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Sixth Circuit Grants Habeas Relief After Michigan Court Violates Confrontation Clause

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held on April 7, 2020, that a Michigan court’s violation of a defendant’s right to confront the witness against him in court was not “harmless,” as the state court had held, and granted habeas corpus relief requiring his release or a new trial.

There was no dispute that the State violated Joseph Reiner’s constitutional right to confront its witness against him. The State admitted as much, after it used a statement made by the broker of a pawn shop that Reiner had been in the shop on the day of a home invasion and stabbing that lead to the death of a woman in Macomb County in 2011. Reiner was charged with several counts, including murder.

The State’s case relied heavily on the pawn broker’s statement. He told detectives that Reiner came in the shop on that day and threw “some items” on the counter and asked what they were worth. When the detective asked about a ring he saw in a canister matching the description of a ring taken from the victim, the broker said it was possible that Reiner had brought in the ring to pawn. He said the same thing about a necklace the detective asked about. Having no witnesses to the crime, no DNA evidence, no fingerprints, or anything placing Reiner at the crime, the broker’s statements were the best evidence the State had.

But there was one problem: The pawn broker died just before trial.

The State nevertheless used the pawn broker’s testimony, and the jury found Reiner guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison. On appeal, the state court found that Reiner’s constitutional right to confront the witness against him was in fact violated but said that the error was harmless because other evidence tied Reiner to the pawn shop that day, mostly old receipts that supposedly matched his signature on the receipt the day he pawned “some items” as stated by the pawn broker. The court concluded that it was “clear beyond a reasonable doubt” that the jury would still have convicted Reiner.

After exhausting his state appeals, Reiner filed a pro se federal habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging the violation of his right to confrontation under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment. The federal district court, however, dismissed his petition but granted a certificate of appealability on whether the state court had violated Reiner’s constitutional rights to confrontation and due process.

The Sixth Amendment provides that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” As noted, Reiner’s rights under the Confrontation Clause were violated. But not all violations of the Confrontation Clause require reversal. Instead, a constitutional violation can be harmless if the court has “a belief that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967). And in the habeas context, there must also be “actual prejudice,” which means it had a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.” Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993).

Because the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act requires a federal habeas court to give “deference” to the state court’s decision, the federal court here could grant relief only if the state court’s decision “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” § 2254(d). In other words, relief could be granted only if the state court’s decision was contrary to the standard set out in Chapman.

Using the five-factor test in Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673 (1986), which the state court failed to do, the Sixth Circuit found that every single factor weighed in Reiner’s favor that admission of the deceased pawn broker’s testimony was not harmless: (1) the pawn broker’s statements were “the most important evidence presented” and therefore satisfied the first factor of how important the testimony was to the State’s case (i.e., could the case have survived without the testimony); (2) the testimonial evidence was not merely cumulative; (3) the State offered no evidence to corroborate the pawn broker’s testimony; (4) there was no cross-examination since the pawn broker had died; and (5) the overall strength of the State’s case “was circumstantial.”

“Application of the Van Arsdall factors establishes that the prosecutor’s case was materially weaker without [the pawn broker’s] statements — the strongest evidence connecting Reiner to the home invasion and stabbing,” the Court concluded. “This creates, at the very least, grave doubt as to whether the error had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.” The Court therefore concluded that the Michigan state court unreasonably applied Chapman in finding the constitutional violation harmless.

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Reiner v. Woods



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