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Land v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

August 22, 2019

Maurice LAND, Defendant Below, Appellant,
STATE of Delaware, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

         Submitted: August 21, 2019

         Editorial Note:

         This decision has been designated as "Table of Decisions Without Published Opinions." in the Atlantic Reporter.

          Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware, Cr. ID No. 1408007675A

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


         Leo E. Strine, Jr., Chief Justice

          This 22nd day of August 2019, it appears to the Court that:

(1) The State convicted the appellant, Maurice Land, of Robbery in the First Degree, among other charges.[1] His conviction stems from the robbery of a Dollar General in Georgetown. On the evening of August 9, 2014, two men entered the store, and one man— wearing a black hat and a t-shirt with the word "Security" on the back— proceeded to the store’s office and robbed the clerk at gunpoint. The store’s surveillance system captured the robbery, and Land— matching the description of the thief and wearing a t-shirt with the word "Security" on the back— was arrested, along with two co-conspirators, about a quarter of a mile from the Dollar General shortly after the robbery occurred. The State tried Land and his co-conspirators together.[2] At trial, the evidence of Land’s guilt was overwhelming: Dollar General’s surveillance system captured Land committing the robbery,[3] police arrested Land near the crime scene wearing the same shirt as the thief,[4] and the Dollar General clerk identified Land as the assailant.[5] The jury thus found Land and his co-conspirators guilty,[6] and this Court affirmed Land’s conviction on direct appeal.[7]

(2) Land then moved for postconviction relief, arguing that that his trial counsel’s failure to move to sever his case from his co-conspirators’ cases constituted ineffective assistance of counsel entitling him to a new trial. The Superior Court disagreed, denied the motion, and held that "[t]rial counsel was not ineffective for failing to file a motion to sever" because that motion would have been denied, and in any event, Land was not prejudiced because "[a] separate trial would have made no difference" due to the "overwhelming evidence" of guilt.[8] On appeal, Land only argues that the Superior Court erred in holding that his counsel was not ineffective for failing to move to sever his trial from his codefendants.[9] We agree with the Superior Court and affirm.

(3) "Under Strickland v. Washington, a petitioner seeking postconviction relief on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel must show that (1) his counsel’s performance ‘fell below an objective standard of reasonableness’ ... and (2) there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different."[10] Land cannot satisfy either prong.

(4) Land’s counsel was not ineffective by failing to move to sever because "[c]ounsel need not ... present a meritless argument or defense."[11] Had Land’s counsel moved to sever, the Superior Court would have weighed four factors: "(i) any problems involving a codefendant’s out-of-court statements; (ii) an absence of substantial independent competent evidence of one codefendant’s guilt; (iii) antagonistic defenses between the codefendants; and (iv) the difficulty in segregating the State’s evidence between the codefendants."[12] As the Superior Court found, and Land’s brief effectively concedes, only the third factor is germane to this case.[13] But the third factor— whether defenses are antagonistic— requires severance only when the different defenses require the jury "to believe one co-defendant’s version of events [and] to disbelieve the other’s."[14] That was not the case here. Rather, Land’s co-defendants’ trial strategy rested on reiterating that they did not actually commit the robbery, in an effort to avoid the conspiracy charges.[15] Although this defensive strategy required Land’s co-conspirators to remind the court that there was no evidence that they committed the robbery (an implicit argument that someone else, possibly therefore Land, committed the robbery), Land’s codefendants never suggested or argued that Land committed the robbery, and their strategy did not require the jury to accept that Land committed the robbery. And Land’s co-defendants’ strategy did not conflict with Land’s trial strategy of arguing that someone else committed the robbery.[16] That is, the jury could have accepted Land’s defense— that someone other than Land committed the robbery— and still found that his co-defendants’ actions did not provide aid to the true thief. After all, there was no dispute in the case that someone robbed the store. Therefore, Land’s co-defendants’ strategy was not antagonistic, ...

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