Charbonneau, Linda Lou:
White; age 53 at crime; murder of white male age 62 (her ex-husband)
near Millsboro (Sussex County) om 9-23-2001 and of white male age 45
(her husband) near Bridgeville (Sussex County) on 10-17-2001;
sentenced on 6-4-2004.
Charbonneau led a hard life. Her first
husband was killed in a car accident, leaving her with two children to
She moved in with
John Charbonneau and had another child. She and John spent two decades
living together and raising her children. But by 1997, Linda had had
enough of John and left him to marry his nephew, Billy Sproates.
Within a few years, she was back with John, though still married to
Billy. Then John disappeared, and a few weeks later, so did Billy. And
when Delaware state police went digging, they found Billy buried
behind the house John had shared with Linda.
investigated for months as suspicion settled on Linda, her youngest
daughter, Mellisa, and Mellisa's boyfriend, Willie Brown. Eight months
after the discovery of the body, the trio was arrested. It was then
that Willie Brown led police to the body of the missing John
claimed Linda, Mellisa and Willie conspired together in a plot to
collect John's social security checks. Killing Linda's suspicious
husband Billy was simply a way to cover up John's murder. Linda Lou's
attorneys and family claimed she too was a victim of Mellisa and her
boyfriend, but the jury saw enough evidence to land Linda Lou on death
Charbonneau sentenced to
'cold-blooded, horrible' killings of husbands, judge says
By Molly Murray -
Sussex Bureau reporter
June 5, 2004
Linda Lou Charbonneau will die by
injection for orchestrating the "egregious, cold-blooded, horrible"
killings of her husband and former husband in 2001, Sussex County
Superior Court Judge Richard F. Stokes ruled Friday.
Charbonneau, 56, showed no reaction to the death
sentence, even as Stokes described in some detail the manner in which
she would be put to death. She is the only woman facing execution in
Delaware and would be the first the state has put to death since 1935.
Stokes set no date for execution. Under Delaware
law, the state Supreme Court automatically reviews all death penalty
cases. Charbonneau's lawyer, Thomas Pedersen, said she will appeal her
Charbonneau was convicted April 23 of masterminding
the deaths of her former husband, John Charbonneau, 62, in September
2001, and her husband, William Sproates III, 45, the following month.
An autopsy found dirt in Sproates' lungs, indicating he was still
breathing when he was buried.
After hearing Charbonneau plead for her life, the
jury voted 10-2 to recommend death in the John Charbonneau killing and
9-3 in the Sproates case. Under state law, Stokes had final say in
sentencing, but had to give great weight to the jury's recommendation.
"The family is happy that she is being sentenced to
death," said Richard Charbonneau, John Charbonneau's brother. "But
there won't be closure for the family until the day of her execution.
She put our family through so much in the last four years."
Deputy Attorney General James Adkins said he was
pleased with the sentence.
"It doesn't bring them back," he said. "But it's
the best justice we can get."
Adkins had argued that Charbonneau plotted the
murder of John Charbonneau out of greed, and planned the killing of
Sproates after he started asking too many questions about John
Charbonneau's disappearance. Sproates was John Charbonneau's nephew.
Adkins said Charbonneau enlisted the help of her
daughter, Mellisa Rucinski, and Rucinski's husband, Willie Brown, to
carry out the murders.
Speaking to a crowded, near-capacity courtroom,
Stokes said Linda Charbonneau "engineered these killings" and rejected
an argument that she should be treated the same as her two
co-defendants, neither of whom faces the death penalty.
Stokes is scheduled to sentence Rucinski on Friday
to as long as 25 years in prison for her role in the murders. She
pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree murder and one count of
conspiracy in John Charbonneau's death.
Brown is expected to be sentenced to two
consecutive life sentences, without possibility of probation or
parole, for carrying out the murders of Sproates and John Charbonneau.
Brown pleaded guilty to two charges of first-degree murder.
"They were her agents," Stokes said. "She has more,
not less, responsibility for their murders."
Stokes reviewed the case for almost an hour Friday,
outlining the details of the crimes, the findings of the jury and,
finally, his recommendation for two death penalties. The judge looked
directly at Charbonneau as he pronounced his sentence, which also
included 10 years in prison for two conspiracy charges and 20 years
for possessing a deadly weapon during a felony.
Pedersen said Charbonneau was not surprised by the
sentence. Dressed in a white prison top and trousers and shackled at
the ankles, Charbonneau stood quietly as she listened to Stokes.
Pedersen stood to her right and co-counsel Craig Karsnitz to her left.
She wiped away tears with a tissue when Stokes mentioned her
grandchildren and her mother.
The only sounds in the courtroom after the sentence
was announced were quiet murmurs from John Charbonneau's sister, Jerry
Ann Heath. Heath was among the first to suspect that something had
happened to her brother in late September 2001.
In a summary, Stokes painted a picture of a callous
woman who recruited Brown to do her killing. Stokes described the
on-again, off-again relationship between Linda and John Charbonneau as
"dysfunctional" and said she physically and mentally abused him.
Linda Charbonneau took advantage of his violent
temper and dislike of John Charbonneau. She then led John Charbonneau
to his death by telling him someone was breaking into their home in
Brown "viciously struck him in the face," Stokes
said. John Charbonneau "cried out to Linda Charbonneau not to let this
happen," but she did nothing, Stokes said.
Brown loaded John Charbonneau into Linda
Charbonneau's van and, with Rucinski at the wheel, took him to a
prepared shallow grave near Angola, where he beat him to death.
The three defendants cleaned out John Charbonneau's
home, and Linda Charbonneau made plans to move in with her husband,
Sproates, at his home in Magnolia.
But when Sproates discovered a blood-spattered box,
he started asking Charbonneau questions and also mentioned his
suspicions to a Delaware State Police trooper.
"She told Brown and Rucinski that something had to
be done about Sproates," Stokes said. "Her words became his death
Stokes described the beating death of Sproates as
"a horrific encounter" in which Charbonneau lured Sproates into his
home as Brown waited inside.
"Brown is the one who killed them," Stokes said.
"But she was the dominant force behind these crimes."
According to the Death Penalty Information Center,
women account for less than 2 percent of the national death row
population. Ten women have been executed in the United States since
1976 - the last in October 2002 in Florida.
Delaware has executed three women in its history.
There now are 15 men in Delaware prisons who have been sentenced to
death. Two other men await sentencing after jury recommendations for
the death penalty.
The last death penalty recommendation in Sussex
County came in March 1986 when a jury unanimously called for Kenneth
W. DeShields to be sentenced to death. He was executed in 1993.
Supreme Court of Delaware
Charbonneau v. State
Linda L. CHARBONNEAU, Defendant Below Appellant,
STATE of Delaware, Plaintiff Below Appellee.
No. 253, 2004, 254, 2004.
March 01, 2006
Before STEELE, Chief Justice, HOLLAND, BERGER,
JACOBS and RIDGELY, Justices, constituting the court en banc.
Craig A. Karsnitz (argued), Young Conaway Stargatt
& Taylor, Georgetown, Delaware and Thomas A. Pederson, Georgetown,
Delaware, for appellant.Kim E. Ayvazian (argued), Department of
Justice, Georgetown, Delaware and John Williams, Department of
Justice, Dover, Delaware, for appellee.
The State indicted Linda Charbonneau, her daughter,
Mellisa Rucinski, and Willie Tony Brown for criminal offenses arising
out of the murders of John Charbonneau and William Sproates.1
The State entered into plea agreements with Mellisa and Brown
contingent on their providing truthful proffers and truthful testimony
at Linda's trial.
Twelve days before opening statements at Linda's
trial, the prosecutors produced a potential witness list for voir dire
that included both Brown and Mellisa. The prosecutors knew that
there were inconsistencies in Mellisa's and Brown's proffered versions
of the critical events at least six months before Linda's trial.
Despite that knowledge the prosecutors waited until four days into
jury selection and four days before scheduled opening statements to
notify the trial judge and the defense that they would not be calling
Brown as a witness because they believed Mellisa's proffered version
of the facts, but not Brown's. Linda's counsel, however, had
extensively prepared their defense at trial on the assumption that
Brown would be called as a witness to testify. Because the state's
thirteenth hour decision not to call Brown would essentially
eviscerate their defense strategies, defense counsel sought two forms
of relief: (i) a “missing witness” instruction, and (ii) an in limine
order admitting Brown's plea and proffer into evidence for the
purposes of impeaching Mellisa and creating reasonable doubt about the
State's case. The trial judge denied the missing witness
instruction, ruling that it was “not natural” for the State to call
Brown so long as the State “believed” that Brown was lying. In
addition, the trial judged ruled that the fact that Brown had pleaded
guilty to first degree murder and the facts stated in Brown's proffer
that formed the basis of Brown's plea bargain were inadmissible as
evidence at the trial because they were irrelevant and because any
probative value that evidence might have was substantially outweighed
by the danger of unfair prejudice or misleading the jury. By so
ruling, the trial judge essentially determined as fact the State's
unilateral determination about Brown's and Mellisa's respective
credibility, and removed that credibility issue from the ultimate fact
The defendant has appealed, asserting six claims of
error, including these two rulings. We determine that the trial
judge abused his discretion in denying Linda's motion in limine
because the exclusion of evidence relevant to the credibility of one
of the State's two primary fact witnesses removed from the jury, as
ultimate finder of fact, the opportunity to consider and decide which
of the two State's witnesses was more credible.2
The result was to undermine confidence that the defendant received a
fair trial. Therefore, although we uphold the trial judge's other
rulings challenged on this appeal, we reverse the conviction on the
ground that the trial judge's denial of the motion in limine fatally
undermined the fairness of the trial. Accordingly, the judgment is
reversed and remanded for a new trial.
The facts of this case are complex. We summarize
at this point the facts that are relevant to our holding. Other
sections of this Opinion addressing the specific issues on appeal
discuss those facts, where relevant, in more detail.
Linda was married to John, and later, to Sproates.
Linda remained romantically involved with both men in varying
degrees and had moved between the residences of John and Sproates
In the fall of 2001, John and Sproates were reported missing.
Sproates's body was eventually found in John's backyard. A murder
investigation ensued. Linda became a primary suspect. The
investigation ultimately suggested that Linda, Mellisa, and Mellisa's
boyfriend, Brown, participated in John's and Sproates's murders. All
three were eventually indicted and the State began to prepare for
In April of 2003, the State began to discuss a plea
bargain with Brown. On April 10, 2003, the State sent a letter to
Brown discussing the terms under which it would allow Brown to plead
guilty. The State offered Brown a plea of guilty to two counts of
First Degree Murder. Brown would be required to provide the State
with a truthful written proffer, a truthful formal videotaped
statement, and truthful testimony at Linda's and Mellisa's trials.
In return for Brown's cooperation, the State promised to recommend
life in prison at his sentencing.4
Brown accepted the State's offer and sent a written proffer to the
State on April 22, 2003 outlining his version of how the murders took
place. Brown's proffer implicated himself, Linda, and Mellisa in the
murders. In his proffer, Brown suggested that the motive to kill
John resulted from pornographic pictures of Mellisa's oldest daughter
found on John's computer. Brown further proffered that Mellisa had
actively participated in Sproates's murder: Mellisa stabbed Sproates
while Brown beat him with a homemade weapon. The State and Brown
agreed to the deal and Brown pleaded guilty to two counts of Murder in
the First Degree on April 24, 2003. Under the terms of the
agreement, sentencing was deferred until his codefendants' cases were
On October 8, 2003, approximately six months after
Brown's plea, the State began plea discussions with Mellisa. Armed
with Brown's proffer implicating Mellisa in the murders, the State
offered Mellisa a plea to Second Degree Murder for John's death, and
to Conspiracy in the First Degree for Sproates's murder. The terms
of the plea agreement required Mellisa to provide a truthful written
proffer and truthful testimony at her codefendants' trials. Mellisa
accepted the State's offer and sent the State a proffer outlining her
version of the murders. Mellisa's account of the murders differed
substantially from Brown's.
The two proffers differed in the following ways:
• Brown suggested in his proffer that Mellisa was
actively involved in Sproates's murder. Mellisa, however, proffered
that she was miles away when the murder occurred, and that Brown had
committed the murder alone at Linda's request.
