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Sixth Circuit Grants Habeas Relief for Defendant Shackled During Murder Trial Without On-the-Record Justification

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted conditional habeas corpus relief to a Michigan prisoner who alleged that the use of shackles upon him during trial was unconstitutional and prejudiced his guilt determination. The majority of the Court’s opinion focused on the proper standard to determine if the error was harmless.

Ervine Lee Davenport was charged with first-degree murder in the January 13, 2007, death of Annette White. At trial, he claimed self-defense, but the jury found him guilty as charged.

“During the trial, Davenport had one hand cuffed, as well as shackles around his waist and ankles,” the Sixth Circuit noted. There also was a privacy curtain around the defense table. Defense counsel referred to the trial court’s “policy regarding the shackles” and requested they be removed during jury instruction. The court denied that request, and it made no on-the-record justification for the shackling.

On direct appeal, one of the issues Davenport raised was that “he was denied his due process rights when the trial court required him to wear shackles during the trial.” The appeals court affirmed, finding Davenport had “not shown that his restraints were visible to the jury” and thus he had “not demonstrated prejudice.” The Michigan Supreme Court reversed for a determination to be made by the trial court of whether “the jury saw the shackles” and if so to determine if the State could “demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the shackling error did not contribute to the verdict.”

The trial court held an evidentiary hearing that involved all 12 jurors testifying. Five of them said they saw the shackles, two others recalled other jurors commenting about the shackles, and the others either did not recall seeing them or said they did not notice them. All of them said the shackles were not a deliberation issue and did not affect their verdict. The trial court relied on that testimony to deny relief, and the appellate court affirmed that ruling in 2012. Davenport filed a federal habeas corpus petition, which was denied. Acting pro se, Davenport appealed.

On appeal, the State conceded to constitutional error. It, however, argued the error was harmless. The bulk of the Sixth Circuit’s opinion focused on the standard of review to apply in such a situation.

The State argued the Court must undertake a two-prong harmless error analysis. First, it asserted the Court is required under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) to find that the state court’s conclusion “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” The burden is on the State to show the state court did not apply the harmless-error review standard in an “objectively unreasonable” manner. Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967).

Next, the Court must find the shackling had a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.” Miller v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12 (2003).

In contrast, Davenport argued that the only question before the Court was whether the shackling “had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.” That standard was announced in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993).

The majority agreed with Davenport, finding Brecht “subsumes” AEDPA’s unreasonableness inquiry, as the Supreme Court found in Davis v. Ayala, 135 S. Ct. 2187 (2015). The dissent sided with the State. The majority, however, found binding precedent in Ruelas v. Wolfenberg, 580 F.3d 403 (6th Cir. 2009), resolves the issue. The Ruelas Court said it “makes no sense to require formal application of both tests (AEDPA/Chapman and Brecht) when the latter obviously subsumes the former.” Thus, according to the Court, the “answer in this Circuit is that Brecht is always the test,” Ruelas.

In cases where “there is a dispute over whether a constitutional error occurred, of course we would apply Section 2254(d)’s ‘contrary to or … unreasonable application’ of federal test,” the Sixth Circuit wrote. “But the State here concedes constitutional error,” so we “can go straight to Brecht” to make an “actual prejudice” determination.

In applying that test, the Court noted that the Supreme Court in Holbrook v. Flynn, 475 U.S. 560 (1986), found “shackling is ‘inherently prejudicial.’” Holbrook ruled that “where a court, without adequate justification, orders the defendant to wear shackles that will be seen by the jury,” the defendant’s due process rights are violated.

The Sixth Circuit noted that unconstitutional shackling alone does not entitle a habeas petitioner to relief. There must also be a finding that the shackling error “had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining a jury’s verdict.” Brecht.

The Court found the evidence of first-degree murder in Davenport’s case was not overwhelming. It also noted that several jurors said they thought Davenport might be dangerous when they saw him in shackles. The State conceded there was no on-the-record justification for the shackling.

Little weight is placed on the jurors’ statements that the shackles did not affect their verdict because they “will not necessarily be fully conscious of the effect it will have on their attitude towards the accused,” the Court explained. Davenport’s jurors stated they assumed he was in shackles because he may be dangerous. Combining that assumption with the violent nature of the charge, the Court determined that the State failed to carry its burden to show the shackling did not have a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict,” the Court concluded.

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Davenport v. MacLaren



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