Justices to hear case of Michigan prisoner seeking new trial after jurors saw him shackled

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in a case out of Kalamazoo that involves whether Ervine Davenport is entitled to a new trial, 13 years after he was convicted of strangling a woman in 2007.

Davenport admitted to the strangling. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole in August 2008. But he was shackled during his trial — something that was visible to the jury and which is unconstitutional. 

Davenport, now 56, 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. 

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.

The issue before the justices is whether federal courts, in reviewing such cases from state prisoners, should apply a one- or two-step test to determine whether a trial error was "harmless."

Listen:Oral arguments in Brown v. Davenport

A split panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit held last year that the shackling of Davenport had a "substantial and injurious effect or influence" on the jury's verdict and that he was entitled to relief — a standard of review set by the Supreme Court in Brecht v. Abrahamson in 1993. 

The state of Michigan filed a petition with the justices, asking them to reverse the 6th Circuit, arguing that Brecht is only one of two analyses required before relief may be granted to a prisoner in habeas cases, in which which federal courts weigh the legality of an individual's imprisonment. 

"When something unconstitutional happened at trial, how many hurdles does a state prisoner have to clear before they can get relief in federal court? That's fundamentally the question," said Justin Marceau, a law professor at the University of Denver.

"It is quite technical, but it also answers this question for state prisoners in every state across the country. So it is notable in that sense."

Marceau noted that the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has been hostile to idea of federal habeas relief because it’s viewed as a "usurpation" of a state's sovereignty. Historically, the justices have granted habeas cases from the 6th and 9th circuits when they want to reverse them in favor of the state, he said. 

"So, it’s not a good sign for Davenport," said Marceau, a habeas corpus expert.

Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud (file photo, Jan. 14, 2021)

Tuesday will be the first time for Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud before the high court. She is the first Arab American Muslim woman to argue before the justices, according to the state Attorney General's Office. 

“On a personal level, this is the highlight of my career, and I am deeply honored that the State and the Attorney General have entrusted me with this argument before the highest Court in the land,” Hammoud said in a Monday statement.

“But more importantly, I am passionate about the position the State is asserting — a position that ensures that federal judges, when reviewing a habeas corpus petition, give appropriate respect and deference to our state court decisions.

"And here, that means respect and deference, in accordance with congressional intent and Supreme Court precedent, to the 11 Michigan judges who adjudicated Davenport’s case." 

Case background

On the night of White's death in 2007, she and Davenport had a physical struggle in a car after smoking crack and drinking alcohol. At trial, there was no dispute that Davenport choked White, but he testified that he acted in self-defense after she cut him with a box cutter, according to court records. 

Michigan courts that considered Davenport's appeal relied on testimony from jurors that indicated, while they'd seen the shackles and discussed them during the eight-day trial, the shackling hadn't influenced their deliberations or verdict.

The trial court and Michigan Court of Appeals found the prosecution had met its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the shackling error 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." 

Davenport filed a federal habeas petition challenging his confinement on the basis of a due process violation, which the state has admitted. 

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. The Supreme Court agreed in April to take up the case.

Legal arguments

Hammoud and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel in their brief to the justices said the 6th Circuit should have applied two distinct and different standards in analyzing whether the trial error was harmless — both the Brecht test, as well as a standard gleaned from a provision of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).

The latter would require Davenport to show the state court's harmless finding was contrary to or involved an "unreasonable" application of clearly established federal law.

"(F)air-minded jurists could agree that the overwhelming evidence of Davenport's guilt rendered the shackling error harmless," Hammoud and Nessel wrote, noting Davenport squeezed White's neck for at least four minutes, dumped her body, stole from her home and later admitted he "off(ed)" her.

Michigan, in essence, says the U.S. Court of Appeals should have imposed at least two layers of deference to the state court, Marceau said. The state also argues the 6th Circuit also improperly considered its own circuit precedent and extrajudicial sources.

"The State will explain to the High Court that when a state court has adjudicated a criminal case on the merits, a federal judge on habeas review must give proper deference to the state-court determination prior to granting relief as Congress required when it enacted AEDPA in 1996," the AG's Office said in a statement.

Tasha J. Bahal of the firm WilmerHale

Davenport is represented by attorney Tasha J. Bahal of the firm WilmerHale, who stated in her brief to the court that her client could meet the requirements under AEDPA. 

But she reasons that the 6th Circuit wasn't required to formally conduct a separate analysis under AEDPA in her client's case because the Court of Appeals "drew only on legal and factual materials that may permissibly be considered" under the 1996 law. 

Bahal cites previous court precedent stating that there's no need to "formally" apply both the Brecht test to show "actual prejudice," as well as an AEDPA inquiry into the reasonableness of the state court's harmless-error review in a case like Davenport's. 

"Requiring a superfluous formal application of AEDPA/Chapman in such a case would burden the court and the interest in judicial economy without any offsetting benefit to the State's interests in finality," Bahal wrote. 

She allowed, though, that if a court did find actual prejudice in the trial error based on materials outside of the federal law's proscriptions, then the federal court should conduct a separate, formal analysis based on AEDPA before granting habeas relief.