• Brown claimed that the motive behind killing John
originated from pornographic pictures of Mellisa's oldest child found
on John's computer. Mellisa proffered that the motive to kill John
stemmed from constant battles between Linda and John over material
• Brown proffered that Linda killed John and that
all he (Brown) did was bury John's body. Mellisa, however, proffered
that she witnessed Brown beating John. Mellisa also claimed that after
the beating, while John was still alive, she drove Brown and John to a
secluded area where Brown killed John with a blunt object and buried
Despite the obvious inconsistencies in the proffers
(both plea agreements were predicated on each defendant telling the
truth), the State permitted Mellisa to plead guilty to Second-Degree
Murder and First Degree Conspiracy. Mellisa's agreement, like
Brown's, deferred sentencing until her codefendants' trials were
Linda and the State never reached a plea agreement,
and the Superior Court set her trial for March 8, 2004. On February
26, 2004, approximately a week before trial, the State provided the
defense a “two and one-half inches thick” notebook of documents with
“both exculpatory and potential inculpatory information.” Within
this voluminous set of documents was a handwritten statement by
Mellisa taking issue with Brown's “truthful” proffer. This
development compelled Linda's counsel, who had already cleared a
four-week period from their calendars,5
to request a continuance. The trial judge granted the request and set
a new trial date of March 22, 2004.
Twelve days before opening statements, the State
filed a “potential” witness list which included both Brown and Mellisa
as witnesses whom the State would call. Therefore, almost one year
before the sole remaining codefendant's trial began, the State had
openly and publicly represented to the Superior Court that Brown had
agreed to plead guilty and to testify truthfully and consistently with
a written proffer accepted by the State and disclosed to the Superior
Court about the crimes for which Linda was to be tried. Six months
before Linda's trial was to begin, the State had accepted Mellisa's
plea, the proffer on which it was based, and her agreement to testify
truthfully about the crimes for which Linda, the sole remaining
codefendant, would be tried before a jury.
Although the State generally has no obligation to
disclose its trial witnesses, its plea agreements with Brown and
Mellisa renders that point irrelevant as to them, because a key
condition of the pleas was that both witnesses would: (a) testify;
and, (b) testify truthfully. The State so represented to the
Superior Court in open court at the time of their pleas-one year
before and six months before, Linda's trial was to begin. Defense
counsel knew the terms of the pleas and, therefore, reasonably could
expect, in the absence of State action to the contrary that Brown and
Mellisa would testify. Under these circumstances, defense counsels'
reasonable reliance on their expectation that Brown would be called
was buttressed by the State's failure to give timely notice that he
would not be called, despite months to do so. Defense counsel and
the trial judge had no reason to believe that because the prosecutors
questioned Brown's veracity, they were not going to call Brown. The
State's list of potential witnesses for voir dire purposes, did not,
as the dissent points out, obligate the State to call all those
listed, but the list, coming only twelve days before opening
statements confirmed the reasonableness of defense counsels'
expectation. The State further exacerbated its forthcoming self-made
“ethical dilemma” by not revoking Brown's plea agreement during the
six months prosecutors knew that Brown and Mellisa could not both be
expected to “testify truthfully.”
The case began with jury selection on March 22,
2004. Four days into jury selection and four days before the
scheduled opening statements, the prosecutors requested a conference
with the trial judge.6
At that conference the prosecutors, for the first time, disclosed an
“ethical dilemma.” 7
Specifically, the prosecutors professed that they believed Brown was
lying about Sproates's murder. The prosecutors told the trial judge
that they did not believe Brown because they credited Mellisa's
statement that she was miles away when the murder occurred. In other
words, the prosecutors, taking upon themselves the jury's fact finding
prerogative, found Mellisa to be the more credible witness.8
According to the State, the “ethical dilemma” resulting from their
belief left the prosecutors with few viable options: (i) call Brown
and “ask him about [John's] death and maybe either don't ask him
anything about the Sproates death or just ask him a general question,
‘Did you participate in the killing and transportation of the body and
burial of Sproates?,’ and sit down and let the defense have at him,”
or (ii) not call Brown at all.9
The State ultimately decided not to call Brown, despite having listed
him as a potential witness twelve days before opening statements were
to begin and despite having waited until four days before scheduled
opening statements to disclose its so-called “ethical dilemma.”
Linda's counsel had reasonably relied upon the
State's representations that it would call Brown as a witness, and
upon their knowledge that for at least six months before trial the
State had known of Brown's and Mellisa's inconsistent statements yet
had taken no action. Accordingly, Linda's counsel sought a missing
witness instruction and an order admitting Brown's plea and proffer
into evidence. Indeed, defense counsel had prepared for months based
on the reasonable assumption that Brown would be called as a witness
and that there were inconsistencies in Mellisa's and Brown's proffers
that defense counsel would be able to exploit at trial. Linda's
counsel sought to use the proffered facts supporting Brown's plea to
“test Ms. Rucinski's credibility and to support an argument that the
State does not have confidence in the strength of its case.” 10
Rejecting Linda's counsels' position, the trial
judge declined to admit Brown's plea and proffer into evidence,
holding that any probative value of Brown's plea agreement was
substantially outweighed by “unfair prejudice, confusion of the
issues, or misleading the jury, and also by considerations of waste of
time.” The trial judge reserved ruling on the missing witness
instruction. Because the ruling on Linda's motion in limine excluded
evidence of Brown's plea and the facts supporting his proffer, Linda's
counsel was precluded from presenting the theory they had spent months
developing-that the inconsistencies in Mellisa's and Brown's proffers
created a reasonable doubt about Linda's guilt, because the State's
key witnesses could not agree on the details of their own involvement
in the murders.
Mellisa testified as the State's primary witness.
Her testimony provided a substantially uncontradicted basis for the
jury to convict Linda on all counts.11
After a penalty hearing, the trial judge sentenced Linda to death by
lethal injection for the murders of John and Sproates.
II. THE SIX CLAIMS OF ERROR
We turn next to Linda's six claims of error.
A. The Trial Judge's Refusal to Admit Brown's
Plea and Proffer
As earlier noted, four days before opening
statements were scheduled and four days into jury selection, the
prosecutors notified the trial judge that they would not call Brown.
Understanding that Brown would likely assert his Fifth Amendment right
against self-incrimination if they called him, Linda's counsel sought
a ruling admitting into evidence the fact that Brown had pleaded
guilty to two counts of First Degree Murder and the facts proffered by
Brown as part of his plea bargain. The defense sought a ruling
admitting the plea and proffer before trial, because counsel wanted to
tell the jury in their opening statement that Brown's and Mellisa's
proffers were inconsistent and would, therefore, create a reasonable
doubt about Linda's guilt. Defense counsel also desired to admit
Brown's plea and proffer in order to enable the jury to compare both
versions of the murders in judging Mellisa's credibility.
Citing Potts v. State,12
the State opposed the application, claiming that the facts of Brown's
guilty plea and the facts supporting Brown's proffer were not
admissible, because they were not relevant to Linda's guilt or
innocence. Relying on Potts, the trial judge ruled Brown's proffer
and the fact of his plea irrelevant because “an accomplice plea does
not exonerate a codefendant.” 13
Citing Johnson v. State 14
the trial judge also held that the admission of a codefendant's guilty
plea and proffer is governed by Delaware Rule of Evidence 403.15
Applying D.R.E. 403, the trial judge concluded that any probative
value of the fact of Brown's plea and the facts proffered in support
thereof was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair
prejudice, confusion of the issues, misleading the jury, or wasting
Linda has appealed these evidentiary rulings.
Because a determination of whether evidence is relevant falls within
the discretion of the trial judge, we will not reverse a trial judge's
decision absent a clear abuse of discretion.16
Similarly, because the trial judge has discretion to determine
whether the probative value of a particular piece of evidence is
substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion
of the issues, misleading the jury, or wasting time,17
we review that finding for abuse of discretion. Judicial discretion
is the exercise of judgment directed by conscience and reason. A
trial judge has abused his discretion where the judge has exceeded the
bounds of reason in view of the circumstances and has so ignored
recognized rules of law or practice so as to produce injustice.18
Further, we have held that when:
․ the appeal is grounded on allegations that the
[trial judge] erred as a matter of law or abused [his] discretion in
submitting claims to the jury and in admitting certain evidence, [we]
will first consider whether the specific rulings at issue were
correct. If [we] find error or abuse of discretion in the rulings,
[we] must then determine whether the mistakes constituted significant
prejudice so as to have denied the appellant a fair trial. 19
We hold that the trial judge abused his discretion
by endorsing as fact the State's unilaterally held view that one
witness's version of the facts, purportedly offered truthfully in
support of a plea agreement accepted by the State, was credible, while
another witness's version, similarly accepted by the State as
truthful, was not.20
Because that ruling overlaid the trial judge's own personal
endorsement of one proffered version over a different version and
removed a critical credibility determination from the jury, it
constituted error. These errors resulted in significant prejudice
that is sufficient to undermine our confidence that the defendant
received a fair trial.
Three issues are critical to the trial judge's
ruling on the defendant's in limine motion: logical relevance;
outweighing prejudice to the State, and prejudice to the defendant.
We turn to those issues.
1. Relevance of Brown's plea and proffer
Under Delaware Rule of Evidence 401, the proffered
evidence is relevant if it tends to make the existence of the
defendant's guilt more or less probable.21
In ruling the fact that Brown had pleaded guilty and the facts
supporting Brown's proffer logically irrelevant, the trial judge
relied on Potts, a case where the police raided the defendant's house
pursuant to a search warrant. During the course of the search, the
police arrested Potts and four of his companions, who were later
indicted for the same drug charges: Possession with Intent to Deliver
Heroin; Possession with Intent to Deliver Cocaine; Possession with
Intent to Deliver Marijuana; Possession of Hypodermic Needles and
Syringes; Maintaining a Dwelling for the Keeping of Controlled
Substances; and Conspiracy Second Degree. Before Potts's trial, two
of his companions pleaded guilty to simple possession of drugs under a
plea agreement with the State. Potts sought to admit his
codefendants' pleas at his later trial on the basis that their
statements were exculpatory because they corroborated his defense that
the drugs seized did not belong to him. In other words, Potts sought
to admit his codefendants' guilty pleas to possession of drugs to
demonstrate that they-and not he-possessed the drugs. We agreed with
the trial judge's conclusion that the relevance of the codefendants'
pleas was tenuous at best. We stated:
The two codefendants who entered guilty pleas did
so only as to the charges against themselves. Defendant did not
establish that his companions' pleas constituted confessions to
exclusive possession of the drugs. Hence, their pleas were not shown
to exculpate defendant.
In this case, the trial judge relied on Potts,
An accomplice being a person being charged to the
same crimes with which a codefendant is charged, like a person in the
position of Linda Charbonneau, is not relevant evidence. As our
Supreme Court observed in Potts․ an accomplice plea does not exonerate
a codefendant. The innocence or guilt of a defendant, or of a person
in Ms. Charbonneau's position, must be settled only on the evidence
produced during the trial.
The trial judge's reading of Potts and his
application of Potts to this case was misplaced. The trial judge
concluded that Potts announced a categorical rule that an accomplice
plea and proffered statements in support of the plea are always
irrelevant because they do not exonerate a codefendant. We did not
announce any such rule in Potts. In Potts, the defendant was
attempting to establish, through the fact that his codefendants
pleaded guilty, that he did not possess drugs. We held that the
codefendants' pleas were irrelevant because they did not independently
establish that the codefendants' exclusively possessed the drugs.
That is, in Potts, the codefendants' guilty pleas did not make it more
or less probable that the defendant also possessed drugs.
Potts is distinguishable from this case. Linda
did not seek the admission of Brown's plea and proffer to exonerate
herself by seeking to establish that Brown, and not she, committed the
murders. Rather, Linda sought to introduce Brown's plea and proffer
to “test Ms. Rucinski's credibility and to support an argument that
the State does not have confidence in the strength of its case.” 22
We agree that Brown's plea to two counts of First
Degree Murder for a deal on his penalty did not, alone and without
more, impeach Mellisa. The mere fact that Brown pleaded guilty did
not give Mellisa motive to lie. But, Brown's proffered statements in
support of his plea were relevant to test Mellisa's credibility on the
degree of Linda's involvement in the crimes with which Mellisa, Brown
and Linda were charged.
The trial judge recognized that “the State had good
reason to believe Brown put too much of a finger of blame on Linda
Charbonneau to get himself out of trouble and was less than
What the trial judge apparently failed to apprehend, however, is that
the jury, after hearing the inconsistencies in the State's witnesses'
versions of the events, might conclude that Mellisa had a similar
motive to implicate Linda falsely. Brown proffered that Mellisa was
the primary actor in Sproates's death. Brown's proffered statements
gave Mellisa a motive to lie and to implicate falsely her
codefendants. Defense counsel wanted to use Brown's proffer to
demonstrate to the jury that Mellisa had a motive to lie both in her
proffer and in her live testimony.
