Willis v. State

Docket NumberC. A. 253,2022
Decision Date24 July 2023
PartiesDIANDRE WILLIS, Defendant Below, Appellant, v. STATE OF DELAWARE, Appellee.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Delaware

Submitted: May 3, 2023

Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware I.D. Nos 2002013510(K) 2102002961(K) 2001011885(K)

Upon appeal from the Superior Court. AFFIRMED.

Santino Ceccotti, Esquire, Office of the Public Defender Wilmington, Delaware for Appellant.

John Williams, Esquire, Department of Justice, Dover, Delaware for Appellee.

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

VALIHURA, Justice:

I. INTRODUCTION

Defendant below, Appellant Diandre Willis ("Willis"), appeals his conviction following an 18-count indictment. He was indicted on two counts of Rape First Degree, two counts of Home Invasion Burglary First Degree, two counts of Kidnapping First Degree, two counts of Act of Intimidation, two counts of breach of Conditions or Bond During Commitment, two counts of Breach of Release, one count of Stalking, one count of Strangulation, one count of Harassment, one count of Terroristic Threatening, one count of Bribing a Witness, and one count Malicious Interference of Emergency Communications.[1]

A six-day jury trial began on March 14, 2022. On March 21, 2022, the jury returned a verdict, finding Willis guilty as to 17 of the 18 charges after the State nolle prossed one count of Kidnapping First Degree.

Willis raises one issue on appeal. He contends that his constitutional right to due process was violated when the trial judge failed to recuse himself from the trial where that judge previously had signed and approved a search warrant at an earlier stage of the investigation. With respect to this sole issue on appeal, both sides agree that there are no facts in dispute. We conclude that the Superior Court judge did not err in determining that his recusal was not required. Therefore, we AFFIRM the judgment of the Superior Court.

II. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A. The First Pre-Trial Conference By way of background, on March 7, 2022, the parties participated in a pre-trial

office conference with the trial judge (the "March 7 Conference"). The March 7 Conference focused on an email the prosecutor had sent to the trial judge and Willis' counsel. The prosecutor reminded the judge that the judge "had signed a warrant back in 2020 in a case for Verizon."[2] When asked what the State had sought in the warrant, the prosecutor informed the court and defense counsel that "the detective was trying to obtain call records and text message records."[3] Ultimately, the warrant yielded only the times and dates of the calls and not the content of the calls. The trial judge remarked that he had "no memory of the warrant" but that he was "not predisposed because I'll consider any arguments. I just don't see a conflict that will impair my ability to be fair and impartial in the case based on viewing an affidavit at some point in time and potentially improving [sic] it."[4]

The trial judge then asked defense counsel for her reaction to the prosecutor's email. Defense counsel informed the court that she "got the message when Your Honor got the message" but that, as of the March 7 Conference, she was not sure whether the warrant at issue was related to Willis' case.[5] Defense counsel admitted that she "believe[d] it was this case" but would "go back and look at the -- you know, get transcripts of those conference, those office conferences, to see if it was, in fact, this case."[6] Noting on the record that defense counsel had not yet made an application for recusal, the judge remarked that he was comfortable with not sua sponte disqualifying himself, and that he would accept an application by the parties and consider it if they thought it was warranted.[7] In response, Willis' counsel informed the judge that she would speak with Willis the following afternoon - and raise the issue of the warrant and recusal with Willis then. She would then let the court know if she planned to file an application.

The trial judge then pressed the prosecutor on the warrant's scope. The prosecutor informed the court that when the warrant failed to yield the actual content of the messages, "the State went to the victim and got the now 35,000 text messages that we provided to defense counsel. So I would have to do a little bit more looking at the record, but I don't think the State intends on using any of the records from the search warrant[.]"[8]

In response, defense counsel remarked that she did not "think the consideration would be what the result was of issuing the search warrant, so much as it would have been Your Honor became knowledgeable about the State's position with regard to this case, and whether there would be potentially any bias or prejudice to the Defendant."[9] The trial judge then informed the parties that they would reconvene in a few days "unless I hear some kind of an application. Again, if there is an application that either party wants to raise beforehand, then I certainly will consider it."[10]

B. The Second Pre-Trial Conference

On March 10, 2022, the parties held another pre-trial office conference with the judge (the "March 10 Conference"). At the March 10 Conference, the parties discussed several pre-trial matters, including defense counsel's request for a continuance and the State's planned use of text message evidence. Neither side, however, raised the issue of a potential recusal.[11] Rather, it was the trial judge who, sua sponte, re-raised the topic of recusal.

