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State v. Watts

Superior Court of Delaware

March 4, 2019

STATE OF DELAWARE,
v.
VERNELL WATTS, Defendant.

          Submitted: February 19, 2019

         Upon Defendant's Motion to Dismiss/Motion in Limine: DENIED

          Cari Chapman, Esq., Matthew Keating, Esq., Deputy Attorneys General, Department of Justice, Attorneys for the State.

          Elliot Margules, Esq., Assistant Public Defender, Office of the Public Defender, Attorney for Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Rennie, J.

         This 4th day of March, 2019, upon consideration of Defendant Vernell Watts' ("Defendant") Motion to Dismiss/Motion in Limine, [1] the State's Response thereto, [2]applicable decisional law, and the entire record in this case, IT APPEARS THAT:

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On May 28, 2018, the police arrived at 806 West 8th Street, Wilmington, DE, in response to several 911 calls in reference to a stabbing.[3] Upon arrival, the police found three victims actively bleeding from knife wounds, one of whom bled profusely from a stab wound in his neck.[4] The victims told the police that Defendant attacked the three with two kitchen knives.[5] The police finally located Defendant on the 800 block of North Adams Street.[6] When found, Defendant was wearing jeans, a black sneaker, a sock, and was shirtless.[7] Defendant told the police that he was asleep when "they came in and stabbed [him]," and that he was the victim.[8] The police noticed that Defendant had a laceration to his right shoulder.[9]

         Defendant was examined by both New Castle County Emergency Medical Services ("EMS") and St. Francis Hospital EMS. They wrote reports describing Defendant's laceration as "a 1" superficial laceration to the right shoulder"[10] and "a minor 1 inch laceration above the collar bone with bleeding controlled, "[11] respectively. The New Castle County EMS report stated that the laceration was the only injury found on Defendant, and was Defendant's only area of pain and only complaint.[12]

         Defendant was later transferred to Wilmington Hospital's Emergency Room, [13] where he was examined by several doctors.[14] The blood loss from the laceration was estimated to be less than 0.5 milliliter.[15] The doctors also evaluated general symptoms, head, eyes, ears, nose, throat, neck, lungs, cardiovascular, abdomen, extremities, neurological, and skin, but found no issues.[16] Defendant denied "headache, chest or abdominal pain, [or] pain to the extremities."[17] A CT scan was conducted and showed no evidence of acute hemorrhage, hydrocephalus, or herniation; nor did it show any acute transcortical infarct.[18] Defendant was discharged from Wilmington Hospital but later readmitted after making suicidal remarks to police during intake.[19] Defendant was reexamined by doctors during his second hospital visit, but no issues were found other than the laceration.[20] Defendant did not make any statements regarding trauma, injury, or pain relating to the domestic incident that happened earlier.

         Defendant's trial is scheduled for March 12, 2019. On January 16, 2019, with the Court's leave, Defendant filed this Motion to Dismiss/Motion in Limine. Defendant claims that, as a result of the police's actions, he was denied access to certain favorable evidence. Specifically, Defendant contends that he was deprived of the opportunities to (1) have his clothing, which he wore on the day of the incident, preserved, photographed, and documented; (2) be examined "head to toe;" and (3) have all injuries identified, described, and photographed.[21] Defendant asserts that the above-mentioned evidence is material to his self-defense claim, and he therefore is entitled to have this case dismissed, or a jury instruction concerning the significance of the missing evidence.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Due Process Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Delaware Constitution, article I, section 7, require the State to preserve evidence that was once in their possession.[22] This duty was later extended to alleged failures to gather evidence ab initio. [23] When the defense alleges missing evidence, the Court should conduct its analysis under the following paradigm:

1) would the requested material, if extant in the possession of the State at the time of the defense request, have been subject to disclosure under Criminal Rule 16 or Brady [v. Maryland[24]]?
2) if so, did the government have a duty to preserve the material?
3) if there was a duty to preserve, was the duty breached, and what consequences should flow from a breach?[25]

         The third question, the relief following a breach of the duty to gather or preserve evidence, is determined according to a separate three-part analysis that considers:

1) the degree of negligence or bad faith involved,
2) the importance of the missing evidence considering the probative value and reliability of secondary or substitute ...

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