The trial judge's refusal to credit the relevance
of Brown's proffered statements to impeach Mellisa is best understood
by focusing on the following question the trial judge posed to the
Brown has an axe to grind with Rucinski in falsely
accusing her of killing Sproates. How does this automatically
translate into some interest, bias, or prejudice of Mellisa Rucinski
to falsely accuse Charbonneau? I'm asking the question because
that's the question the defense is going to have to answer.24
That question illustrates that the trial judge did
not understand how Brown's proffered statements could impeach Mellisa.
The reason, in our view, is that the trial judge had unqualifiedly
endorsed the State's contention that it was Brown-and not Mellisa-who
was lying. We agree that if Brown lied, his statements would provide
a motive for Mellisa to falsely implicate him but not necessarily
Linda. But, if Brown's proffered statements created a reasonable
doubt in the jurors' minds about Mellisa's credibility generally, that
doubt might also have affected the jury's analysis of the
believability of Mellisa's version of Linda's involvement in the
It was error for the trial judge to accept the
State's contention (and essentially find as fact) that Brown (not
Mellisa) was lying and then to remove that issue from the jury. The
prosecutors argued two reasons why they believed Brown was lying: (1)
his statements were substantially inconsistent with Mellisa's; and,
(2) no DNA was found on the knife that Brown claimed Mellisa used in
killing Sproates. These reasons alone could not justify the trial
judge taking from the jury the issue of the credibility of Mellisa's
testimony about Linda's involvement in the murder.
First, the fact that Brown's statements were
inconsistent with Mellisa's could not, without more, justify
concluding that Brown was lying. The State itself acknowledged that
“there are always inconsistencies in people's statements.” 25
Further, the State and the trial judge both knew Mellisa was an
admitted liar. At trial she admitted lying at every opportunity she
had to speak about the case.26
Certainly one could not reasonably conclude that Brown's statements
were false solely because they were inconsistent with statements from
someone who openly admitted she herself was a liar.
Therefore, the trial judge was left with the
argument that there was no DNA on a knife that Brown alleged Mellisa
used to stab Sproates. But, to conclude that Brown must have been
lying simply because there was no DNA on the knife is misguided. The
absence of DNA on the knife can be explained by any number of
circumstances-including the possibility that someone cleaned the knife
after the murder.27
Thus, we hold that the trial judge abused his discretion by
accepting, as fact, the State's contention that Brown was lying but
that Mellisa was truthful and by removing from the jury the issue of
who spoke truthfully and whether the inconsistencies resulting raised
a reasonable doubt about Linda's guilt.
Mellisa provided all of the testimony necessary to
convict Linda. Because Mellisa's testimony was the linchpin of the
State's case, we cannot be confident that any evidence that could
impeach Mellisa's credibility would not create a reasonable doubt
about Linda's guilt.
Because the jury might possibly believe Brown,
Brown's proffered statements would be relevant to test Mellisa's
credibility. In his proffer, Brown heavily implicated Mellisa.
Brown claimed that Mellisa assisted in John's burial, and actively
participated in Sproates's murder. The State itself, armed with
Brown's statements that were posited as truthful, leveraged a deal
with Mellisa. Surely the State suggested to Mellisa that she was
facing First Degree Murder charges and a possible death sentence if a
jury believed Brown's proffered statements. Motivated to ensure that
she received a favorable plea bargain and to avoid a possible death
sentence based on Brown's statements, Mellisa had an interest in
falsely implicating either or both of her codefendants and in
exculpating herself. Brown's proffered statements were clearly
relevant to challenge Mellisa's truthfulness when she gave testimony
implicating Linda. The trial judge erred in holding otherwise.
2. Whether the Probative Value of Brown's
Proffer was Substantially Outweighed by the Danger of Unfair
The logical relevance of Brown's guilty plea and
proffer does not conclude the analysis. A trial judge may exclude
otherwise relevant evidence if “its probative value is substantially
outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues
or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of
time or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.” 28
As discussed above, we review for an abuse of discretion a trial
judge's ruling under D.R.E. 403 for an abuse of discretion.29
Here, the trial judge found that any probative
value of Brown's proffer was substantially outweighed by the danger of
unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, misleading the jury, or
The trial judge stated:
Brown's plea agreement would likely poison the well
for Linda Charbonneau as a jury would view the case as closed. The
jury's focus must be solely on the evidence, and there would be a
great deal of time wasted to explore matters.31
In so holding, the trial judge abused his
discretion. Brown's proffered statements were highly probative.
Mellisa was the State's primary witness who provided the testimony
that enabled the jury to find her mother guilty of two intentional
murders. Any evidence that would operate to impeach Mellisa's
credibility had probative value. If the jury found Mellisa's
testimony generally incredible, then Linda would have had an
opportunity to create a reasonable doubt in the jurors' minds about
the extent of her own involvement in the crimes charged.
The trial judge held, however, that the jury would
have viewed the “case as closed” if Brown's plea and proffered
statements were admitted. We interpret that view to mean that if the
jury was told that Brown had pleaded guilty to two counts of First
Degree Murder and if the jury had accepted the facts underlying
Brown's proffer, the jurors would have concluded that Linda was guilty
of two intentional murders. We do not agree. The State's theory,
which the jury understood, was that Linda, Mellisa, and Brown all
committed the murders. Both Brown and Mellisa's statements
implicated themselves, each other, and Linda to some degree.
Admitting Brown's proffered statements, certainly would not give the
jury any indication that the “case (against Linda) was closed.” The
trial judge should have admitted the proffered statements.
Thus, we hold that the trial judge abused his
discretion by holding that the probative value of the Brown statement
was outweighed by the prejudice that evidence would occasion to Linda
(on the theory it would “close” the case against her) or that it would
be a waste of time to explore the inconsistency in the testimony of
two eyewitnesses to two intentional murders. There certainly, on the
other hand, was no cognizable prejudice to the State in admitting
statements that the State itself had procured as part of its plea
bargain and that, by not rescinding its plea bargain with Brown,
continued impliedly to endorse.
3. Prejudice to the Defendant From Failure to
Admit Brown's Plea and Proffer.
As discussed above, “if the court finds error or
abuse of discretion in the rulings, it must then determine whether the
mistakes constituted significant prejudice so as to have denied the
appellant a fair trial.” 32
We hold that the trial judge's refusal to admit Brown's proffered
guilty plea and statements constituted prejudice so significant that
it denied Linda a fair trial.
As noted, Mellisa's testimony was the linchpin of
the State's case. She provided the State with all of the evidence
necessary to convict her mother. Surely Mellisa's testimony, if not
contradicted by any other eyewitness, would strongly influence a jury,
since Mellisa was implicating her own mother in two intentional
murders. By the same logic, any facts that would test Mellisa's
credibility could also significantly impact the outcome of the case.
Because Brown's proffered statement gave Mellisa a motive to lie, that
statement should have been admitted to impeach Mellisa's credibility.
Because it was not, the jury's inability to assess Brown's proffered
statements to support his plea, and the inconsistencies they created
for the State's case, denied her a fair trial.
Moreover, the State's tactics exacerbated the
prejudice to Linda. The State accepted Brown's plea in April of
2003. Six months later, in October of 2003, the State accepted
Mellisa's plea-a time that the State concedes its prosecutors believed
Brown was lying.33
At the time that Mellisa entered her guilty plea-six months before
Linda's trial-the State's prosecutors could have notified the defense
and the trial judge of their “ethical dilemma,” but they did not.
Instead, the State included Brown on its potential witness list for
voir dire twelve days before opening statements, and waited until four
days before the scheduled opening statements before disclosing the
The dissent seems to suggest that Linda's plight at
this point is no different than that of any codefendant who the State
and Superior Court agree to try first. We disagree. Here, both of
Linda's codefendants pleaded guilty and were not going to have a trial
because each had made a deal in open court to testify truthfully
against Linda. When the prosecutors' stated they would not be
calling Brown, the trial judge sua sponte should have asked, “are you
revoking Brown's plea agreement? If not, I will sentence Brown now
and the defense can call Brown.” Defense counsel had no “ethical
dilemma” because they were not presenting Brown's statements for their
truth-just the opposite. Defense counsel wanted to show Brown's
version's inconsistency with Mellisa's version and demonstrate that
neither were credible.
This case is, we think, unique because the trial
judge allowed the State's tactical trial decisions to control Brown's
sentencing date-whether the State called him or not-which in turn gave
the State control over Brown's availability to both the State and to
Any experienced trial attorney would quickly grasp the significant
prejudice resulting from the State's timing. Defense counsel
reasonably believed that the State would call both Brown and Mellisa
to testify in accordance with the terms of their respective public
plea agreements and the State's representations to the Superior Court
at the time of the pleas, and in reliance on that belief, defense
counsel based their theory of Linda's defense on the inconsistencies
between Brown's and Mellisa's proffers. The State's strategy of
waiting until the thirteenth hour to disclose its “ethical dilemma”
forced defense counsel to reformulate their entire trial strategy
which they had spent six months preparing, four days before opening
Brown became unavailable to the defendant because
Linda called him as a witness and he asserted his Fifth Amendment
right. But Brown was always available to the State. The State had
entered into an agreement with Brown that required Brown to testify if
called by the State as a witness at the trial. If the State pursued
its agreement to call Brown, he would have been required to testify
pursuant to his plea agreement. If Brown refused to testify for the
State and thereby breached the plea agreement, the State could have
revoked its plea agreement with Brown.
In this case, Brown remained unavailable to the
defense because the State did not decide to honor its plea agreement
with Brown until after Charbonneau's trial, even though the State had
already concluded Brown's statements at the time of the plea agreement
were untruthful. If the State had immediately announced that it was
not calling Brown as a witness but was nevertheless going to honor his
plea agreement, Brown could have been sentenced promptly and would
then have been available to testify for the defense at trial because
Brown would no longer have been able to invoke his Fifth Amendment
right not to testify. Consequently, the State's unilateral decisions
not to call Brown as a witness and not to make a decision about
honoring Brown's plea agreement until after Charbonneau's trial
resulted in Brown's unavailability as a witness for the defense.35
Not surprisingly, defense counsels' motion in
limine sought relief from the trial judge, most relevantly, an order
admitting Brown's plea and proffer in order to impeach Mellisa and
create reasonable doubt about the State's case. By denying that
requested relief, the trial judge forced Linda to go to trial without
the benefit of the strategy her counsel had spent months developing.
For these reasons, the trial judge's erroneous exclusion of Brown's
proffered statements denied Linda her right to a fair trial.36
As earlier discussed, the crux of the defense
strategy, which Linda's defense counsel spent months preparing, was to
cross-examine Brown and Mellisa to highlight to the jury the
inconsistencies between the stories of both witnesses. Defense
counsel believed that those inconsistencies might show that both
witnesses were lying and create a reasonable doubt in the jurors'
minds about the extent of Linda's involvement. Defense counsel would
also have been able to argue that the State had no firm view how the
murders occurred because its own witnesses had given different
accounts of the murders. Put simply, the defense could have argued
that the State had no coherent theory about Linda's involvement.
The State's chosen tactic-waiting until only four
days before opening statements to announce that the prosecution would
not be calling Brown-eviscerated that defense strategy and, because of
its timing, did so unfairly. As previously held, the trial judge
should not have allowed that to occur, but failing that, should have
granted the relief Linda had requested in her motion in limine to
preserve her ability to conduct a defense.
4. Brown's Guilty Plea and Proffer Admissible
Under D.R.E. 804(b)(3).
Brown's guilty plea and proffer were admissible
under Delaware Rule of Evidence 804 as declarations against penal
interest that were made by an unavailable witness.37
D.R.E. 804(b)(3) provides:
3. Statement against interest. A statement which
was, at the time of its making, so far contrary to the declarant's
pecuniary or proprietary interest, or so far tended to subject the
declarant to civil or criminal liability, or to render invalid a claim
by the declarant against another, that a reasonable person in the
declarant's position would not have made the statement unless the
declarant believed it to be true. A statement tending to expose the
declarant to criminal liability and offered to exculpate the accused
is not admissible unless corroborating circumstances clearly indicate
the trustworthiness of the statement.
Such a statement is admissible if the witness is
“unavailable.” D.R.E. 804(a)(1) states that a declarant is
unavailable who “is exempted by ruling of the Court on the ground of
privilege from testifying concerning the subject matter of the
declarant's statement.” The State frequently invokes the
“declaration against penal interest” exception to the hearsay rule as
a basis for introducing statements by a non-testifying co-defendant
who has asserted a Fifth Amendment right and is, therefore,
In this case, the trial judge ruled that Brown was
entitled to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege against
Therefore, Brown was unavailable within the meaning of D.R.E.
