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Gregg v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

November 14, 2019

CHRISTOPHER GREGG, Defendant Below, Appellant,
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: October 23, 2019

          Revised: November 15, 2019

          Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware Cr. ID No. N1711001192

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


          Collins J. Seitz, Jr. Chief Justice.

         This 15th day of November, 2019, having considered the briefs and the record below, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) In 2018, a Superior Court jury convicted Christopher Gregg of two counts of second degree arson and one count of third degree arson. On appeal, Gregg claims that the Superior Court erred when it allowed the State to admit Gregg's 2009 arson conviction into evidence at trial. According to Gregg, the prejudicial effect of admitting the 2009 conviction substantially outweighed its probative value. We find, however, that the Superior Court carefully weighed the admissibility of the 2009 arson conviction under the standards in Getz v. State[1] and gave the jury a limiting instruction. Thus, we affirm the Superior Court's judgment.

         (2) In November 2017, Gregg rented a property with a home and a barn with his daughters, "L.G." and "D.G.," and his fiancée, Debbie Mauthe. On the morning of November 2, 2017, Gregg argued with D.G. because D.G. wanted to live with her grandmother. After D.G. left for school, L.G. saw that her father had ransacked D.G.'s room.

         (3) Shortly after Gregg and Mauthe left the house, John Witzke, who was driving home from work past the house, noticed that Gregg's house and barn were on fire and called 911. Witzke also saw personal items scattered on the roof and back yard. Once the fire team suppressed the fire, the fire marshals began investigating. The investigation at the scene led to Gregg's arrest when he returned to his house that morning. The K9 search by the Deputy Chief Fire Marshal and his dog detected accelerant in several areas. The exterior visual search revealed a melted kerosene can by the rear porch door and excessive charring indicating an area that burned longer than other areas. The interior visual search showed pour patterns in the floor joists where an accelerant seeped through the floor to the joists. The investigators sent debris samples for testing.

         (4) A grand jury indicted Gregg on December 18, 2017 on two counts of arson in the second degree and one count of arson in the third degree. Gregg went to trial in August 2018. On the third day of trial, Gregg moved to dismiss the charges for a discovery violation. The Superior Court declared a mistrial and a new trial began on December 3, 2018.

         (5) At trial, Deputy Hedrick testified that two structures situated approximately thirty yards apart on a clear, windless day are unlikely to ignite simultaneously due to accidental causes. He also ruled out accidental causes such as careless smoking, faulty kerosene heaters, and faulty electrical issues because the indicators pointed to an incendiary fire that was intentionally lit by using an accelerant and an open flame, such as a candle or a match.

         (6) Prior to trial, the State filed a motion to admit evidence of Gregg's 2009 guilty plea to arson. The 2009 fire occurred at the home of Gregg's uncle on January 20, 2009, and was an incendiary fire started inside with an open flame and an accelerant. At the time, Gregg was living there with his uncle due to issues with his substance abuse. Gregg argued with his uncle because his uncle changed the locks on the home and believed that his uncle was going to kick him out. Gregg threatened to burn the house down, and, on the same day, the home burned down. Gregg pled guilty to reckless burning and intentionally starting the fire.

         (7) After a hearing, the Superior Court allowed the State to admit the circumstances surrounding the 2009 arson and Gregg's guilty plea. The court weighed the Getz factors and admitted the evidence under Rule 404(b) to prove absence of mistake or accident-that the fire was set intentionally-and, if so, identity-that Gregg set the fire.

         (8) During trial, and before the State introduced the challenged evidence, the Superior Court instructed the jury that they "may use such evidence only to help you in deciding whether the fire in this case was set intentionally; and, if so, whether the defendant was the person who intentionally set that fire."[2] At the end of trial, the ...

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