March 01, 2016

Delaware Supreme Court Vacates Conviction and Death Sentence

On December 14, 2015, a pro bono team from the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Steptoe & Johnson successfully secured a re-trial for Delaware death row prisoner Chauncey Starling. 

Mr. Starling was tried and convicted in 2003 for the 2001 shooting deaths of two people in a barbershop. He was then sentenced to death. The State had no physical evidence linking Mr. Starling to the crime and instead relied on statements made to police by Mr. Starling’s brother and girlfriend and on trial testimony from Alfred Gaines. Mr. Gaines, after being shot himself, identified Mr. Starling as the person who shot him as well as implicating him in the barbershop shooting. The prosecution failed to reveal information to defense counsel that may have been beneficial to the defense’s impeachment of Mr. Gaines. In addition, Mr. Starling’s trial counsel failed to investigate several avenues of argument that could have made a difference at either the guilt/innocence phase or sentencing phase of the trial, or both.

On direct appeal, the Supreme Court of Delaware upheld the conviction but vacated the death sentence. Following a resentencing trial, the trial court resentenced Mr. Starling to death, which the Supreme Court of Delaware affirmed on appeal.

In 2007, the ABA recruited Steptoe & Johnson to represent Mr. Starling in his post-conviction proceedings. At the Delaware Supreme Court, Steptoe attorneys argued that trial counsel had provided ineffective assistance of counsel when they failed to elicit exculpatory evidence on cross-examination from the barbershop’s owner and eyewitness, Lawrence Moore. Mr. Moore told investigators that Mr. Starling did not look like the shooter and had described the shooter as substantially taller than Mr. Starling. Post-conviction counsel also argued that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the admission of Mr. Starling’s brother’s statements to police. Trial counsel should have argued that these statements were not given voluntarily, because they were elicited after several hours of interrogation and threats. The Delaware Supreme Court found that detectives "threatened [the brother] with criminal charges and suggested that he could spend the rest of his life in jail for crimes he did not commit" if he did not implicate Mr. Starling in the barbershop shootings. 

The court also reviewed Mr. Starling’s claim of prosecutorial misconduct. Steptoe lawyers introduced evidence that police had failed to tell trial counsel that they dropped charges against Mr. Gaines shortly before trial. Delaware law requires that the State disclose to defense counsel any time it reduces or drops pending charges against a State witness. The Delaware Supreme Court found that this information could have been used to impeach Mr. Gaines at trial.

Based on the cumulative effect of trial counsel's errors and prosecutorial misconduct, the Supreme Court of Delaware granted relief, reversing the conviction and sentence and remanding for a new trial.

Congratulations to Steptoe on this great victory for their client!