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Thompson v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

February 21, 2019

AARON THOMPSON, Defendant Below, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: December 12, 2018

          Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware I.D. No. 1602016732 (N)

         Upon appeal from the Superior Court.

          Elise K. Wolpert, Esquire (Argued), and Eugene J. Maurer, Jr., Esquire, Eugene J. Maurer, Jr., P.A., Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellant, Aaron Thompson.

          Maria T. Knoll, Esquire, Deputy Attorney General, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellee, State of Delaware.

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA and VAUGHN, Justices.

          VAUGHN, JUSTICE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Appellant, Aaron Thompson, appeals from a Superior Court jury verdict finding him guilty of two counts of Murder in the First Degree, two counts of Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Felony, and Conspiracy in the First Degree. The charges arose from the double homicide of Joseph and Olga Connell, who were shot to death on September 22, 2013. The State's theory of the case at trial was that Mr. Connell's business partner, Chris Rivers, paid to have the Connells killed so he could collect on an insurance policy listing Mr. Connell as the insured and Rivers as the beneficiary. The theory was that Rivers paid Joshua Bey, who in turn hired Dominique Benson and Thompson to carry out the murders. The success of the State's theory at Thompson's trial largely depended on the testimony and credibility of Bey. Thompson contended throughout the trial that Bey was lying and made up the connection with Thompson to get himself a favorable plea deal.

         Thompson makes two claims on appeal. First, he contends that two statements by the State during its rebuttal argument constituted prosecutorial misconduct that undermined the fairness of the trial. According to Thompson, the first statement in question was one in which the State argued facts that were not supported by record. The second statement, he argues, was one that improperly appealed to the jury's emotion. Second, he contends that the trial court abused its discretion in allowing Bey's recorded statement to the police to be played for the jury following his testimony, arguing that this was inadmissible hearsay not subject to an exception.

         We find that the Superior Court should be affirmed on both claims. First, we conclude that the two statements made by the State during its rebuttal do not rise to the level of prosecutorial misconduct. Second, we conclude that Bey's recorded statement to the police was admissible under Delaware Rule of Evidence 106, the rule of completeness.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Rivers and Mr. Connell were joint owners of C&S Automotive Repair. In October 2012, Rivers and Mr. Connell secured a nearly one million-dollar mortgage in connection with their business. As part of that transaction, they were both required to purchase life insurance in the amount of $977, 500, with the other partner named as the beneficiary, so that the surviving partner could pay off the mortgage if one of them were to die.

         At approximately 1:30 a.m., on September 22, 2013, New Castle County police officers responded to a reported shooting at the Connells' residence in Wilmington. The officers discovered that the Connells had been shot and killed. After an extensive investigation, the police arrested Rivers and charged him with their murders.

         Early on in the investigation, on October 4, 2013, Bey was questioned by Detective James Leonard because Rivers's phone records revealed that, around the time of the murders, he had deleted certain communications with a phone number associated with Bey's girlfriend. Initially, Bey declined knowing anyone by the name of Chris Rivers, but after the detective confronted him with Rivers's phone records, Bey admitted that Rivers was his mechanic. During the questioning, it became apparent that Bey was not telling the entire truth with regard to his contact with Rivers around the time of the murders. As for his location on the night of the murders, Bey stated that he worked an overnight shift at a department store (from approximately 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.). His timesheet and video surveillance of the parking lot corroborated Bey's statement that he was at work at the time of the murders.

         Detective Leonard questioned Bey again on October 24, 2013, and this time Bey admitted he was Rivers's drug dealer. The next day, Bey was arrested for providing a false statement to the police. This arrest violated the terms of a probationary term he was serving and led to a violation of probation proceeding against him.

         After almost ten months of incarceration, while awaiting trial on the charge of providing a false statement to the police, and moments before trial was to start, Bey agreed to provide information about the murders in exchange for a deal from the State. On August 14, 2014, Bey gave a proffer that implicated not only himself, but also Rivers and Benson (the "August 14 proffer"). At that time, however, Bey declined to enter into an agreement with the State.

         Bey was arrested for the Connells' murders the following month. He then agreed to cooperate. In exchange for his cooperation, the State made a plea offer involving a plea of guilty to Conspiracy in the First Degree and a finding that he had violated his probation. On September 5, 2014, after becoming a cooperating witness, Bey provided his fourth and final statement to the police (the "September 5 statement").

         At Thompson's trial, Bey testified for the State, and his testimony provided the main narrative of the Connells' murders. He explained that shortly after meeting Rivers in 2012, he started selling him prescription pills and cocaine and that in 2013, Rivers asked him to hire someone to kill the Connells. Bey and Rivers negotiated over the price, eventually settling on $60, 000. Rivers agreed and arranged to pay half up front and the other half in installments. Bey told Rivers that he needed $5, 000 immediately, which Rivers paid in cash.

         Bey testified that he hoped to make money from this transaction by hiring someone else to do the murders for less. Bey asked Benson to do it and brought him to C&S to see the shop and meet Rivers. After learning from Rivers that Bey had lied to him about how much Rivers was willing to spend (so that he could keep the extra for himself), Benson nonetheless agreed to find someone else to do it for them. As the planning progressed, Bey was under the impression that Benson would commit the murders, but at some point, Benson told Bey that he would ask Thompson to assist him.

         Bey further testified that Benson's cousin, Willis Rollins, was also asked to carry out their plan. Benson arranged for Bey and Rollins to meet at a restaurant near the Connells' residence so that Bey could show Rollins where the Connells lived. Bey testified that Thompson arrived at the restaurant and handed Rollins a gun with a silencer. After showing Rollins the path to take to get to the Connells' residence, Bey went back to his car and waited for Rivers to provide updates as to their location. The ...


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