In a striking pattern in such a small state, for the third time in two years, the Delaware Supreme Court has reversed a death sentence and murder conviction based on prosecutorial misconduct. In 2014, we reported on the case of Jermaine Wright, who had spent 21 years on death row for a crime he likely didn’t commit before his conviction was overturned; and earlier this year, we reported on Isaiah McCoy, whose conviction was reversed after what the state’s high court deemed “demeaning and belligerent” behavior by prosecutor R. David Favata toward a pro se defendant, comportment they later held to be sufficiently egregious to warrant suspending Favata’s license to practice.
Now comes the case of Chauncy Starling, convicted in the 2001 murders of a man and a five year old boy at a Wilmington barbershop. With no forensic evidence linking Starling to the crime, his prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Alfred Gaines, who testified to having driven Starling to the barbershop, and later hearing him express remorse for killing the boy, Damon Gist.
What the state never revealed to Starling’s defense was that on the direct request of one of the Assistant Attorneys General prosecuting Starling, charges against Gaines for violation of his parole had been withdrawn in advance of his testimony. Not only was this fact never disclosed, the defense was given a wrap sheet on Gaines that listed the VOP charges as pending.
Together with a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel, the Delaware Supreme Court found this Brady violation sufficient to reverse Starling’s conviction and sentence and remand for a new trial. You can read the court’s full opinion here.
In a highly revealing footnote, the decision gives a glimpse into how misleadingly Gaines’ credibility was employed in Starling’s trial. In closing arguments, a second Assistant Attorney General asked the jury: “When Alfred Gaines . . . took the stand, did we hide anything about him from you? Was he—did you learn all about his criminal past?” This (also unnamed) prosecutor went on to argue that Gaines motive for testifying was based on his “decision to try and give some peace to a couple of families of murder victims and come forward with what he said. You saw Alfred Gaines testify. It is your judgment on credibility that most matters.”
In another rarity, the Supreme Court, in determining that the Brady violation was material to the outcome, was able to rely on explicit testimony by Starling’s defense counsel in post-conviction proceedings “that had he been aware of the Brady information, he would have used the information to impeach Gaines at trial.”
As the News Journal/DelawareOnline notes, this third reversal in two years of a capital murder conviction in one of the smallest states in the country comes in the wake of Delaware very nearly abolishing capital punishment back in May. An abolition bill passed the state senate, and Governor Jack Markell indicated that he would sign it. But, by a single vote, the State House Judiciary Committee failed to send it to the full house for a vote.
Maybe the next time an abolition bill comes around, legislators will look at their state’s miserable record of capital prosecution before deciding it’s a good idea to keep the ultimate punishment in place.