804(a)(1) and Linda's attorneys were entitled to introduce Brown's
guilty plea agreement and proffer under D.R.E. 804(b)(3), the hearsay
exception for statements against penal interest. To be admissible,
Rule 804(b)(3) requires the statement to be made at a time when it was
“so far contrary to the declarant's best interests that a reasonable
person would not make the statement unless the declarant believed it
to be true,” 40
e.g., a guilty plea to murder. Once that determination is made, the
inquiry ends unless the statement would simultaneously expose the
declarant to criminal liability and exculpate the accused.41
In this case, that should have been the end of the
trial judge's inquiry because Brown's statements did not exculpate
Linda. The State's action resulted in the guilty plea agreement and
Brown's proffer. The State alone could compel Brown to testify at
trial. When the State refused to call Brown as a witness and the
trial judge permitted Brown to assert his Fifth Amendment right not to
testify for the defense, Linda's motion in limine should have been
granted. It was reversible error not to admit Brown's plea agreement
and proffer into evidence under D.R.E. 804(b)(3) as declarations
against penal interest made by an unavailable witness.42
The trial judge's ruling denied Linda's right to a fair trial and the
effective assistance of counsel that are guaranteed by the Sixth
Amendment of the United States Constitution.
B. The Testimony of John Rucinski
Linda also claims that the trial judge erred by
admitting the testimony of John Rucinski 43
whom the State called to testify about a conversation that he had with
Mellisa about Linda's plan to kill John and a later conversation that
John Rucinski had with Linda on the same subject.44
The defense claimed that statements attributed by John Rucinski to
Mellisa during the conversation were hearsay that was inadmissible
against Linda. The State countered by arguing that a hearsay
exception, Delaware Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2)(E), applied.
Accepting that argument, the trial judge ruled in favor of the State.
Linda has appealed the trial judge's application of D.R.E.
801(d)(2)(E). A trial judge's evidentiary rulings are reviewed under
an abuse of discretion standard.45
Under D.R.E. 801(d)(2)(E), a statement is not
hearsay if made “by a coconspirator of a party during the course and
in furtherance of the conspiracy; provided that the conspiracy has
first been established by the preponderance of the evidence to the
satisfaction of the court.” The State argued, and the trial judge
agreed, that a conspiracy existed between Mellisa and Linda.
Mellisa's statements to John Rucinski were in furtherance of the
conspiracy. Indeed, Mellisa's statements were intended to solicit
John Rucinski's involvement in the conspiracy. Linda claims that by
finding that the State established, by a preponderance of the
evidence, the existence of a conspiracy between the Linda and Mellisa,
the trial judge abused his discretion.
The trial judge's ruling was based on the testimony
of Officer Keith Collins and a lengthy voir dire examination of John
Collins testified that he went to John's Bridgeville residence on
August 15, 2000 to help resolve a property dispute between Linda and
John. Collins told the parties “if there was any kind of dispute as to
who owned what, it had to stay in the house.” Collins further
testified that he witnessed Linda and Mellisa leave John's house in a
van that was filled with possessions from the house.
On voir dire, John Rucinski testified that within a
month after the property dispute, Mellisa approached him:
Q. Prior to her(Linda Charbonneau) moving in, or
after she moved in, in August or September 2000, did you ever have any
discussions with your wife and/or Linda regarding John Charbonneau?
A. Yes. My wife I had-I came home from work and
usual thing. We-it was about bed time. I was in bed. Had brought
John Junior in, put him down to sleep. Got in bed. She had asked
me if I would listen to something she had to say. She wanted-I am
taking a guess she wanted my opinion on it, or I'm not sure exactly
what her meaning of what the conversation was, but she told me that
her and her mother had been talking about forcing John into a heart
attack by taking away his pills, and you know, from like he said
forcing him into a heart attack, putting him in a plastic tote,
burying him in the backyard, so that she could get all of his stuff
out of the house, and so she could have the house on top of that
because she was afraid that if something ever happened to John she
would get nothing.
Q. You say “she,” who are you referring to?
Q. Missy(Mellisa) was telling you this?
A. Missy was telling me this. My exact words well
that it is a little more than I wanted to know about that situation
and that you know I told Missy as long as she was with me, we would
have no part in that, and then I mentioned something to Linda that
night about it, and we talked more about it the next morning.
John Rucinski testified that the next day he had a
similar discussion with Linda about killing John.
Q. What happened after that? There wasn't really
much said about it in the morning. Came home that evening, came from
work, the kids were all put to bed, sat out in the living room and
talked about-I told her(Linda) what Missy had told me. She(Linda)
told me that that was just like one of the scenarios.
Court: You have to be real clear when you say
Court: You have to be clear. I want to be
certain the record is clear.
A. Okay. Me and Linda talked. Linda said that was
just one of the scenarios. Another one was -
Q. That was just one scenario?
A. That, hiding his pills and forcing him into
having a heart attack was just one of the scenarios. The other one
was faking a break-in, but she said she still might lose what was in
the house, and I plain out told her that I don't know if she was
trying to solicit me into this or she wanted my opinion or what. But
I did tell her that I would have no part of that, and I did tell her
that-I said that you know if you did do anything like this, the first
person they are going to look at is you and me because of my record.
We hold that the trial judge did not abuse his
discretion by admitting the above testimony of John Rucinski and
Collins. The State presented purely circumstantial evidence about
the conspiracy between Linda and Mellisa. We draw no distinction,
however, between circumstantial and direct evidence.47
The circumstantial evidence could lead a reasonable
juror to conclude that Linda and Mellisa, in August of 2000, had the
common purpose and design to kill John. Linda and John had a property
dispute, shortly after which, Mellisa approached John Rucinski and
told him of her discussions with Linda about killing John and burying
him in the backyard. The day after his discussion with Mellisa, John
Rucinski asked Linda about what Mellisa had said to him. Linda
acknowledged that she and Mellisa had discussed, as “just one of the
scenarios,” killing John by taking away his pills. From the fact that
Linda and Mellisa had discussions with each other, and with John
Rucinski, about killing John, a fact finder could infer that it was
more likely than not that Linda and Mellisa had conspired to kill
John. Thus, the trial judge did not abuse his discretion by admitting
Mellisa's statements to John Rucinski under D.R.E 801(d)(2)(E).
C. Motion for Judgment of Acquittal
Linda also appeals from the trial judge's denial of
her Motion for a Judgment of Acquittal. Linda contends that: (1)
the evidence presented supported only a “rage killing” by Brown, and
that (2) the State violated Linda's due process rights by advancing
different theories in Brown's and Mellisa's proceedings. We review a
denial of a defendant's motion for judgment of acquittal de novo.48
The test is “whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most
favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have
found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” 49
We hold that there was sufficient evidence to
support the State's theory that Linda, Mellisa, and Brown conspired
and developed a plan to kill John and Sproates, and to support a jury
finding that the conspiracy existed beyond a reasonable doubt.
The evidence showed that Linda had a motive to kill
John: throughout their relationship there were disputes concerning
grandchildren, money, and material items. The State established that
during their dysfunctional relationship, Linda was developing a plan
to murder John. John Rucinski's testimony established that Mellisa
approached him to request his help in a plan to kill John. Mellisa
told John Rucinski that her mother had spoken with her about inducing
John to have a heart attack. John Rucinski also testified that he
asked Linda what Mellisa had told him, and that Linda had confirmed
she said that inducing a heart attack was “one of the scenarios.”
John Rucinski told both Mellisa and Linda that he would have no part
in John's killing.
The State presented evidence that Mellisa and John
Rucinski eventually divorced and that Mellisa met Tony Brown over the
internet during the summer of 2001. Brown, an African American,50
began dating Mellisa. During that same period, the tensions
underlying the relationship between Linda and John had escalated.
Arguments ensued about John's alleged abuse of his granddaughter and a
visit by the Division of Family Services to John's house investigating
that alleged abuse. The evidence also established that John and
Linda had an argument over a lawn ornament just before John's death.
Mellisa testified about the events that occurred on
the night of John's murder. Mellisa testified that Brown followed
her to John's Bridgeville residence. Mellisa went into the house,
and several minutes later she heard Linda say to John “someone is
breaking in the house.” Mellisa then witnessed Brown beating John,
and then placing John in a van. Mellisa drove Brown and John to a
secluded area where Brown killed John and buried him. On the drive
back, Brown called Linda to report that everything was done. By the
time Mellisa and Brown returned, Linda had cleaned the residence.
The State also presented evidence that the
participants developed as a cover story that John was away on vacation
or on jury duty. To support the cover story, Linda had her son
dispose of John's car. Linda then stripped John's residence “to the
bone,” taking things such as the kitchen cabinets, floors, and outdoor
The evidence further revealed that at the time
Linda was moving all of John's property to Sproates's Magnolia
residence, Sproates became suspicious because John had mysteriously
disappeared. Eventually, Sproates discovered a bloody box among the
items that Linda had moved from John's home. Believing that box
might be somehow related to John's disappearance, Sproates became even
more suspicious. Sproates then began to show the bloody box to other
Linda told Mellisa and Brown that something had to
be done about Sproates. The State presented evidence to show that is
exactly what happened: Mellisa, Linda, and Brown coordinated
Sproates's death. Mellisa testified that Linda lured Sproates to his
Magnolia residence where Brown was lying in wait. Brown then killed
and drove Sproates's body to the Bridgeville residence. While Linda
and Mellisa were present, Brown buried Sproates in the backyard. All
three then developed a cover story that Sproates had run off with a
Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to
the State, we hold that a reasonable jury, based on that evidence,
could find Linda guilty as an accomplice to the murders of John and
Sproates, and guilty of the accompanying charges of Possession of a
Deadly Weapon During the Commission of a Felony and Conspiracy. A
reasonable jury could also have found, based on the evidence, that
John was “set up” for the kill by Mellisa and Linda, and that Brown
was the killer. A reasonable jury could also have found that
Mellisa, Linda, and Brown conspired to kill Sproates to silence him
because Sproates had become suspicious about the circumstances
surrounding John's disappearance.
In support of her motion for judgment of acquittal,
Linda also argued that the State violated her due process rights by
advancing different theories in Brown's and Mellisa's proceedings.
Linda relied on a Ninth Circuit case Thompson v. Calderon 52
-in support of her argument that the prosecution cannot use
inconsistent theories regarding the same crime to convict two
defendants at separate trials. In Calderon, a prosecutor used
irreconcilably inconsistent theories in prosecuting two codefendants.
The codefendants, Leitch and Thompson, were both charged with
murdering Ginger Fleischli. At a preliminary hearing,53
the prosecutor argued that Leitch wanted Fleishli dead for having
interfered with his attempts to reconcile with his wife, and that
Leitch had solicited Thompson's help to commit the murder. At a
preliminary hearing, the prosecutor represented that jailhouse
informants would testify that Thomson had confessed to the killing,
and that the jailhouse informants would testify that:
Thompson had told him that on the night of the
murder, he engaged in consensual sex with Fleischli. Then, when
Leitch returned home, the two executed Leitch's plan, and killed
Months later, Leitch successfully moved to sever
his trial from Thompson's trial. The State tried Thompson first.
At Thompson's trial, the prosecutor used a totally inconsistent theory
from that which had been advanced at the preliminary hearing, and did
not call any of the jailhouse informants he had referred to at the
preliminary hearing. Instead, the prosecution called other
informants who testified that Thompson killed Fleischli after raping
her because he feared that Fleischli would call the police. Put
simply, the prosecutor claimed that the motive for the murder was to
cover up a rape. Moreover, the prosecutor argued that Thompson was
the only one present when Fleischli was murdered. Thompson was
convicted of the murder.
Later, at Leitch's trial, the prosecutor
argued-inconsistently-that Leitch was the only person with a motive to
kill Fleischli. Leitch's motive, the prosecutor claimed, was to
prevent Fleischli from interfering with Leitch's attempts to reconcile
his differences with his wife. Moreover, the prosecutor totally
discredited any theory that Thompson committed the murder alone and
argued that both men had committed the murder together. The court
held that the prosecutor's use of inconsistent theories in different
trials involving the same crime violated Thompson's right to a fair
The prosecutors did not engage in the tactics
condemned in Calderon. The State's theory-that Linda masterminded
the murders and elicited Brown's and Mellisa's help in her plan to
kill John-never changed. Brown's and Mellisa's account of what
occurred certainly differ with respect to who inflicted the fatal
blows, but for purposes of a Motion for a Judgment of Acquittal, the
State cannot fairly be said to have used inconsistent theories merely
because these two witnesses gave different accounts of the murders.
Indeed, Mellisa's and Brown's pleas suggest that the State had one
theory. Although Brown stated that Linda had inflicted the fatal
blows on John, and that Mellisa had inflicted the fatal blows on
Sproates, the State obtained Brown's plea to two counts of First
Degree Murder for the deaths of both John and Sproates. Brown's
guilty plea is consistent with Mellisa's proffered statement that
Brown had inflicted both John's and Sproates's fatal wounds.
