Justices hear arguments in Michigan case of prisoner seeking new trial

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington —  Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged Tuesday the need to clarify what standards federal judges should apply and when in cases of state prisoners seeking new trials, with several suggesting the current matrix of tests is confusing.

"I have a terrible time understanding where all these different standards are and how they fit together. And I doubt that a lot of habeas judges will understand it either," Justice Stephen Breyer said. 

"Maybe they will. Many will not — no matter what we say. So I began to think of how could we deal with this."

Breyer was speaking during oral arguments Tuesday morning in a case out of Kalamazoo that centers on Ervine Davenport's bid for a new trial after he was unconstitutionally shackled during his first one in 2008. 

Davenport, now 56, was convicted of first-degree, premeditated murder in the strangling death of Annette White in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Ervine Davenport was sentenced to life in prison in August 2008 after a jury convicted him of first-degree, premeditated murder in the strangling death of Annette White in Kalamazoo County.

He challenged his conviction on the basis that his shackling was a violation of his due process rights, but Michigan courts on appeal concluded the error was harmless, noting the only questions at trial had been whether Davenport acted in self-defense or in a premeditated manner. He had admitted to choking White.

The issue before the justices is what standard that federal courts, in reviewing such cases from state prisoners, should apply to determine whether a trial error was "harmless."

Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, will be the first time for Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud before the high court.

Appearing before the high court for the first time, Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud stressed that federal judges should give deference to state courts that adjudicated such a claim on the merits, unless the state court decision was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of established federal law.

"If I, a federal judge, believe they are wrong, they must ask the question ... would a fair-minded jurist agree with the state court's conclusion?" Hammoud said.

She said the Michigan case is a "perfect vehicle" for the justices to require the application of two separate and distinct tests before relief may be granted to a state prisoner in habeas corpus cases, in which federal courts weigh the legality of an individual's imprisonment. 

Several justices appeared skeptical of this two-test approach, pointing out the high standard set by the court in the 1993 case Brecht v. Abrahamson.

The Brecht court required a showing of "actual prejudice," meaning the trial error must have had a "substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict" for a prisoner to win relief.

Justice Elena Kagan highlighted earlier Supreme Court rulings that looked at both tests and concluded that applying the stricter Brecht standard is "good enough." 

"That's what the court twice said in no uncertain terms that the one 'subsumes' the other because the Brecht test is stricter than the Chapman test. So if a court does the Brecht test, it's sufficient," Kagan said.

"That's the way I view — I read, and I think it's the only way to read both of these decisions."

Chief Justice John Roberts asked Hammoud why a "rational" legislature would set the system up to impose two formal, legal analyses. "In other words, okay, let's have this inquiry under Brecht, then let's have this separate inquiry?" he said.  

"We know that they are different tests. They're distinct tests. They ask different questions," Hammoud replied, noting that Congress passed a law three years after Brecht placing further limitations on state prisoners' access to federal habeas review.

"So Brecht could never consider the limitations that (1996 law) set in place," she added.

A split panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit last year applied the Brecht standard and found the shackling of Davenport did have a "substantial and injurious effect or influence" on the jury's verdict and that he was entitled to relief.

The 6th Circuit concluded that the shackles "branded Davenport as having a violent nature in a case where the crucial point of contention was whether he engaged in deliberate and premeditated murder," finding the trial error was not harmless and tossing out Davenport's conviction. 

Tasha J. Bahal of the firm WilmerHale

Davenport's attorney, Tasha Bahal, asked the justices Tuesday to affirm the 6th Circuit's ruling, arguing that both standards at issue have been met.

"Mr. Davenport was actually prejudiced by the unconstitutional shackling, as the Court of Appeals found under Brecht," Bahal said. 

Pressed by the justices on whether one standard or the other should take precedent, Bahal responded that she wasn't conceding that one test is more or less important than the other. "We think they both must be satisfied as, as they were here," she said. 

But Bahal also suggested that requiring parties and courts to go through the "time, effort, energy" of formally briefing and arguing two separate questions seems "unnecessary" when both could be handled by a Brecht inquiry, which "subsumes" the limitations imposed by Congress. 

"Maybe our opinions have confused things by introducing this concept of one 'subsuming' the other. Why shouldn't we just get rid of that?" Justice Samuel Alito said.

The 1996 law at issue, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, says federal habeas relief may not be granted unless the state's decision was based on an unreasonable application of federal law defined in a certain way, Alito noted.

"Period," Alito said. "There's no way that federal habeas relief can be granted unless that is satisfied. So forget about what subsumes something subsuming the other."

Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked Bahal about the jurors who testified in the Davenport case. They said that, while they'd seen the shackles and discussed them during the eight-day trial, it hadn't influenced their verdict.

Bahal cited two prior cases in which the justices concluded that jury testimony as to whether the shackles affected their verdict is "unreliable."

"Because a juror will not always be aware of the effect of seeing a defendant in shackles. It has sort of a subconscious effect on the jurors," Bahal said.

"This court recognized ... that the effect of shackling is implicit in the juror, and they will not be able to articulate the reasons why the shackling is prejudicial."

The trial court and Michigan Court of Appeals both found the prosecution had met its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the shackling error in Davenport's case didn't affect the verdict. 

The Michigan Supreme Court disagreed with the appeals court's reasoning but also denied Davenport's request to appeal, citing "the substantial evidence of guilt presented at trial."