Noting again that neither side had filed a formal motion for recusal, the trial judge remarked that he went back and reviewed the transcript wherein the prosecutor "essentially told me that I was disqualified, but the Court certainly made no ruling on that."[12] He then stated that he was "going to choose to do a Los analysis here [] just so that there's not any question."[13] Because the Los analysis is the fulcrum of Willis' appeal, we include the trial judge's analysis below.

Addressing the first prong of Los, which is a subjective analysis, the trial judge

First of all, based on having reviewed a warrant in the case back in 2020, I think, that subjectively, I have no bias, and that adds -- provides no bias in this case for me. I'm able to be an impartial judicial officer that presides over this case and is fair to both parties, so I have no subjective issue.[14]

Neither Willis nor the State challenges the court's analysis under the first prong of Los.[15] In fact, at oral argument before this Court, Willis conceded that there was no display of bias at all by the trial judge.[16]

Addressing the second prong of Los, which is an objective analysis, the trial judge remarked that "Objectively, there is also not an issue. And the Judicial Code of Conduct does not provide for this to be a reason for disqualification."[17] He continued:

Judges are charged with understanding that, just for purposes of a warrant, the facts are assumed to be true, and there's a Four Corners Analysis. And there has been no motion to suppress in this case filed. There is no -- the State's represented that that evidence isn't even -- there wasn't even any evidence netted from that that's going to be used at trial. So I'm, quite simply, not conflicted out.[18]

The judge concluded the Los prong two analysis with the following:

[A]t this stage, I'll certainly -- if there's some other fourth [sic] that any -either party wants to raise, I'll certainly evaluate that, and we'll fairly and independently evaluate it, and if I get a formal motion to disqualify -- but based [on] the nature of how the issue was raised, I just wanted to put this on the record.[19]

The prosecutor then corrected, on the record, his previous statement regarding recusal and informed the court:

[F]ollowing our last office conference and reviewing the transcripts provided by [defense counsel] where the State did say that Your Honor -- I believe, I said you were disqualified or conflicted out, to that nature, I did review a lot of similar case law prepaying [sic] for a motion, so the State would change its initial comments, and the State agrees that this isn't an appropriate case for disqualification.[20]

Following the prosecutor's clarification, the trial judge inquired on the record whether there was "[a]nything further" on this issue.[21] There was no further discussion about a possible recusal, and the parties, instead, discussed the admission of certain pieces of evidence at trial. Following final trial preparation discussions, the trial judge again asked: "Anything else?"[22] To this, defense counsel responded: "No, Your Honor."[23] Willis' trial began a few days later, on March 14, 2022, when a jury was empaneled, and the jury returned its verdict on March 21, 2022.

C. The Contention on Appeal

Willis challenges his conviction on one ground, namely that:

Willis was denied due process because the presiding judge did not recuse himself despite having approved and signed the warrant provided by the State seeking inculpatory evidence against him. These circumstances at a minimum create the appearance of impropriety and deprived Willis of his right to a fair trial. Thus, the convictions at bar should be reversed.[24]

As noted above, this challenge involves the second part of the Los analysis.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In reviewing a judge's decision regarding recusal, "[w]e review the subjective aspect of this decision for abuse of discretion and the objective portion de novo."[25]

IV. ANALYSIS

A. The Delaware Judicial Code

We first explain the ethical framework pertaining to judicial conflicts. As we explained in Meso, "[t]his Court is the entity ultimately responsible for promulgating...

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