Further, Mellisa was permitted to plead to a conspiracy charge
involving Sproates's death indicating that the State accepted her
story about Sproates's death.
We hold that the trial judge did not err when he
denied Linda's motion for judgment of acquittal.
D. Evidence of What Sproates Told his Relatives
Before his Death
Linda next challenges the admission into evidence
of several statements made by Sproates to his relatives several weeks
before his death. The statements concerned Sproates's suspicion
about John's disappearance.55
Sproates told his relatives, among other things, that: (1) Linda had
brought a blood stained box from John's Bridgeville residence, and
that he (Sproates) was scared and concerned about John's
(2) Linda told Sproates that “if he had said anything of what
happened, that she would no longer talk to him and the same thing
would happen to him as it did Uncle John;” 57
and, that (3) Linda had called and he was going to let her in his
The trial judge admitted Sproates statements as
hearsay exceptions under D.R.E. 803(3) and D.R.E. 804(b)(6). We
review a trial judge's evidentiary rulings for an abuse of discretion.59
D.R.E. 803(3) provides that a statement is not
hearsay if it is:
a statement of the declarant's then existing state
of mind, emotion, sensation or physical condition (such as intent,
plan, motive, design, mental feeling, pain and bodily health), but not
including a statement of memory or belief to prove the fact remembered
or believed unless it relates to the execution, revocation,
identification or terms of declarant's will.
Many of Sproates's statements admitted into
evidence consisted of statements, attributed to Sproates, that he was
afraid. The trial judge determined that:
the statements as to mind as expressed to the
witness are relevant, material, reflecting a mental state when made,
were communicated in a natural manner, made under circumstances
dispelling suspicion, and contained no suggestion of sinister
Sproates's statements asserted his current state of
mind-fear of Linda. Sproates's statements were relevant and material
because they were circumstantial evidence of Linda's motive to
conspire with Mellisa and Brown to commit murder. There was no
evidence to suggest, nor does Linda claim, that the statements were
made in an unnatural manner or unusual circumstance. Thus, we hold
that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion by admitting
Sproates's statements that he was afraid.
Linda claims, however, that many of the statements
admitted into evidence were not probative of Sproates's then existing
state of mind and are therefore not admissible. That is incorrect.
Although some of the Sproates's statements do not reflect his then
existing state of mind, the trial judge correctly ruled that the
statements were admissible under D.R.E. 804(b)(6). Rule 804(b)(6)
provides that “a statement offered against a party that has engaged or
acquiesced in wrongdoing that was intended to, and did, procure the
unavailability of the declarant as a witness” is not hearsay.
In applying D.R.E. 804(b)(6), the trial judge found
that Linda (i) was involved in killing Sproates as a coconspirator and
an aider and abetter, and (ii) Linda acted with the intent of
procuring Sproates's unavailability as a potential witness at any
trial concerning John's murder. The trial judge did not abuse his
discretion in so finding.
The evidence showed that Sproates had seen bloody
boxes that Linda brought from Bridgeville to Magnolia. Linda told
Sproates to keep his mouth shut or he would “get what his uncle got.”
Sproates told his family members and Roger Layton about the boxes.
Layton was an experienced police officer who also saw blood on the
boxes that appeared consistent with major trauma.
Linda learned from her son, Willard McCrea, that
Sproates was actively involved in questioning John's disappearance and
showing the bloody boxes to others. Linda then decided, with Mellisa
and Brown, to kill Sproates. Linda told them that Sproates “was
getting to close to finding out what had actually happened to dad, and
something had to be done with him.” 61
Mellisa testified that she understood that meant killing Sproates.
The evidence showed that Linda lured Sproates to his Magnolia
residence where Brown murdered him.
Based on this evidence, it was within the trial
judge's discretion to find that Linda had participated in Sproates's
killing in order to make him unavailable as a witness. Thus,
Sproates's statements to his relatives that were both relevant and
passed a D.R.E. 403 balancing analysis, were admissible as probative
of Sproates's fear of impending harm under D.R.E 804(b)(6).62
E. Access to Juror Information
Linda's final claim is that her due process rights
were violated because the State had access to the jurors' criminal
records, and that the trial judge improperly applied 11 Del. C.
§ 8513(g) to bar her equal access.63
The defendant does not claim that she should have access to the
information. Rather, her claim is that if she cannot have access,
then neither should the State.
We cannot find that Linda's due process rights were
violated on this theory. Linda has articulated no prejudice
resulting from the State's exclusive possession of the information.
As a defendant, Linda was entitled to request that voir dire questions
be directed to jurors to determine the extent of any juror's
involvement in past crimes.64
That opportunity, if exercised, would negate any prejudicial effect
of the State having exclusive access to that information.
F. A Comment on the Dissent
We respectfully disagree with the dissent's summary
of the record. We acknowledge that the State's timing of its
revelation that it did not intend to call Brown and the fact that its
late tender of a discovery response caused the defense to ask for a
continuance complicated the issues for the trial judge.
Nevertheless, this is not a case where the trial judge's exercise of
his 403 discretion properly protected Linda from the efforts of her
misguided defense counsel. This is a case where the trial judge
denied Linda's constitutional right to present her defense theory with
the effective assistance of counsel.
The dissent states that “the trial judge allowed
the credibility of the witnesses to be determined based upon fair
cross-examination and evidence that would not be unfairly prejudicial
to Linda Charbonneau.” 65
Our reading of the record, however, reflects that defense counsel
questioned Mellisa for a few minutes (representing about two pages of
the record) about some of her disagreements with Brown's statements,
but the jury had no opportunity to see Brown's statements in context.
The record also reflects that the State continued to object to the
use of Brown's proffer. The record reflects no circumstances, given
the trial judge's rulings and the State's continuing objection, that
would suggest that the trial judge's initial ruling barring the
proffer was tentative and subject to reconsideration.
The dissent's suggestion that the admission of
Brown's proffer would result in a reversal, or subject defense counsel
to denigration in a putatively successful post conviction relief
petition, seems farfetched at best.66
The proffer would have been introduced without objection, would have
survived plain error scrutiny and, would have been admitted entirely
consistent with sound defense strategy, and not subject to successful
challenge by hindsight.67
The dissent avoids discussing Potts in support of
its argument, but cites Johnson v. State.68
Linda's attorneys properly distinguished Johnson in their memorandum
to the trial judge. The standard for the defense using a guilty plea
to establish the defendant's innocence was the issue in Johnson, but
it is not the issue here.69
The dissent suggests that the jury was fully aware
that Brown's and Mellisa's statements were replete with
inconsistencies. The jury, however, never had the benefit of Brown's
proffer. Whether the trial judge agreed with defense counsel's
strategy or not, the defense wanted to show that the State accepted
guilty pleas from two codefendants based on different operative facts.
Defense counsels' chosen method for doing that would have shown the
jury that Brown inculpated Linda directly, an admitted risk, but the
defense's point would be that the State wanted Linda, and both Brown
and Mellisa would say anything to avoid the death penalty.
The dissent creates the impression that the State
took the ethical “high road” by not calling Brown (despite an apparent
fog hindering earlier disclosure for more than six months) and that
this maneuver did not harm Linda, because her defense counsel could
have made whatever points they wished about Brown by the structurally
limited crossexamination of Mellisa the trial judge did allow.70
While we agree that neither side could have presented perjured
testimony for its truth, the dissent fails to note that the defense
could have used Brown's proffer for other purposes; i.e.,
impeachment-a fact the trial judge recognized. Ironically, the
dissent finds no difficulty with the State introducing Mellisa's
confessed perjured testimony.
We appreciate the dissent's thoughtful position,
but believe the trial judge's rulings unfairly thwarted the
defendant's constitutional right to present her case in the way she
and her counsel believed to be most effective.
For these reasons, the judgment of the Superior
Court is REVERSED. The case is REMANDED for a new trial consistent
with this Opinion.
I respectfully disagree that the plea agreement
with Brown served as a representation of any kind to Linda
Charbonneau. To be sure, it put Charbonneau on notice that Brown
might be called as a witness, but there was no legal requirement for
the prosecutors to call him to the witness stand or even to prosecute
Furthermore, with three co-defendants involved, there is nothing
unusual about trying one before another who can still exercise his
Fifth Amendment privilege. While the majority describes the
prosecutors' choice not to call Brown as a witness as a “13th hour
decision,” the timing of that decision was relevant only to a defense
application for a continuance of the trial, which was not made. The
State did identify Brown as a potential witness in response to the
trial judge's inquiry for purposes of preparing voir dire of the jury
array, but the State had no obligation to disclose who would actually
Neither did the defense.
I also disagree with the majority's assessment that
the trial judge endorsed any fact or that he removed a critical
credibility determination from the jury. The trial judge's statement
that it would not be “natural” for the State to call Brown as a
witness was made in the context of whether a missing witness
instruction was required as a matter of law. This Court has held
that policy considerations of the State's privilege to refuse to
disclose the identity of an informant under D.R.E. 509 justified the
State's failure to call an informant as a witness.73
Here, the policy considerations which preclude prosecutors from
offering testimony they know to be false justified their failure to
call Brown as a witness as a matter of law.74
Instead of removing a credibility determination from the jury, the
trial judge allowed the credibility of the witnesses to be determined
based upon fair cross-examination and evidence that would not be
unfairly prejudicial to Linda Charbonneau.
I dissent from the majority's conclusion that “the
trial judge's denial of the motion in limine fatally undermined the
fairness of the trial.” 75
To the contrary, the trial judge's ruling under DRE 403 that Brown's
plea agreement and proffer was not admissible as substantive evidence
was designed to protect Charbonneau's right to a fair trial. Brown's
full proffer, which would not have been subject to cross-examination,
inculpated Charbonneau directly in the murders. It specifically
accused her of killing John Charbonneau and of being an accomplice to
the murder of Sproates. The trial judge's ruling under D.R.E. 403
was grounded upon precedent of this Court, which upheld the exclusion
of a co-defendant's guilty plea to avoid unfair prejudice to the
defendant on trial. In Johnson v. State 76
this Court said:
The standard for admission of a codefendant's
guilty plea is governed by Delaware Rule of Evidence 403, which states
in part that “evidence may be excluded if its probative value is
substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice․” D.R.E.
403. Determining whether the probative value of a particular piece
of evidence is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair
prejudice is a matter that falls particularly within the discretion of
the Superior Court, which has the first-hand opportunity to evaluate
relevant factors. Lynch v. State, Del.Supr., 588 A.2d 1138, 1141
(1991); Williams v. State, Del Supr., 494 A.2d 1237, 1241 (1985).
The Superior Court has broad discretion to admit or reject evidence,
and absent an abuse of that broad discretion, the Superior Court's
ruling will be upheld by this Court. Diaz v. State, Del.Supr., 508
A.2d 861, 865 (1986).
Relying on precedents from other jurisdictions, the
Superior Court concluded that, even though Johnson was arguing for the
admission of Burgos' guilty plea, the prejudicial effect to Johnson of
admitting the evidence substantially outweighed its probative value,
especially since Burgos did not testify at trial. (emphasis added).
See United States v. McLain, 823 F.2d 1457, 1464-65 (11th Cir.1987)
(holding that, in most cases, the admission of a codefendant's guilty
plea will substantially affect the defendant's right to a fair trial
because the jury may regard the issue of the defendant's guilt or
innocence as settled); State v. Parente, 460 A.2d 430, 435 (R.I.1983)
(recognizing that “evidence of a codefendant's guilty plea is amenable
to misuse”); State v. Stefanelli, 78 N.J. 418, 396 A.2d 1105, 1111-12
(1979) (same). The record in this case indicates that the Superior
Court carefully considered arguments for and against the admission of
Burgos' guilty plea. The record does not reflect that Superior Court
abused its discretion in denying Johnson's request to introduce
evidence of Burgos' guilty plea.77
If a co-defendant's guilty plea may be excluded
under D.R.E. 403, after careful consideration, so also may a proffer
of the co-defendant which he made in conjunction with that guilty
plea, provided its probative value is substantially outweighed by the
danger of unfair prejudice.
