The Delaware Supreme Court has reversed an accused child molester’s attempted rape, unlawful sexual encounter and indecent exposure convictions after it concluded the trial court violated his rights to due process by denying his request for a bill of particulars. In addition, the high court concluded that a detective’s testimony during the trial constituted impermissible vouching.
In 2012, a child identified in court papers by the initials T.F. told his mother that Ronald Luttrell molested him while he spent a weekend at his grandmother’s house, according to court documents. T.F. discussed the incident with the Child Advocacy Center, saying that on a Friday night he was sleeping on the couch in his grandmother’s mobile home when Luttrell, a friend who was staying with her because he was homeless, came home drunk and woke him up.
T.F. claimed he went back to sleep, but Luttrell woke him again and attempted to have sexual relations with the child, attempted to perform a sex act on T.F. and attempted to force T.F. to perform a sex act on him. According to court testimony, Luttrell’s attempts were unsuccessful because T.F. escaped into the adjacent bathroom and locked the door.
The next night, Luttrell climbed through an open window in the mobile home and attacked T.F. once again, according to court documents. Luttrell was alleged to have removed T.F.’s pants and began to anally penetrate him, but T.F. got away and locked himself in the bathroom.
T.F. told his mother about the incident in September 2012 and she reported Luttrell to the police. An arrest warrant was obtained based on T.F.’s CAC interview. Luttrell denied having either molested or raped T.F. and cooperated with Detective Daniel Wright’s requests for information, according to the court’s opinion.
Luttrell was indicted on 11 counts. Before the trial in the Delaware Superior Court, Luttrell filed a motion to dismiss, or in the alternative, a motion for a bill of particulars. He contended that the state’s indictment failed to allege the essential elements of the crimes charged, failed to contain a plain statement of the essential facts of the alleged crimes, and failed to put him on notice of the particular crimes he was charged with, preventing him from mounting a defense.
Luttrell contended in court documents that he was charged with multiple counts of the same general offense and the indictment did not contain sufficient information to differentiate each count. For example, Luttrell claimed the three counts of unlawful sexual contact were identically worded.
In addition, the indictment also included information different from T.F.’s statement to the CAC. The indictment stated the alleged criminal acts occurred July 20 and 21, 2012, but T.F. told CAC the alleged incidents occurred July 13 and 14, 2012. Also, T.F.’s trial testimony differed from his CAC statement. He told the CAC the alleged events occurred on a Friday and Saturday, but testified in court the alleged assault attempts happened on a Saturday and Sunday.
The trial court rejected Luttrell’s request for a bill of particulars, ruling that the charges were outlined in the probable cause affidavit. Luttrell appealed his conviction, alleging the Superior Court violated his constitutional rights to due process and to be free from double jeopardy when his motion for a bill of particulars was denied.
A three-justice panel composed of Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. and Justices Randy J. Holland and Carolyn Berger ordered a new trial for Luttrell, ruling that he did he not receive sufficient information about the charges he faced.
“We hold that Luttrell was entitled to know what specific charges he faced, and that the jury needed to know the same,” Holland said in Luttrell v. State. “Because the only evidence against Luttrell was T.F.’s testimony … it was especially important that the factual distinction between the counts that Luttrell was charged with be clear so that the jury would only convict Luttrell for committing criminal acts that all 12 jurors found to have occurred beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Holland added that because of the trial court’s failure to provide Luttrell with a bill of particulars, he was unable to adequately defend himself from the charges, thus violating his right to due process.
“Because neither the indictment nor any of the underlying materials Luttrell received provided sufficient information for him to understand what particular conduct he was being prosecuted for, the failure to grant Luttrell’s motion for a bill of particulars left him unable to adequately present a defense,” the justice continued.
The court also concluded that video evidence of Wright’s interrogation of Luttrell amounted to impermissible vouching. During the interview, Wright repeatedly discussed the inconsistencies in Luttrell’s statements during the interview and suggested that he thought the defendant was lying.
“The admission of that evidence against Luttrell is plain error,” Holland said. “Neither the complained-of portions of the interrogation video nor any testimony from Detective Wright suggesting that Luttrell was not credible because of ‘inconsistencies’ during the interrogation should be presented at Luttrell’s new trial.”
John Williams of the Delaware Department of Justice represented the state.
Nicole Walker of the Office of the Public Defender argued on behalf of Luttrell.