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Sixth Circuit Grants Habeas Relief When Juror Failed to Disclose History of Sexual Abuse in Sexual Assault Case

by Christopher Zoukis

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that a defendant convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct did not receive a fair trial because a juror failed to disclose her own childhood sexual abuse. The August 21, 2018, ruling reversed a federal district court’s decision to the contrary and remanded the case with instructions that the Michigan state court undertake further proceedings.

Warren Edward English III was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct after he assaulted a 17-year-old acquaintance while she was asleep at his home during a party. After his trial, English learned that “Juror A” had been sexually abused by her father at age eight. Juror A did not disclose the abuse during voir dire.

Based on this new information, English moved for a new trial. He argued that he was denied his right to an impartial jury. The trial court granted the motion, but the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed. The Michigan Supreme Court denied review. English then filed a motion for postconviction relief in state court, which was denied. Both the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court affirmed the denial of relief.

English then filed the 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition that became the subject of the appeal. The district court denied the petition, finding that English had not established that Juror A deliberately concealed her history or demonstrated actual bias against him. The district court refused to issue a certificate of appealability (“COA”).

English appealed to the Sixth Circuit, and the Court granted him a COA on the issue of whether his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial was violated as a result of Juror A’s nondisclosure. After lengthy analysis, the Court concluded that his rights were indeed violated and remanded for further proceedings.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court first had to determine whether Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) court deference was necessary. Such deference to the Michigan Court of Appeals’ ruling would greatly increase English’s burden — he would be required to show that the state court not only incorrectly decided federal law but that it did so unreasonably.

AEDPA deference only applies if the state court actually adjudicated the defendant’s claim on the merits. Lengthy analysis revealed that the state court did not do so here. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of a new trial because of a supposed error in applying a presumption of automatic excusal of jurors in situations similar to Juror A. But the state court never reached the merits.

As such, no AEDPA deference was necessary. Turning to English’s claim that his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury was violated, the Court found that it was. The federal standard, which requires a showing that the juror in question “failed to answer honestly a material question on voir dire” and “that a correct response would have provided a valid basis for [a for-cause challenge],” was met. McDonough Power Equip., Inc. v. Greenwood, 464 U.S. 548 (1984).

The first question was easily answered. Juror A acknowledged that she omitted material information on voir dire. The second question was not as easily answered, but after determining that the record showed that Juror A deliberately omitted material information, the Court concluded that an accurate (or honest) answer about her prior sexual abuse would have given English a valid basis for a for-cause challenge. In fact, the proof was in the pudding—at least one other juror was excused for cause after revealing a past history of sexual abuse.

Ultimately, the Court’s review of the record led to the conclusion that Juror A deliberately concealed her history. And that led to an easy to understand inference of bias. Juror A may very well have been prejudiced against English based on her personal experience.

Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded the case with instructions to remand it to the state court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: English v. Berghuis, 900 F.3d 804 (6th 2018). 

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