While the majority reverses the convictions because
of the impeachment value of Brown's plea agreement and proffer, the
record shows that the trial judge left the door open for the use of
Brown's proffer in the cross-examination of Mellisa Rucinski. A
trial judge is not required to make evidentiary rulings in advance of
trial but rather, in his discretion, may defer a ruling on an
evidentiary issue until the evidence is actually offered.78
Here the trial judge said:
The scope, depth, and limitations of
cross-examination of Mellisa Rucinski will be determined at the time
she is called to the stand, and the defense will have to show the
connection of bias, interest and prejudice between whatever Brown said
or accused in Rucinski's testimony, and I will make a decision at that
time on those points.79
During cross-examination of Mellisa Rucinski the
defense did not seek to introduce Brown's plea agreement or proffer.80
The record does not reveal why. Perhaps they recognized a better
In any event, the defense successfully executed their strategy the
majority says the trial judge prevented. The defense proved through
the intrinsic evidence of Rucinski's own testimony and her writings
that she and Brown could not agree on the details of their own
involvement in the murders. Rucinski wrote six pages of comments
disputing Brown's proffer. She was cross-examined about her comments
and her writing was introduced as a defense exhibit during that
She acknowledged that she went through what Brown said in detail and
that he did not tell the truth.83
Brown's accusation of her involvement in the Sproates murder was the
subject of direct inquiry by the defense over the objection of the
Q. In fact, he [Brown] said you were in Magnolia
with him when Billy Sproates was killed?
MS. RYAN: Objection
THE COURT: Overruled.
You can answer that question.
BY MR. KARSNITZ:
Q. That's what he said?
Q. Apparently, he didn't take your advice to tell
Not only did defense counsel elicit testimony from
Rucinski that Brown had lied, he skillfully obtained her admission
that she had lied all four times she had an opportunity to speak about
Defense counsel had the opportunity to do what they told the trial
judge they wanted to do, namely “to use certain statements made in the
plea and proffer to test Ms. Rucinski's possible bias and
It is undisputed that the defense was not “seeking to have Mr.
Brown's plea and proffer admitted to show the truth of what is said
Since defense counsel carefully selected the portions of Brown's
proffer that they wanted to use in cross-examining Rucinski, I find no
abuse of discretion in keeping the balance of Brown's proffer from the
jury's consideration. Given the cross-examination which happened,
the probative value of the proffer to further show Mellisa's bias was
slight and the potential unfair prejudice to Linda Charbonneau was
real. The record shows that the jury was fully aware that Brown and
Rucinski's statements were replete with inconsistencies and that Brown
accused Rucinski of being involved in the Sproates killing. The
foundation for an argument that Rucinski had a motive to lie because
of Brown's accusation was in front of the jury. What the jury did
not know, because of the trial judge's ruling, is that Brown accused
Linda Charbonneau of killing John Charbonneau.
The trial judge carefully balanced the probative
value of admitting the plea agreement and written proffer against the
danger of unfair prejudice to Linda Charbonneau. Ultimately, the
trial judge permitted the defense to cross examine Rucinski, as they
wanted, on the portions of Brown's proffer they selected. I cannot
say that the trial judge's decision to exclude the balance of Brown's
plea and proffer under these circumstances exceeded the bounds of
reason. Because the trial judge's choices were matters within his
broad discretion, I find no reversible error.
I respectfully dissent.
refer to Linda Charbonneau as “Linda,” Willie Tony Brown as “Brown,”
Mellisa Rucinski as “Mellisa,” John Charbonneau as “John,” and William
Sproates as “Sproates” throughout this Opinion.
determination makes it unnecessary to decide Charbonneau's claim
regarding the trial judge's denial of her request for a missing
witness instruction. We find no error in any of the other rulings of
the trial judge.
and Sproates lived in Bridgeville, Delaware and Magnolia, Delaware,
the agreement also provided that a nolle prosequi be entered on two
charges of Conspiracy in the First Degree and one charge of Possession
of a Deadly Weapon During the Commission of a Felony.Brown, as a prior
violent felon, faced a designation as a habitual criminal pursuant to
11 Del. C. § 4214(b) and a mandatory life sentence if convicted of
either murder. Thus, the best Brown could hope for was a life
counsel was reluctant to make the request but felt they had no other
option. A day before the request for the continuance, defense
counsel, in a letter to the trial judge, stated:We do not know why the
last set of documents took until February 18 to get into the hands of
the police. They were identified at least by December 17. Whatever
the reason for the late disclosure, the defense has been placed in an
untenable position. It will be impossible to fully review and
analyze the documents in question. Of course, the effect of this is
magnified in a capital case.[My co-counsel] and I plan to meet with
Ms. Charbonneau tomorrow at Baylor Women's Prison. Obviously, we
plan to discuss the issue with her. We will be discussing that a
request for a continuance be made, and will notify the Court as soon
as a final decision is made. It is with great reluctance that any
request for a continuance be made. We all understand the commitment
the Court and the prosecution have made to move this case to trial.
From defense counsel's perspective we have already cleared a four week
period from our calendars which could never be appropriately refilled
at this date. However, our commitment to our client requires this
letter and any subsequent request.
prosecutors requested a conference on Thursday March 25, 2004. The
Superior Court had scheduled opening statements to begin on Monday
March 29, 2004.
State claims that it was obvious that they believed Brown was lying
about Sproates because they allowed Mellisa to plead guilty to a
Conspiracy charge alone. Mellisa entered her plea approximately six
months before Linda's trial. Thus, the State knew or should have
known of its “ethical dilemma” at least six months before
characterizing it as such. Inexplicably the dilemma remained
obscured, since the State included Brown on its potential witness list
on March 17, 2004.
prosecutors stated “[i]t is, on the one hand, I think obvious to
everybody concerned that we believe Mellisa Rucinski because we
allowed her to plead basically to the murder count involving
Charbonneau and conspiracy on Sproates.”
was convicted of two counts of First Degree Murder, two counts of
Conspiracy in the First Degree, and Possession of a Deadly Weapon
During the Commission of a Felony.
A.2d 1165 (Del.1983).
A.2d 417 (1991).
v. State, 465 A.2d 785, 790(Del.1983).
v. State, 494 A.2d 1237, 1241(Del.1985); see also D.R.E. 401, 402,
v. Cope, 243 A.2d 694, 695 (Del.1968); Larrimore v. Homeopathic
Hospital Ass'n of Del., 181 A.2d 573, 578 (Del.1962); Pitts v. White,
109 A.2d 786, 788 (Del.1954).
v. Biggs, 525 A.2d 992, 997 (Del.1987).
defense argued in this appeal that Brown's statements are admissions
of a party opponent under D.R. E 801(d)(2)(b). In other words, the
defense argued that the State adopted a belief in the truth of Brown's
plea by accepting it and not voiding the plea when it determined that
Brown was lying. D.R.E. 801(d)(2)(b) is an exception to the hearsay
exclusion. The trial judge did not exclude Brown's plea agreement on
hearsay grounds. Brown's proffer and plea agreement were not hearsay
in this case because the defense was not offering the plea for the
truth of the matter asserted. The defense did not seek to offer
Brown's plea into evidence to show that Brown's version of the murders
was the truth. Instead, the defense sought to introduce Brown's plea
so that it could attack the credibility of Mellisa's version of the
murders. Thus, we need not address this argument. We need only
determine whether the trial judge abused his discretion in finding
that Brown's plea agreement was irrelevant and that the plea
agreement's probative value was substantially outweighed by the danger
of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, misleading the jury, or
wasting time.Further, defense counsel argued that the trial judge's
refusal to allow the defense to argue that the State used conflicting
theories against codefendants charged with the same crime violated
Linda's right to a fair trial. The State properly characterizes the
argument as a judicial estoppel argument. While we need not address
the issue because we reverse on other grounds, it is worth noting that
the State has maintained one theory against Linda-that she was the
mastermind of the murders and elicited the help of Brown and Mellisa.
This theory is discussed in more detail in Section II(D) of this
v. State, 689 A.2d 1177, 1180 (Del.1997).
A-362. Mellisa Rucinski testified:Q. Now do you remember when I
started my examination of you, I ask you-you said you lied to the
police in their investigation, you lied in your proffer, you lied in
the statement following the proffer, and you lied on the stand, and
you admitted to me that you lied in the investigation, but you denied
the other three; do you recall that yesterday when I asked you
that?A. Yes.Q. So now you are changing that story and telling us:
Yes, you lied all four times that you had an opportunity to speak
about this case; is that correct?A. Yes.
recognize that Brown contends Mellisa used a pocket knife when she
allegedly stabbed Sproates and that to remove DNA from a pocket knife
one probably would have had to disassemble the knife and remove any
blood from inside the handle. We do not contend that the knife was
actually cleaned in this manner, but merely use it as an illustration
of why the trial judge should have not accepted the State's contention
that Brown was lying simply because no DNA was found on the knife.
494 A.2d at 1241; see also D.R.E. 403.
525 A.2d at 997.
prosecutor stated: “[i]t is, on the one hand, I think obvious to
everybody concerned that we believe Mellisa Rucinski because we
allowed her to plead basically to the murder count involving
Charbonneau and conspiracy on Sproates.”
the State admittedly realized six months before trial that either
Brown, Mellisa or both lied in their proffers supporting their pleas
and their promises to testify truthfully, the State knew that if it
failed to revoke Brown's plea agreement and decided not to call Brown
that he would, if called by the defense exercise his Fifth Amendment
right to refuse to testify. The State's representation to Brown's
counsel that if Brown did so refuse to testify that the State would
still honor its promise to recommend life imprisonment for an habitual
offender who admitted to two intentional murders seals any reservation
about the State's tactics. The State's plan was designed to prevent
the defense from introducing Brown's live testimony or putting his
written proffer in evidence.MR. CALLOWAY (quote from trial):As the
Court is aware, Mr. Brown entered those pleas to murder in the first
degree and capital homicide. A part of our agreement was that Mr.
Brown would testify truthfully. The State would not be seeking a
death penalty hearing in this matter, that the Court would then be
permitted to sentence Mr. Brown to life without parole.There was a
discussion concerning whether or not he would or would not testify as
a defense witness. It was determined and represented to the defense
by the prosecution that Mr. Brown certainly would have his Fifth
Amendment rights, irregardless (sic) of any agreement, and that if Mr.
Brown were to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights, as a witness for
the defense, that would not be a violation of our written
agreement.See B-148.Even if Calloway's view of what the State promised
was disputed by the State, the State's professed stalemate over what
to do with Brown “subject to a discuss[ion] with our superiors” lacks
credibility given the six months before trial during which all the
necessary discussions with the presumably elusive “superiors” could
have been held.
State's trial tactics here raise serious doubts about the foundation
of the prosecutors' purported concerns. The State's prosecutors
argued that they could not call Brown as a witness because they
believed he was lying. Despite believing that Brown was lying six
months before the defendant's trial, the prosecutors waited until four
days before scheduled opening statements to disclose that they would
not be calling Brown. Further, they appear to have convinced the
trial judge that while Brown must be lying about Sproates, he must be
telling the truth about Linda. Otherwise the trial judge would not
have been so concerned about the case being “closed” against Linda
should the jury hear the facts supporting Brown's proffer.
we hold the trial judge abused his discretion, we do recognize the
short period of time the trial judge had to make a ruling. The
State, by waiting until four days before scheduled opening statements
to disclose its dilemma, forced the trial judge into a very difficult
position. Fortunately we have had ample time to review the entire
record and all relevant aspects of the law in order to shape an
appropriate remedy. Had the State disclosed its “ethical dilemma” at
the time it believed Brown was lying and made a timely decision not to
call Brown or revoked the plea agreement or moved for Brown's
immediate sentencing, today's result may have been different. Had
the State disclosed its dilemma even at the time of Mellisa's plea,
the trial judge would have had six months to determine a remedy fair
to both the State and Linda.
States v. Dolah, 245 F.3d 98 105 (2d Cir.2001).
v. State, 820 A.2d 342 (Del.2003).
United States v. Salerno, 937 F.2d 797, 805 (1991).
v. Bahadar, 954 F.2d 821, 829 (2nd Cir.1992). See Smith v. State,
647 A.2d 1083 (Del.1994) and Williamson v. United States, 512 U.S.
594, 114 S.Ct. 2431, 129 L.Ed.2d 476 (1994).
v. State, 647 A.2d 1083 (Del.1994) and Williamson v. United States,
512 U.S. 594, 114 S.Ct. 2431, 129 L.Ed.2d 476 (1994).
avoid any confusion, we always refer to John Rucinski as “John
Rucinski.” Mellisa was married to John Rucinski until January of
trial judge ruled that the defendant's statements to John Rucinski
were admissible as admissions of a party opponent under Delaware Rule
of Evidence 801(d)(2)(a). The defense has not challenged the
admissibility of the defendant's statements to John Rucinski. Thus,
we only need to address whether Mellisa's statements to John Rucinski
Strauss, 525 A.2d at 992.
