Mr. Ocampo, a non-English speaker, also admitted through an interpreter that his recollection was limited due to having had consumed large quantities of alcohol that night. His description of the shooter did not match that of the Defendant. Therefore, the prosecutor argued that any inconsistencies of the patrons could be reconciled through highlighted portions of the testimony from the Club staff, most notably, Crystal Schneider, the bartender, and Natasha Chanelle, the person working the front door.

         During trial, Ms. Chanelle was asked about her recall of two separate and distinct time periods. The first timeframe related to what she remembered about the person who entered the club with the two females earlier that Sunday. Then, she was asked about the individual she saw run in and out of the club hours later at the time of the shooting. As to the description of the man with the two women, she described him as "[l]ight skinned, that's all I can remember."[6] She did not identify the Defendant.

         Ms. Chanelle was then asked about the man she saw run in and out of the Club. She testified:

A. Brandon and I were at the register doing a check on the register.... A gentleman ran into the club. We heard shots. The same gentleman ran out. And that's when me and Brandon went into the club and we found someone shot.
Q. Are you able to describe the person that you're telling us ran out of the club?
A. Besides what I just said, no.
Q. But it would be the same description?
A. Besides what I just said no. I can't - -1 didn't see his face. I don't remember the face of the gentleman that came in. As I said, I work at the door, there's thousands of people that come through that door at any particular night. And I worked there seven days a week.
Q. Right.
A. The gentleman that ran out of the club, I described as -- that he's light skinned with a grey hoodie on. That's all I can say.
Q. Did you see where the person that ran out of club that you just described went?
A. To a red car parked by the sign.
Q. Do you remember anything else about the red car?
A. Just that it was parked by the sign.
Q. You mentioned a hoodie. Do you recall seeing anyone else in the club that was wearing a hoodie that evening?
A. A couple.[7]

         On cross-examination, defense counsel asked several follow-up questions regarding whether the individual who entered the Club with the two women was the same individual that Ms. Chanelle saw run out of the Club after the shots, and referenced prior statements she had made to the Delaware State Police.[8] The cross-examination went as follows:

Q. And your statement then, which I think is the same today, you can't really say whether it was the same person; is that right?
A. Correct.
Q. And you also said, referring to page 3 of the statement at the very bottom, you were asked a specific question whether it was the same guy you saw run in and then run out?
And your answer was: That, I don't know.[9]

         Defense counsel again referred to the statement she previously gave to the Delaware State Police to ask about the identity of the guy who ran in and out of the Club:

Q. And then later on on page 4 of the statement that you gave later you were asked whether or not the rude guy, which is the one that came in initially that night, was the same guy that you saw run in and run out. And you said you couldn't say?
A. I couldn't.
Q. You couldn't say whether it was the same person or a ...

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