Court rules judge erred in transferring McCoy from maximum security

DOVER — A judge’s decision to transfer a former death row inmate into the general prison population while awaiting a new trial was vacated Tuesday by the Delaware Supreme Court.

The Department of Justice’s argument that Superior Court did not have authority to move Isaiah W. McCoy from the Secured Housing Unit was affirmed, and the matter was returned to Superior Court.

Isaiah W. McCoy

Isaiah W. McCoy

Mr. McCoy was held in maximum security at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna after his capital murder conviction in June 2012 was reversed by the Supreme Court in January 2015, and successfully appealed for a move into less restrictive incarceration by a Superior Court order on Aug. 28, 2015.

On Thursday, DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell said Mr. McCoy is now being held at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington “but for security reasons, I can’t disclose specific details about where he is housed.”

The state argued that even if Superior Court had jurisdiction in the move, it made “legal errors in its analysis, made improper factual findings, and abused its discretion in ordering McCoy transferred”, along with improperly denying the Department of Correction’s request for reconsideration or reargument.

Since the Supreme Court determined that Superior Court had no jurisdiction for assigning prisoner housing, no other contentions were addressed in the 21-page opinion.

Mr. McCoy, 22 at the time, was arrested and charged with the murder of James Munford of Salisbury, Md. in the Rodney Villiage Bowling Alley Parking lot south of Dover in May 2010, and has been incarcerated ever since. A re-trial is scheduled for Jan. 3, 2017.

The Supreme Count discounted an explanation by Superior Court that it “had an obligation to assert jurisdiction to prevent constitutional violations” in its opinion and found that “Neither of the two statutes relied upon authorize the Superior Court to transfer an inmate from one housing unit to another in a criminal proceeding.”

The appeal was important to the interests of justice, the Supreme Court reasoned because “Three times now the Superior Court has overriden the DOC’s classification system and ordered such a transfer in a criminal case.

“It is important for the Superior Court and DOC to know what the Superior Court has the authority to do.”

Deputy Attorney General Jason Staib argued for the state, with attorney Herbert Mondros representing Mr. McCoy.

Scoring the risk

While Mr. McCoy earlier maintained his maximum detention hampered his ability to prepare for an upcoming trial, the DOC said he was sent to SHU after a standard risk assessment test.

According to the opinion, during a hearing on Aug. 25, 2015 Warden David Pierce “testified that McCoy was placed in the SHU because of the serious charges against him, his age, an attempted escape while serving a previous sentence, and several disciplinary infractions while detained.”

While a minimum test score of 17 was needed for SHU placement, the DOC said, Mr. McCoy registered a 33.

Mr. McCoy filed a motion for a move to general population incarceration on July 27, 2015. His defense counsel said SHU imprisonment allows for an inmate to leave his cell for 45 minutes, three times a week.

According to the opinion, Superior Court “based its order in significant part upon its perception of ‘the emotional and physical impact that prolonged, solitary placement has had on [McCoy’s] Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel.”

The DOC warden told Superior Court that “two professional visitation rooms with face-to-face access with clients and inmates” had been constructed in the SHU, the opinion stated.

“The policy was also changed to allow inmates to bring documents to that face-to-face interaction with their attorney, and to improve the attorneys’ ability to bring electronic media, such asa laptops or other items, in order to show evidence to the defendant in preparation for trial …”

Also cited by Mr. McCoy’s counsel was a purported lack of privacy while speaking with his client, along with difficulty in accessing to the prison law library while in the SHU.

Life in prison

Speaking to Superior Court, the opinion noted, Mr. McCoy, 28 at the time, said he sought to move “to an area where I am able to move around, I’m able to play basketball, and I’m able to decompress from the ordeal that I went through being on death row.

“I was on death row for over two years. That’s just a situation that’s very hard to explain for a main of my age …”

Also, Mr. McCoy lamented the lack of “extra phone calls to my family” and that “I have a daughter that turns five years old today that I’ve never touched. I can’t touch her not because I’m violent to staff but just because they want to leave me back there because of some system.

“They have convicted murderers and convicted rapists on the compound who walk around with almost no supervision. People who have plenty of problems in jail who walk around with almost no supervision.

“I feel like this is an attempt by the prosection in a way by — once again, my mental state deteriorated and me not being able to help my counsel.

“I have been no problem whatsoever to this jail.”

According to the opinion “No evidence was introduced at the hearing concerning McCoy’s mental state, apart from his own testimony.”

The Superior Court’s order issued on Aug. 28 emphasized “[Mr.] McCoy’s time in SHU [which] ‘has encompassed over five years, the substantial part of which was as a presumed innocent individual …”

Criminal history detailed

In a motion on Sept. 1, 2015, the DOC maintained that “The order does not mention [McCoy’s] lengthy criminal history and does not address fully [McCoy’s] extensive disciplinary history …
The DOC said it “due to a lack of notice and other procedural infirmities,” there was not previously opportunity to provide the Court documents and testimony regarding the incarceration level determination process and reasons for Mr. McCoy’s assignment to the SHU.

The DOC cited a 14-page summary of previous charges against Mr. McCoy, including multiple convictions for violent felonies, along with two prior convictions for escape from convictions.

Also, “[Mr. McCoy’s] disciplinary history likewise is more extensive and troubling than suggested in the order,” according to the DOC as referenced in the Supreme Court’s opinion.

“Since 2010 [McCoy] has been found guilty of 20 rule violations, including 10 serious Class 1 violations [four of which] for sexual misconduct involving female correctional officers and nursing staff. …”

Superior Court denied the DOC’s motion on Sept. 14, again noting his continuing status as being presumed innocent while he awaits trial.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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