Rucinski's statements, which the defense argued were inadmissible, are
partly what the trial judge relied upon in determining the existence
of the conspiracy. The defense correctly acknowledges that the trial
judge did not err by relying on the challenged statement to establish
the existence of the conspiracy. In fact, we have held that an
801(d)(2) statement itself can establish the existence of the
conspiracy. See Swan v. State, 820 A.2d 342 (Del.2003).
v. State, 652 A.2d 560, 563 (Del.1995).
Davis v. State, 453 A.2d 802 (Del.1982).
State presented evidence that John and Sproates disliked Brown because
of his race.
State presented evidence at trial indicating that Brown killed
Sproates. We base our decision on a motion for judgment of acquittal
on the evidence produced at trial. However, it is worth noting, that
Brown's proffer, which was not admitted into evidence, stated that it
was Mellisa who had inflicted the fatal wounds that killed Sproates.
F.3d 1045 (9th Cir.1997).
the preliminary hearing, Thompson and Leitch were joined as
120 F.3d at 1059.
made statements to the following relatives: Jerriann Heath (See
A-603-614 and A-567-602), Willard McCray(See A-868-873), William
Sproates, Jr.(See A662-674), Patricia Blanchfield (See A702-708), and
Roger Layton (See A-751-759).
611, 665-667, 705-707, 754-759, 869-870.
v. State, 858 A.2d 942, 944 (Del.2004).
trial judge did not abuse his discretion in determining what evidence
was relevant. Further, the trial judge properly weighed the
probative value of Sproates's statements against any danger of unfair
prejudice. See A72-89.
Del. C. § 8513 provides:Notwithstanding any law or court rule to the
contrary, the dissemination to the defendant or defense attorney in a
criminal case of criminal history record information pertaining to any
juror in such case is prohibited. For the purposes of this
subsection, “juror” includes any person who has received notice or
summons to appear for jury service. This subsection shall not
prohibit the disclosure of such information as may be necessary to
investigate misconduct by any juror.
86 A.L.R.3d 571 (stating “the traditional common-law rule that, absent
a statute or rule of practice providing otherwise, or other
exceptional circumstances, defense counsel in a criminal case has no
right of access to information in the possession of the prosecution”).
Infra p. 53.
Infra p. 56 n. 80.
e.g., Strickland v. Washington., 466 U.S. 668, 689, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80
L.Ed.2d 674 (1984) (“․[T]he defendant must overcome the presumption
that, under the circumstances, the challenged action might be
considered sound trial strategy.”)
dissent also cites Allen v. State [add citation to dissent] The facts
in Allen are significantly different that the operative facts here.
In Allen, the State wanted to use the plea or proffer of a
non-testifying codefendant to establish guilt. As Allen explains,
while that tactic is improper, the holding and analysis supporting it
does not bar using the proffer for other purposes. Here, Brown's
proffer should have been admitted for impeachment purposes with a
issue here was whether the State intentionally shielded Brown from
testifying to gain a tactical advantage over the defense. While we
found no cases discussing a prosecutor's unfair use of plea agreements
to gain exclusive access to testimony, many cases discuss a
prosecutor's unfair granting of testimonial immunity to gain access to
favorable testimony and at the same time shield the defense from
testimony unfavorable to the State. The State effectively
accomplished the same unfair advantage here by manipulating its plea
bargaining power to ensure that Mellisa would be heard but not Brown.
Like using immunity in a one sided manner, use of plea agreements in
a prejudicial manner can result in a basic unfairness that rises to
the level of a violation of a defendant's due process rights. See
United States v. Dolah, 245 F.3d 98 (2nd Cir.2001)(recognizing “in
some limited circumstances, using the immunity device in a one-sided
manner can result in a basic unfairness that rises to the level of a
violation of procedural due process.”); Blissett v. Lefevre, 924 F.2d
434, 442 (2nd Cir.1991) (stating “only when a prosecutor has abused
the government's ability to grant immunity by using it in a
discriminatory fashion for the purpose of gaining a tactical advantage
does due process require a grant of immunity for a defense witness.”);
United States v. Turkish, 623 F.2d 769, 774 (2nd Cir.1980) (stating
“unfairness may inhere in some situations because the Government's
grant of use immunity to its witnesses affords it an advantage over
the defendant's ability to present a defense. Secondly, to the
extent that a trial is viewed as a search for the truth, denial of
defense witness immunity may in some circumstances unfairly thwart
Infra pp. 53-57.
v. State, 592 A.2d 436, 439 (Del.1991) (“In the exercise of his [or
her] official powers, the Attorney General has discretion in
determining who shall be prosecuted and in what manner that
prosecution shall take place.”).
v. State, 719 A.2d 935, 937-938 (Del.1998).
v. State, 465 A.2d 1110, 1112 (Del.1983).
DELAWARE LAWYERS RULES OF PROF'L CONDUCT, RULE 3.3 (A lawyer shall not
knowingly offer evidence that the lawyer knows to be false.). While
the prosecutors believed, based upon the investigation, that Brown
would lie about Rucinski's involvement in the Sproates killing, there
was no representation that they knew Mellisa Rucinski would testify
supra p. 4.
604 A.2d 417, 1991 Del. LEXIS 403 (Order).
v. State, 581 A.2d 1078, 1087 (Del.1990).
cross-examination and re-cross-examination of Mellisa Rucinski is
reported in 128 pages of transcript. A-281 to A-401 and A-442 to
A-450. There were two objections by the State relating to Brown's
proffer. The first objection was withdrawn when the prosecutor
realized defense counsel was not offering Brown's proffer but
Mellisa's comments on Brown's proffer into evidence. A-321. The
second objection by the State was overruled when defense counsel
questioned Mellisa Rucinski about Brown's claim that Rucinski was with
him when Sproates was killed. A-442.
the State had introduced Brown's plea agreement and proffer, a
reversal of Charbonneau's conviction would be required. See Allen v.
State, 878 A.2d 447 (Del.2005). The challenges to defense counsel of
defending during a post-conviction relief proceeding a tactic of
introducing inculpatory evidence that the jury could use to convict
their own client is self-evident.
Although damaging, this evidence did not preclude the jury from
accepting Rucinski's trial testimony about Linda Charbonneau's
involvement as an accomplice.
STEELE, Chief Justice, for the Majority.
SUPERIOR COURT OF DELAWARE, SUSSEX
STATE OF DELAWARE v. LINDA L. CHARBONNEAU; STATE OF DELAWARE v.
ID # 0207003810, ID # 0207003805
2003 Del. Super. LEXIS 332
September 12, 2003, Submitted
September 24, 2003, Decided
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Later proceeding at
State v. Charbonneau, 2004 Del. Super. LEXIS 183 (Del. Super. Ct.,
June 4, 2004)
[*1] Defendants' Motions to Sever. Denied.
COUNSEL: James W. Adkins, Esquire and
Paula T. Ryan, Esquire, Deputy Attorneys General, Department of
Justice, Georgetown, Delaware, attorneys for the State.
Craig A. Karsnitz, Esquire, Young, Conaway,
Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, Georgetown, Delaware and Thomas A. Pedersen,
Esquire, Georgetown, Delaware, attorneys for Defendant Linda L.
John F. Brady, Esquire, Georgetown, Delaware and
John M. Sandy, Esquire, Stumpf, Sandy & Vickers, Georgetown, Delaware,
attorneys for Defendant Melissa Rucinski.
JUDGES: Richard F. Stokes, Judge.
OPINION BY: Richard F. Stokes
The defendants Linda L. Charbonneau ("Linda
Charbonneau") and Melissa Rucinski ("Rucinski"), her daughter, are
charged with the capital murders of John Charbonneau on or about
September 23, 2001, and William Sproates, on or about October 17,
2001. Each incident carries a conspiracy count. The Sproates charges
further allege possession of a deadly weapon. Rucinski's husband,
Willie Brown ("Brown"), also was charged with these crimes. He pled
guilty to the murders on April 24, 2003 and agreed to testify against
[*2] The defendants are being tried separately. A
joint trial would not be appropriate given that Brown and Rucinski had
implicated themselves and Linda Charbonneau in pretrial statements.
See Fogg v. State, 719 A.2d 947 (Del. 1998), citing
Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 20 L. Ed. 2d 476, 88 S. Ct.
1620 (1968) (holding that a defendant is deprived of his/her
rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment
when a non-testifying co-defendant's confession naming him/her as a
participant in a crime is introduced at their joint trial, even if the
jury is instructed to consider that confession only against the
confessing co-defendant). The defendants filed motions to sever the
charges arising from the two murders and argument was scheduled. As
the positions in the pleadings were similar, the Court asked the
lawyers for Rucinski if they would join in the Linda Charbonneau
argument that was set for Friday, September 12, 2003. They agreed to
do so. Following argument, the defendants declined an opportunity to
present further matters. After reviewing the submissions, arguments,
and law, the motions to sever are denied.
Motions [*3] of this nature involve an analysis
of the evidence in support of the charges. See Howard v.
State, 704 A.2d 278, 281 (Del. 1998) (observing that "each
severance application tends to be fact intensive"). What follows is
the State's proffer of what the evidence will show. Although
significant details come from Brown, an accomplice, his credibility is
a jury question.
Linda Charbonneau was formerly the wife of John
Charbonneau. She remarried William Sproates ("Sproates"). Rucinski is
Linda Charbonneau's daughter. John Charbonneau was Rucinski's
stepfather. Sproates was a nephew of John Charbonneau. Rucinski and
Brown had a romantic relationship beginning in June of 2001 that later
led to their marriage.
At the time of John Charbonneau's murder, Linda
Charbonneau was living in a home located in Bridgeville, Delaware.
Rucinski was living there also with her three children. Sproates
resided in Magnolia, Delaware. Brown had a place in Lewes, Delaware.
In September of 2001, John Charbonneau disappeared,
and his missing status was reported to the authorities. Sproates
contacted the Delaware State Police and expressed his fear of Linda
Charbonneau, Rucinski and Brown to the [*4] police and friends. He
advised that they were involved in John Charbonneau's death. Sproates
also showed a bloody box to individuals that the defendants had moved,
along with other furnishings, from Bridgeville to Magnolia after John
Charbonneau's disappearance. Sproates disappeared around October 17,
2001, and his relatives notified the Delaware State Police in
At about the same time, most of the contents of the
Bridgeville residence were removed, including kitchen cabinets and
carpets, and taken to Magnolia. By the middle of October, defendants
(other than Brown) and Rucinski's children were living in the Sproates
residence. John Charbonneau's mail was being forwarded from
Bridgeville to a post office box in Felton, Delaware. Rucinski had
completed the paperwork to forward the mail.
On November 30, 2001, police officers visited the
Bridgeville residence at the request of John Charbonneau's relatives.
The home was bare. At the back of the property, a shallow grave was
found. After examination, Sproates' body was found. His identification
was established through fingerprint testing. A wallet in the pocket of
the victim contained identification belonging to him. An [*5]
autopsy was performed. Sproates' death was caused by multiple stab
wounds, blunt force trauma, and asphyxiation.
As part of Sproates' homicide investigation, the
Magnolia residence, a Dodge van and a Chevrolet Lumina were searched.
The Dodge van was registered to Linda Charbonneau. Brown owned the
Lumina in the fall of 2001, but he later sold it to Linda Charbonneau.
John Charbonneau's blood was found in the van. ATM receipts for money
withdrawn from John Charbonneau's PNC account were found in the
Lumina. Rucinski was observed on video withdrawing these funds at a
Wawa convenience store during the time of John Charbonneau's
disappearance after September 23, 2001. John Charbonneau's drivers
license and social security card were found in a diaper bag in the
kitchen in the Magnolia residence.
In November and December of 2001, Linda
Charbonneau, Rucinski and Brown were questioned about the body in the
backyard of the Bridgeville residence and about the status of John
Charbonneau and Sproates. They denied knowing anything about the
corpse or the victims. In December, 2001, John Rucinski, Melissa
Rucinski's former husband (divorced in January of 2001) advised that
Melissa and Linda Charbonneau [*6] asked him to help them "get rid
of" John Charbonneau in the fall of 2000. The plan was to kill him and
to conceal the body by burial in the backyard or by hiding it in a
In July of 2002, Brown admitted that John
Charbonneau had been murdered. He led the police to a site near
Millsboro where the body was buried. An autopsy and DNA testing
confirmed the identity. The cause of death was attributed to blunt
force injury causing a fractured skull. Brown implicated himself,
Linda Charbonneau and Rucinskiin the murders and in the burial of the
Rucinski also attempted to show where John
Charbonneau was buried after an interview. While her attempt was
unsuccessful, she passed within several feet of the location. The body
was located in an undeveloped area with surrounding tree and plant
growth. Rucinski admitted being present at the Bridgeville residence
when John Charbonneau was killed, participating in the transporting
and disposing of his body, and using John Charbonneau's ATM card to
withdraw money after his death. Linda Charbonneau gave her John
Charbonneau's ATM card and PIN information to permit these
withdrawals. Rucinski admitted having John Charbonneau's driver's
[*7] license and social security card in Magnolia.
After Brown pled guilty to murdering John
Charbonneau and Sproates, he provided further information on May 1,
2003. He connected Rucinski with Sproates' murder. Previously, Brown
had implicated Linda Charbonneau. In his May statement, Brown said
that Sproates was murdered because he was talking to defendants and
others about his suspicions regarding his uncle, John Charbonneau's
disappearance. Sproates was buried behind the residence of John
Charbonneau at Linda Charbonneau's direction. Allegedly, she felt that
if Sproates' body was found there, then authorities would think that
John Charbonneau was responsible for Sproates' death.
The pending motions raise the questions of whether
the crimes arising from the September and October killings are
properly joined and, if so, should they nonetheless be severed to
avoid unfair prejudice? Defendants claim the crimes are separate
episodes and that they would be unfairly prejudiced if the charges are
not severed. The State of Delaware ("State") contends joinder is
appropriate and that defendants have not met their burden to justify a
Superior Court Criminal [*8] Rule 8 permits the
joinder of offenses when "the offenses charged are of the same or
similar character or are based on the same act or transaction or on
two or more acts or transactions connected together or constituting
parts of a common scheme or plan." Super. Ct. Cr. R. 8(a).
Joinder is proper where "the offenses are of the same general
character, involve a similar course of conduct, and have occurred
within a relatively brief span of time." Coffield v. State, 794
A.2d 588, 595 (Del. 2002). This rule "is designed to promote
judicial economy and efficiency, provided that the realization of
those objectives is consistent with the rights of the accused."
Mayer v. State, 320 A.2d 713, 717 (Del. 1974). Thus, a motion to
sever may be granted under Superior Court Criminal Rule 14, when the
defendant would be prejudiced by joinder of the offenses, "even though
the offenses were properly joined in the same indictment." See
Super. Ct. Cr. R. 14; Weist v. State, 542 A.2d 1193, 1195 (Del.
Prejudice may be shown where:
(1) the jury may cumulate the evidence of the
various crimes charged and find guilt when, if considered [*9]
separately, it would not so find; (2) the jury may use the evidence of
one of the crimes to infer a general criminal disposition of the
defendant in order to find guilt of the other crime or crimes; and (3)
the defendant may be subject to embarrassment or confusion in
presenting different and separate defenses to different charges.
Garden v. State, 815 A.2d 327, 334 (Del. 2003).
The defendant bears the burden to establish
prejudice, and mere hypothetical prejudice is insufficient. Skinner
v. State, 575 A.2d 1108, 1118 (Del. 1990). The interests of
judicial economy outweigh defendant's interests when the claims of
prejudice are unsubstantiated. State v. Hammons, 2001 WL
1729119 (Del. Super.) (Mem.Op.).
The Court considers a number of factors in ruling
on a motion for severance. For example, one point weighing against
severance is the existence of evidence relating to one crime that is
admissible in the trial of another crime. Bates v. State, 386 A.2d
1139, 1142 (Del. 1978). "Evidence of one crime is admissible in
the trial of another crime when it has 'independent logical relevance'
and its probative value [*10] outweighs prejudice to the defendant."
Garden, 815 A.2d at 334, citing Getz v. State, 538
A.2d 726, 730 (Del. 1988). In addition, severance may not be
granted where "the evidence is of the same type and impact" because
the risk is lower "that the jury will be influenced by the cumulative
effect of differing types of circumstantial and direct evidence
linking the defendant to the offense." Howard v. State, 704 A.2d
278, 281 (Del. 1998).
Severance also may be denied where "the criminal
activity of the defendant with respect to the two crimes was so
inextricably intertwined so as to make proof of one crime impossible
without proof of the other." McDonald v. State, 307 A.2d 796, 798
(Del. 1973). Moreover, the Court has denied severance despite
obvious prejudice to the defendant "where the offenses charged are the
same general nature and there is evidence of a modus operandi."
Hammons at 3. However, severance has been granted where "the sheer
mass of charges" in the case renders "it extremely unlikely that a
jury will be able to resist the cumulative effect of evidence linking
the defendant to separate charges." State v. McKay, 382 A.2d 260,
262 (Del. Super. 1978). [*11]
A review of the indictments shows that the charges
of the September and October incidents are the same or are similar.
Also, the charged offenses are based on two or more acts or
transactions which are connected together. The term "connected
together" in Rule 8 permits joinder where counts arise from related
transactions. See 1A, Charles Alan Wright, Federal Practice and
Procedure § 143 (3d ed. 1999).
Here, the State's proffer suggests the defendants
participated in and concealed John Charbonneau's death to divert
suspicion from themselves. Allegedly, defendants moved his property to
Sproates' Magnolia residence and thereafter killed Sproates to prevent
his continued cooperation with the police and testimony against them.
From this perspective, Charbonneau's murder can be seen as inducing
Sproates' death. Even without considering the interwoven relationships
between the parties and the similarities in the killings, there is a
meaningful and significant enough link between these crimes to make
joinder appropriate. See Smithers v. State, 826 So.2d 916,
923-924 (Fla. 2002) (closely connected double murder charges may
Furthermore, [*12] defendants have not met their
burden under Super. Ct. Crim. R. 14 to show unfair prejudice. A
reasonable probability does not exist that "substantial injustice"
would result from joinder of the offenses. Howard, 704 A.2d at 280.
Defendants argue that the Charbonneau and Sproates counts should be
severed because they involve different victims and occurred at
separate times. However, "severance is not required ipso facto,
simply because the alleged charges involve different victims or occur
at separate times." Fortt v. State, 767 A.2d 799, 803 (Del. 2001).
Defendants also assert that the jury is likely to cumulate the
evidence of the two murders and find guilt. However, unlike in other
cases involving a multitude of charges and numerous incidents, the
indictments in this case contain only five counts and involve only two
incidents. See Hammons at 4 (giving examples of cases involving
a multitude of charges where severance was granted). Thus, this case
does "not require the jury to possess 'an unusual degree of
detachment' in order to consider each charge separately." Id.
Therefore, the jury will not cumulate the evidence of the murders to
[*13] find guilt in this case.
Defendants also argue that the jury may use
evidence from one crime to infer a general criminal disposition. They
further claim that presentation of evidence relating to both murders
will lead the jury to become hostile to defendants making a conviction
more likely. However, the evidence concerning the incidents is of the
same type and impact, the offenses themselves are similar, and they
are connected and occurred within a four week period. These factors
cut against severance. See Coffield at 595. The jury
essentially will be instructed to consider each count separately, to
return a separate verdict as to each, and that because a conclusion is
reached in one count, it does not mean the conclusion would apply to
other counts. Juries are presumed to understand and follow
instructions. See Fortt at 804. The jury will not infer
from two incidents that either defendant has a general criminal
disposition and convict on that basis.
Rucinski suggests that she may be subject to
embarrassment or confusion by presenting different and separate
defenses to several charges. (Charbonneau does not make an argument on
this basis.) The claim is that she might testify [*14] concerning
the Sproates' murder but may remain silent given her admitted
involvement in the John Charbonneau matter. This is no more than
speculation. One is not embarrassed by acknowledging responsibility
for only one crime. Juries frequently parse different positions
Furthermore, Rucinski is subject to impeachment in
separate trials given her broad pretrial statements denying any
criminal involvement. The Supreme Court has this to say on the
Garden's claim that he would have testified in a
separate murder trial is hypothetical and somewhat disingenuous.
Garden contends that he was concerned about admission of his statement
to police regarding the events of December 17 - but Garden's
inconsistent statements could have been used to impeach his
credibility in a separate murder trial as well. He initially told
police he was not involved at all, then admitted that he took part in
the shopping spree using the stolen credit cards. This falsehood would
certainly be relevant evidence bearing on his credibility as a
witness. Garden, 815 A.2d at 334.
Generally, a bare claim that the defense would have
been conducted differently [*15] (i.e., the defendant would have
remained silent at one trial had there been two trials) is not
persuasive. See Bates, 386 A.2d at 1142. Rucinski did no
more than express a preference to testify about some counts and not
others. This is insufficient. United States v. Corbin, 734 F.2d
643, 649 (11th Cir. 1984) (Where defendants expressed no more than
a generalized desire to testify as to some counts but not others, but
did not indicate to what they would have testified or why their
testimony would have been of importance, they failed to make the
showing of compelling prejudice that is required for severance.) In
any event, evidence from the two incidents would be admitted at a
joint trial. See United States v. Jacobs, 244 F.3d 503,
506-507 (6th Cir. 2001). (When one abduction was linked to the
others, making evidence from each crime admissible in trial of the
other, the court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion to
sever, rejecting defendant's claim of a Hobson's choice of either
testifying about both incidents, or not testifying at all.) Prejudice
does not exist on this aspect of Rucinski's contention.
As indicated, a major [*16] factor in the
analysis concerns the cross admissibility of evidence. Significant
evidence common to both crimes has independent logical relevance
(other than a general criminal disposition) and would be considered in
separate trials. Consider a trial only of the Sproates case. Sproates
was aiding the investigation of John Charbonneau's disappearance. The
proffer suggests the defendants killed him to eliminate his
cooperation and value as a witness. Sproates expressed his fear about
the defendants to the police and others. His state of mind would be
admissible under D.R.E. 803(3) n1 to show motive. It demonstrates
premeditation, and/or intent by defendants, to kill Sproates which are
material to the disputed elements of the first degree murder charge.
Consequently, the State can present evidence of this nature in its
case in chief. See Capano v. State, 781 A.2d 556, 607-615
(Del. 2001). While statements of belief to prove a fact are not
admissible under the state of mind exception, statements about his
conversations with defendants would be admissible under D.R.E.
804(b)(6). n2 See United States v. Thevis, 665 F.2d 616, 630
(5th Cir. 1982) (Applying [*17] a waiver analysis against a
hearsay objection, the Court commented "the law simply cannot
countenance a defendant deriving benefits from murdering the chief
witness against him."). United States v. Zlatogur, 271 F.3d 1025,
1028 (11th Cir. 2001) (Defendant's threats frightened a
cooperating witness to flee the country. In 1997, F.R.E. 804(b)(6)
codified the waiver by misconduct doctrine, and defendant's hearsay
argument was foreclosed.).
[*18] On the other hand, evidence that defendants
planned Sproates' murder is relevant in the John Charbonneau
prosecution. It shows consciousness of guilt from which actual guilt
of the crimes charged can be inferred. Generally, "upon the trial of a
criminal case, acts, conduct and declarations of the accused occurring
after the commission of an alleged offense which are relevant and tend
to show a consciousness of guilt or a desire or disposition to conceal
the crime are admissible in evidence" (citations omitted).
Goldsmith v. State, 405 A.2d 109, 113 (Del. 1979). Evidence of
plans to kill prospective government witnesses fall well within the
category. See Lovett v. State, 516 A.2d 455, 468-469 (Del.
1986). Likewise, Sproates' death provided leads in the Charbonneau
investigation. See Steckel v. State, 711 A.2d 5 at 9 (Del.
1998) (the content of harassing phone calls to a third person lead
police to believe defendant was a likely suspect in victim's murder).
The probative value of the foregoing evidence is
self-evident and is not substantively outweighed by the danger of
unfair prejudice under D.R.E. 403. D.R.E. 404(b) permits the proper
[*19] use of uncharged misconduct to show motive and consciousness
of guilt. See Bright v. State, 740 A.2d 927, 932-933 (Del.
Additionally, the circumstances of the incidents
are inextricably intertwined. The relationships between the victims
and defendants cannot be separated. The witnesses are largely the same
for both murders. It would be less confusing to have a joint trial,
and judicial economy requires one in the absence of prejudice.
Finally, the argument is made that Sproates' death
was too gruesome to be joined with John Charbonneau's murder. This is
not persuasive and accepting it would imply that defendants could not
receive a fair trial in a separate proceeding focused only on the
events of October 17, 2001. Any murder is difficult. Juries are fully
capable of filtering the emotion out of grisly evidence (e.g., autopsy
photographs) to make decisions on a proper basis.
Considering the foregoing, the charges of both
incidents are properly joined, the defendants have not satisfied their
burden to show unfair prejudice, and no reasonable probability exists
that defendants will suffer substantial injustice if all charges are
tried together. [*20] Therefore, defendants' motions to sever must
be and are hereby denied.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Richard F. Stokes, Judge.